Features July 1, 2000 Issue

Offshore Life Rafts

Part 3 - Heading offshore is no time to compromise the survival performance of your 'final option.' The 13 offshore rafts we tested range from poor to excellent.

by Douglas S. Ritter

DBC's Swiftsure Global
boarding platform was
best in our test.

Having presented general findings in the May 1 issue and coastal rafts in June, this final review deals with offshore models. That all offshore rafts are not up to the task was tragically illustrated in the 1998 Sydney-Hobart Race.

Except as noted, prices listed are the manufacturer's list price for a six-person raft, packed in a valise, excluding any options, followed by an estimated discount price.

Crewsaver Mariner Offshore
Crewsaver's Mariner ($3,245/$2,435) is rectangular with a single-arch canopy that always kinked. This only made the single-arch headroom problems worse and pumping up the standard inflatable floor just exacerbated the problem.

There is a pair of zip-up semi-circular entries. Closure was problematic because the storm flaps kept getting caught in the zipper, and the canopy was stretched so tight it was virtually impossible to zip one entry fully closed, compromising weather protection. Four small ballast bags (80 lbs. each, 320 lbs. total) and a poor-performing drogue provide inadequate stability.

The Crewsaver's unique slab-sided appearance comes from connecting the 9.5" tubes via material that is attached on the exterior, instead of the conventional hinge tape between them. While offering some structural and assembly advantages, it also causes problems, the most serious being that repair of a leak or puncture inside that juncture becomes tricky at best.

The manual pump must first be assembled, inserting wood paddles into the pockets of a flexible vinyl bellows. This was extremely difficult, taking 30 minutes. Then the hose wouldn't fit the pump. Said one tester, "Whatever were they thinking?"

The raft knife's sheath likely wouldn't be immediately obvious in the dark and was difficult to remove.

The Mariner is vacuum-packed and available in 4-, 6-, and 8-person models. The canister is flimsy and like some others, the bottom half is retained on the painter, which could pose a danger to survivors in the water and rub against the raft.

The DBC Marine Rafts
DBC's Swiftsure ($2,710) and Swiftsure Global ($3,290) are identical except for the Global's entry aids, insulated canopy, inflatable floor, and switched interior light.

They are hexagonal with dual 9" tubes. The single-arch translucent canopy has a small entry with an internal fabric gaiter that closes up, and an external that closes down. Together they provide a moderately weatherproof closure. With only difficult-to-manipulate cloth ties plus elastic loops and button on the external cover, the cover did allow water to spray in over the top. The observation port, equipped with cloth ties, enables it to be secured against water entry and for improved ventilation.

The standard survival equipment pack (SEP) is identical to DBC's coastal SEP-inadequate, in our opinion. An offshore SEP is a $240-$340 option, depending on size. The inflatable floor is optional on the Swiftsure ($170-$300 depending on size).

The Global has an inflatable boarding platform extending from the bottom tube that made it far and away the easiest raft to board, though a few more handholds would have been appreciated. The standard Swiftsure has only a double-rung looped ladder and proved very difficult to board. Ballast, consisting of five orange V-shaped bags (92 lbs. each, 460 lbs. total) and the modest drogue combined to provide modest stability.

Both rafts are available in 4-, 6-, and 8-person sizes. The canister is sturdy with a modest one-handed grip indent at each end. The canister half is not retained on the painter. DBC was the only company to supply a cradle with the canister (we hadn't requested one), but the release on the pelican hook failed, which would prevent a timely launching of the raft.

Givens Deluxe Buoy
The Givens Deluxe Buoy's ($6,925/$5,351) main selling point is its unique hemispherical ballast (roughly 1,800 lbs. according to Givens). It does work very well when filled, but it was very slow to fill. Because of that, the raft could be capsized 15 minutes after deployment, albeit with some extra effort. After deployment, the ballast bag still had not dropped down after 90 seconds, worst of all we tested, despite our shaking and rotating the raft. Thus, there is a longer period after initial deployment before the full effect of the ballast is brought to bear and the raft is not particularly more stable than any of the other rafts until it is filled. In rough conditions, the ballast might fill a bit quicker; weights or more inflow might help.

This is the only raft that deployed with the entry closed. Diagonal markings and a placard, "Door Push Open," encourage entry, but on a dark and stormy night we wonder how visible it will be. It does serve to keep the interior dry and helps promote initial self-righting after deployment.

Entry aids consist of a very awkward to use double-rung, center-supported web ladder, the lower rung being too low, the upper too high. There is a small V-shaped interior boarding ladder, but many testers were unable to reach it. Boarding over the 9" tubes was very difficult; one tester was unable to board unassisted.

The high, triple-arch, SOLAS insulated canopy provides generally good headroom throughout. The double entry flaps close with cloth ties that are too short and thus difficult to tie. A fair amount of water came through the openings and channeled into the insulated canopy space. Even more poured through the observation port that proved impossible to secure.

Givens Deluxe rafts are available in 4-, 6-, 8-, 10- and 12-person sizes.

The canister is sturdy, but difficult to grip, and is retained on the painter. Givens also makes a lighter weight International Offshore Racing model that we did not test.

Plastimo Offshore+
Plastimo's Offshore+ ($3,415 / $3,075) is a pentagonal raft with a single-arch canopy. The dual-color canopy is tied up to the arch and drops down where it is zipped around the bottom. Testers found it difficult to get the zipper started. It was moderately weatherproof, with leakage through the zipper, but dark and cramped.

There is a water collection V on the back side of the canopy. A simple slit functions as a zippered observation/ventilation port that was both uncomfortable to use and not very practical, in our view. It also leaked.

Four ballast bags (98 lbs. each, 392 lbs. total) and a poor-performing drogue provide only moderate anti-capsize capability.

The underside has some retro-reflective tape (that returns light rays parallel to the incident rays), but is otherwise all black. In other regards it is fitted out essentially like the Coastal reviewed in Part 2, incorporating Plastimo's unique "tube-in-a-tube" construction.

The Offshore+ is vacuum-packed and available in 4-, 6-, 8- and 10-person sizes. No canister was provided. Plastimo offers two other offshore rafts, but these were not tested.

In Part 2 (June), we discussed a number of Plastimo problems, including their use of non-DOT-approved cylinders, valves that could puncture the tube, and difficulties with service. Since then, Plastimo has eliminated the middleman so that service stations now deal directly with the factory in France. Plastimo also has issued an updated Service Bulletin, 99.01.01, with a revised foam packing piece designed to prevent damage to the rafts from the valves. Owners should ensure that their rafts comply with this latest service bulletin. Plastimo will change out all non-DOT cylinders free of charge at the five-year hydro test.

Switlik MD-2
The MD-2 ($3,745/$2,925) is essentially Switlik's MD-1 coastal with double 10" tubes, available in 6-person only. Along the way, they added a few features which help solve some of the problems we noted with the MD-1. The most notable addition is an effective rigid boarding platform entry aid (as on the CLR6 coastal). Our prototype installation made a huge difference in boarding compared to the MD-1's entry that we faulted.

The double tubes moderate the low headroom, but space still suffers in comparison to others. The too-tight canopy collapsed the arch when the entry was closed, which in itself was difficult to accomplish because of the tension.

Inflating the optional floor ($695) just made it worse. Water leaked through the unprotected zippers. With identical ballast and drogue, stability is about the same as the MD-1-moderate at best.

Our MD-2 came in a robust canister, the best of the group.

Switlik SAR Mk II
Switlik's top-of-the-line Search and Rescue Mk II ($5,295/$4,395) represents their concept of the definitive life raft (available only in 6-person size). However, inflatable floors are optional; ours was fitted with their tied-in INFAB floor ($695; heat-sealed floor $195), as is an "extended" SEP ($100). Developed for the U.S. Coast Guard to drop from aircraft to those in peril, but never purchased by them, the SAR Mk II incorporates a number of unique features.

The toroidal ballast (1,432 lbs.) is essentially a red rectangular bag that extends completely around the periphery of the raft. It is divided internally into compartments and is weighted at these junctures. It filled fairly rapidly and provided good capsize resistance, as well as serving to block wind from getting under the raft. With the boat-shaped form factor and swivel-less drogue, this large amount of ballast is a big plus.

The double-arch canopy is similar to the CLR6 with good headroom. The top is convertible and deploys with it furled in the open position. This makes jumping in from a vessel a cinch, as well as recovery via air, but it also adds to the workload upon initial entry. While not terribly difficult to close-up, it isn't as quick or intuitive as other designs. Also, some cloth ties provided as a backup to the normal zippered closure were too short to be easily tied. In the dark or with high seas and winds it might be a real challenge. Each arch support is independently inflated via separate inflation cylinders.

Switlik's platform makes entry relatively easy over the double 10" tubes. A zipper on each side closes up each of the entry doors and generous Velcro storm flaps do a decent job of keeping water out.

We were unable to reach the painter, attached to a bridle, without partially collapsing the canopy, and then, as a result, found using the raft knife also difficult. One of the shroud lines to the drogue, normally double-knotted, had partially untied itself during our short test session-not good. The survival manual isn't waterproof.

Viking UK Yachting
The Viking UK Yachting ($3,100) elicited complaints from every tester about its natural rubber-based fabric. The smell was nauseating, even without the raft closed up. The material provides good traction, which helped keep testers in place, but also caused painful sores on exposed skin.

The rectangular raft has a pair of 9" tubes. The two-rung webbing ladder, along with minimal other aids, made it fairly difficult to board, though the grippy material helped somewhat.

The cramped single-arch, translucent orange canopy is tied up towards the arch on one side and is closed by pulling it down over the top tube. Velcro patches and an internal shock cord retain it. While weather tight, there's not much adjustment-open or closed is about it. If the canopy arch is punctured, the top tube deflates-not a great idea.

The observation port sock is tied up to the arch when not in use, rendering it the most weatherproof of all tested-simple but effective.

A single rain catcher is provided.

Five large orange V-shaped ballast bags (101 lbs. each, 505 lbs. total) and a moderately effective, manually deployed drogue provide fair capsize resistance.

The canopy seemed to be marked for application of retro-reflective tape, but there was none.

An optional tied-in inflatable floor is available ($200-$250).

The raft comes in 4-, 6-, and 8-person sizes. The canister provided was reasonably robust and didn't trap the painter, but included no handles or grips and is banded with nylon straps-we prefer stainless.

West Marine Offshore
The West Marine Offshore ($2,799) is a collaborative effort between West Marine and Zodiac to produce a value-priced offshore raft with features that Chuck Hawley, West Marine's equipment guru, felt were missing from many others. The elongated hexagonal raft has a 9" top tube and 10" lower tube. There are six V-shaped ballast bags (80 lbs. each, 480 lbs. total) and a drogue with swivel for moderate resistance to capsizing.

A boarding platform extends from the bottom tube. While reasonably effective, this proved far more difficult to use than the similar but superior DBC version. The surface is attached to the top of the platform's tube supports instead of the bottom as on the DBC. Some testers slid off the slick platform a time or two attempting to board it, even with the generous hand grips provided. Once on the platform, boarding the raft was easy. The painter leads to a second entry without good boarding aids (for hauling it close to the boat). We think there should be instructions for in-water survivors following the painter to the raft to board on the other side with better boarding aids.

Headroom with the tall dual-arch canopy was excellent. A pair of tall semi-circular zippered doors with a storm flap at the top provided fairly easy entry from the vessel, fair ventilation, and easy closure. Some water came in via the zippers. Rain-catchers are installed at both ends.

The foam insulated floor was easily torn by persons moving about in the raft. It has a self-bailer installed in the center. With no placards or instructions, testers were at a loss figuring out what it was.

The SEP in our test raft was inadequate for offshore use. For example, there are only three SOLAS hand flares and no signal mirror or water. Spare drawstring bags for equipment are nice, but you'll definitely need a well-equipped abandon-ship bag to supplement what little is in the raft.

The molded plastic canister supplied was the least substantial of all tested, and the bottom half remained on the painter. It did have easy-to-grip retracting handles.

The West Marine Offshore is available in 6- and 8- person sizes.

The Winslow Rafts
Winslow's "Super-Light" offshore line of decagonal rafts offers a multitude of options, including their Basic Cruising and Fishing Offshore ($3,795/$3,036), that we didn't test, and viewport-equipped Offshore Plus ($3,945/$3,145), the well-equipped Extended Offshore ($5,395/$4,595), and Winslow's vision of the ultimate offshore raft, the Ocean Rescue ($7,345/$6,445).

Each has a selection of three possible survival equipment packs: Offshore, Extended Offshore ($400), and SOLAS A-Plus ($1,700). There's also a 50-item list of options (many included in the higher specification rafts), in case the pre-configured rafts or SEPs don't quite suit you. General features are shared with the Winslow coastal rafts reviewed in Part 2.

The two lower-priced rafts come with a single-arch canopy identical to the coastal rafts. The tri-arch canopy on the two others is similar in most respects (and an option on the lesser spec rafts), but the extra arch segment provides much more headroom around most of the raft, though not as much at the center of the entry as we'd prefer. An inflatable floor is standard only on the Ocean Rescue, optional on the rest ($200-$300).

Winslow's entry aids, as described in Part 2, are supplemented in the offshore models with a longer four-rung ladder, additional grab handles, and "stirrups" on the bottom tube, resulting in a raft everyone could board with minimal difficulty over its 11" tubes. The larger tubes provide significantly more freeboard than the closest competitors.

While our prototype test rafts came with both sizes of Winslow's ballast, the company advised that production offshore rafts now all come with their Cape Horn ballast (128 lbs. each, 640 lbs. total). Together with Winslow's top-rated swivel-equipped drogue, capsize resistance is very good. Winslow's righting aids, including the locator light, are very good, and the righting ladder fitted to the Ocean Rescue (a $75 option on others ) is the best solution seen.

Viewports are fitted to all but the Basic raft; opening viewports and their storage pockets are fitted on the two top-spec rafts.

Winslow's offshore SEPs are, for the most part, well-equipped. Their SOLAS A-Plus SEP exceeds SOLAS standards in many regards, even including a PUR 06 watermaker. While this SEP adds a good deal of weight, it obviates the need for much of what would go in an abandon-ship bag.

The extra space in the Ocean Rescue is more than just a luxury, and Winslow's standard self-deploying 406 MHz EPIRB on the two higher cost rafts should expedite rescue.

Winslow's offshore rafts are available in 4-, 6-, 8-, 10- and 12-person sizes, except the Ocean Rescue which is only available in 4-, 6- and 8-person sizes. The Winslow canister is sturdy and has a good gripping area at both ends, but unfortunately retained the bottom half on the painter.

Zodiac Racing Super MP6
Zodiac sent their MP6 Racing Super model ($2,595), because they didn't yet have anything but a proposed brochure of their new offshore design that will replace the Open Sea line. The MP6 has a great deal in common with West Marine's Coastal.

Our comments about the West Marine Coastal in Part 2 apply, with the following exceptions:

There is no swivel on the drogue. Instead of a single zippered entry, both sides are retracted up towards the arch and are secured with ties. This provides pass-through ventilation while open; they are closed by pulling the elastic edges down over the tube and securing them with some ties, providing a fairly weather tight, but cramped and stuffy canopy.

The boarding aids are a bit less effective; there's no tube at the bottom of the ladder, meaning that getting in was even more difficult than the West Marine Coastal.

The survival manual appears exceptional in content and format, even including useful ocean current charts and a plotter, but is written in French. The Racing Super is available in 4, 6- and 8-person sizes.

Conclusions
It is obvious that lifesaving capability in life rafts does not come cheap. For offshore use, the differences in capability can be significant and any deficit potentially magnified. Where you are likely to deploy the raft also makes a difference; the world's waters are not all equally demanding of your "final option." It is not an easy choice.

Winslow's quality, performance, light weight, and attention to detail make their rafts our top choice; they were also the near unanimous selection of our volunteers. Two couples, participating for the purpose of selecting a raft, bought Winslow. We were impressed with Winslow's many innovative, industry-leading features, as well as their obvious consideration of human factors in design and equipage. The flexibility to tailor a Winslow to your particular needs is a welcome option, as is their upgradeability.

The Winslow Ocean Rescue is our top choice for an offshore life raft, albeit at a premium price, followed closely by the Extended Offshore, which provides perhaps the best value in their line, in terms of standard features and capability for your dollar. The Offshore Plus, in its standard configuration, represents the best of the single-arch canopy rafts, none of which we really like. A judicious choice of options, such as the tri-arch canopy, will fix the most significant drawbacks and give you nearly top-rated performance and features at a relative bargain price, though still not inexpensive.

There is a lot to like in Switlik's Search and Rescue Mk II, the only other raft to receive votes for best offshore raft from the volunteers. Its toroidal ballast is excellent and goes a long way towards ameliorating the potential stability problem of a drogueless, boat-shaped raft. One of its biggest drawbacks is weight-the trade-off for its robustness. Given its premium price, we'd like to see some of the shortcomings addressed, such as the lack of a swivel for the drogue, which wouldn't cost much to add. Greater attention to human factors would also help. Switlik's quality construction is readily apparent and was noted by many of the volunteers.

West Marine's Offshore has many well-thought-out features, including the spacious dual-arch canopy, boarding ramp, swivel for the drogue, and vacuum packing, among others. It's a good value for those on a budget and with less demanding requirements. The SEP does not contain as much equipment as many others so you will need a well-equipped abandon-ship bag. It'sour Best Buy.

The Givens Deluxe Buoy is optimized for extreme conditions, but seems poorly suited for less severe circumstances. If you are sailing in higher latitudes, it may be an acceptable choice. For most sailors, particularly those sailing shorthanded, we deem it too heavy, with too many flaws (though most could be easily remedied without undue cost).

DBC's Swiftsure Global is a moderately capable offshore raft at a moderate price, but a notch below those above because of its single-arch canopy and other noted shortcomings.

The remaining offshore rafts in this review had significant flaws and shortcomings and not enough counterbalancing positive attributes.

Contacts- Crewsaver (Inflatable Survival Systems, Inc.)PO Box 359, Sharon Center, OH 44274; 330/239-4331, email: dja1117@aol.com. DBC Marine Safety Systems, 101-3760 Jacombs Rd., Richmond, BC V6V 1Y6 Canada; 800/931-3221, 604-278-3221, www.dbcmarine.com. Givens Marine Survival Co., 548 Main Rd., Tiverton, RI 02878; 401/624-7900, www.givensliferafts.com. Plastimo (Lewmar, Inc.-Safety), 6475 Parkland Dr., Sarasota, FL 34243; 800/946-3527, 941/753-7533, email: shannonslusa@msn.com. Switlik Parachute Co., 1325 E. State St., Trenton, NJ 08609; 609/587-3300, www.switlik.com. Viking Life-Saving Equipment (America) Inc., 1625 N. Miami Ave., Miami, Fl 33136; 305/374-5115, www.viking-life.com. West Marine, PO Box 50070, Watsonville, CA 95077; 800/262-8464, 831/761-4421, www.westmarine.com. Winslow LifeRaft Co., 11700 Winslow Dr., Lake Suzy, FL 34266; 800/838-3012, 941/613-6666, www.winslowliferaft.com. Zodiac of North America, Inc., 540 Thompson Creek Rd., Stevensville, MD 21666, 410/643-4141, www.zodiac.com.

Editor's note: Doug Ritter is a Practical Sailor contributing editor and the editor of the Equipped To Survive (www.equipped.org) web site.

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