Before going cruising, I had a long career skippering fishing boats in Alaska. Twice I had the need to resort to a liferaft. The raft must always be the last resort. Never give up on the boat until it has given up on you.
The first time, I was alone aboard a small boat fishing salmon. While the boat did a slow roll all the way over, I ran up the side like a Laser racer hard on the sheet. The raft was appropriate for service in what was considered near shore waters. It had a canopy, a single floor, a few flares, virtually no water or rations, and precious little else except the 121.5 MHz EPIRB that I had added.
Since the raft had no hydrostatic release, I had to swim in order to set it loose and inflate it. I grabbed a survival suit floating near by, crawled into the raft, and struggled to don the suit. After a night holding the EPIRB aloft, I was cold despite the suit. I now consider a double or inflatable floor essential. Even tropical water is twenty degrees or so below your essential body temperature, and it is very effective at absorbing your heat. Finally, the EPIRB attracted an airplane. I let loose the last of my flares, and an hour later a Coast Guard helicopter picked me up.
Ten years later my ninety-seven footer was ablaze in the Bering Sea. Weather had been heavy the night before, but it had subsided considerably by the time three of us donned our survival suits and launched our state of the art, fully ballasted, double floored, covered raft. It was complete with a 406 MHz EPIRB, a full SOLAS A survival package, and numerous extra flares, rockets and smoke signals. The crew was well trained and knew their stations in the abandon ship procedure. But like the flip of a coin, many rafts have an even chance of inflating up side down. We were pros, and we knew how to re-invert the raft. The trouble was we actually had to do it now. This was no drill.
I entered the water, stood on the CO2 bottle, grasped the straps provided, leaned back, and heaved. Nothing happened. The crew leant a hand, reached over the rail, and lifted. The raft flipped as intended, but predictably it landed right on top of me. In the survival suit I was very buoyant. I was now pressed up against the bottom of the raft as it filled with ballast. I had to get out fast or drown. I hauled myself clear, and we climbed aboard. We had gotten off a clear Mayday, and help was on its way. Eventually another boat arrived. We re-boarded, and four hours later the fire had been brought under control.
What had we learned? Crew training and pre-planning saved the day. All of us knew our jobs well. Our equipment was the best, and nearly everything had been doubled up on. Although I struggled to get out from under the raft, we stayed calm. We never felt threatened in any way, and we eventually saved the boat and ourselves. Mark Roye
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