SAFE-BOAT SMART-BOAT: Abandoning ship Part 2 – Launching the liferaft properly

The following is Part 2 of a multi-part series focused on the decision to abandon ship and then taking the steps necessary to maximize chances for survival and rescue.  Watch for additional parts in this series in subsequent issues.   —Editor

Inevitably when I am doing training, during the donning-the-immersion-suit drill, someone will ask: “What should I wear under my suit?”

In cold weather, I suggest layers – hoodie with hood rolled down inside the back of your neck, stuff a watch cap or hat inside, and wear the shoes you wore to the boat.

Shoes are better than bare or stocking feet, they are insulation to keep your feet warm, and if you land on a rocky shore you will certainly be glad you have them.  No one wants to carry you over the jagged rocks.

So, if you are faced with an abandonment emergency, put on warm clothing – wool, fleece and or polypropylene clothing is best.  Next, don your immersion suit, if you get too hot you can always strip down later.

If you have to enter the water without an immersion suit, the initial cold shock may be disabling or even fatal.

Extra clothing and a waterproof outer layer will markedly reduce this shock effect.  Extra clothing will also prolong your survival time by reducing your loss of body heat.  And those clothes may also help to keep you afloat, because when you enter the water, air gets trapped between the extra layers.

If you are lucky enough to board the liferaft without getting wet, that extra clothing will definitely reduce the effects of cold.

Remember:  Cold – not lack of food and water – is the greatest killer in abandon-ship situations.

Be sure you have floatation.

Without a PFD or immersion suit even good swimmers will have difficulty staying afloat in cold water because of the disabling effects of cold, shock, and cramps.  Swimming makes you lose body heat and kills you faster in cold water.

A PFD or immersion suit will keep you afloat without effort, no matter how injured you are or how much clothing you have on.  Floatation also helps keep your head out of the water, minimizing mouth immersions and heat loss.

Practice through drills how to use your floatation before you need it.  If you have to learn how to put it on in cold water, the education may be fatal.

Launching the liferaft.  If you must abandon ship, a liferaft and immersion suit represent your best hope of survival.

Your liferaft should be stowed on the coachtop or some other location where it is easily accessed and capable of floating free if the boat sinks before you are able to launch it.

You should consider applying non-skid or installing handholds around the liferaft cradle.  Survivors have noted the difficulty of launching rafts from slippery coach tops on vessels at severe angles of heel.

The raft canister should be secured to its cradle with a hydrostatic release that will free it automatically, if the vessel sinks suddenly, and let it float to the surface.

The hydrostatic release must be installed properly (Hammer Hydro-release) with yellow side up (or sunny side up) and the red weaklink on the bottom where the end of the painter is attached.

Keep in mind that the liferaft hydro releases expire every two years and your raft must be serviced annually by a Coast Guard-approved service facility.

When you install the liferaft canister on the vessel be sure that the strap is secured with a pelican hook or quick release, the painter is shackled or tied into the red weaklink, and the bands on the canister are secured.  Be aware that the bands do not need to be cut before the raft is launched.

Manually launching a life raft.  My experience is with 4 to 8-man capacity liferafts with painter lengths of 50’ to 150’.  The most common length of painter is 92’ so I will describe the launch procedure for this length.

Approach the liferaft canister in the cradle, trip the pelican hook or quick release to release the strap.

Rule of thumb for me on the painter is to pull out 65% of the total length (60’ of the 90’ total) or about 10 fathoms, before launching the liferaft.

Why so much painter?

Two reasons:

•  If we just pull out 2-3 fathoms and then launch the raft over the side aggressively, 6’ to 8’ passes over the rail and pulls the additional 70’.  The raft inflates and the wind pushes it further away, as much as 20’ to 30’ from the vessel; and

•  For vessels with outriggers and paravanes (birds) in the water, Murphy’s Law may be a reality.  There’s a good chance the raft will get wrapped in the bird chain.  Or it will be extremely difficult to pull the raft back to the vessel now that it is inflated – ballast bags full, sea anchor dragging – not to mention the wind pushing it further away.

So, it is best to pull out 2-3 fathoms of the painter allowing enough slack to carry the raft to the lee side.  Then tie-off the painter and pull out another 7-8 fathoms for a total of 10 fathoms.

A qualified Coast Guard-approved marine drill instructor, Fred Mattera of Point Judith, RI is the owner/president of North East Safety Training Co. (NESTCo), which conducts fishing vessel drills and inspections and basic safety training workshops.

Launch the raft about 1’ past the rail in the lee of the vessel, and continue to pull the painter.  It will become tight; give it a hard tug to initiate inflation.  Pass the painter to a crewman at deck level to secure the raft where you will board the raft.

While he is proceeding to secure the raft, the crewman that initiated inflation must unshackle or untie the painter at the weaklink.  Once the crewman on deck has secured the raft and signaled thumbs-up, the crewman above can untie the painter and pass it down to the deck level.

With all the 92’ of painter on deck, this allows the crew to board the liferaft and the captain to untie the painter and secure the last 6’ of line to the vessel, keeping the liferaft attached.

The distressed vessel is a much more visible target, visually and by radar, than the liferaft itself floating freely.  Stay attached to the vessel as long as possible.

Monitor the vessel – and when sinking becomes a reality – cut the painter, using the knife that is always on the right side of the raft looking out, in a sheath with a floating handle and twine attached to the raft.

Just below it, on the outside of the raft is the attached painter, just remember to cut up and away from the inflated tubes.

You are now free of the imperiled vessel.

In Part 3, we will review boarding the liferaft,  the raft survival kit, righting a capsized liferaft, and dealing with an injured crewman.


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