Features January 15, 2003 Issue

Life Rafts

Winslow still leads, but the gap narrows. Viking's RescYou Pro earns a Best Buy.

It's been only a couple of years since our exhaustive series of life raft reviews ("Life Rafts: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly" in the May, June, July, August, and September 2000 issues), but there have been some developments worth covering. 

Boarding a liferaft in a PFD is no easy matter
in a well-lighted wave pool, even for a person
in good shape. Design of boarding aids is crit-
ical.

Our current round of tests were held, as before, as a collaboration between Practical Sailor, Powerboat Reports, Aviation Consumer, and Equipped to Survive, the Web-based publication of the non-profit Equipped To Survive Foundation.

We tested 17 life rafts, six of them recreational marine rafts. For consistency, we tested under the same conditions as last time, using the same wave pool and testing protocols, and with the participation of many of the same volunteer testers. As before, we had a number of sailors preparing for extended cruises who came to learn more about life rafts. Also attending was the Coast Guard's senior rescue swimmer and a host of others with marine survival experience. After the in-water testing we moved the rafts to a vacant warehouse for detailed documentation.

We invited manufacturers to participate, asking them to provide us with any entirely new or improved life rafts. We received rafts from Avon, Viking, Zodiac, and Winslow. West Marine was understandably unable to loan us the lone prototype of the improved West Marine by Zodiac Offshore raft (our Best Value offshore raft last time). This raft is slated for a 2003 introduction.

Survival Products and Crewsaver did not respond to our e-mails. DBC (now owned by Zodiac) and Plastimo advised that they had nothing new or of enough significance to warrant testing. Givens and Switlik declined to participate. Since it was the introduction of the Switlik Rescue Pod 8 and a brief experience we had with the Search and Rescue version of this raft at a SAR conference that served as part of the stimulus for this round of testing, the Equipped To Survive Foundation elected to purchase one for evaluation.

Most manufacturers told us they would wait to see the pending rules update from the Offshore Racing Council (ORC) before developing new products, though Winslow has already made modifications in the raft we tested that, they are confident, will satisfy the final rule.

Avon Open Ocean
Avon, the venerable British life raft company, is now a Zodiac brand. The rafts are manufactured in Hungary. Though most of the equipment and instructions are obviously not of British origin (the English is occasionally hilarious), construction quality does not appear to have suffered. In fact, based on some reports, it may have improved.

We received an eight-person Avon Open Ocean packed in a canister. When stepped upon, it yielded significantly underfoot, but it seemed resilient. There are molded-in handholds at each end; deep enough for a good grasp and wide enough for two hands.

The Avon has glued, lapped seams. The pair of 10" buoyancy tubes are made of double-coated neoprene fabric. Exterior placarding is poor. The low single-arch canopy is red, inside and out, and translucent.

There is a single triangular opening for entry that is closed by means of one-inch Velcro and cloth ties. While the Velcro held in our fire hose test, even without the ties, it was too narrow to align well and leaked badly.

A nearly universal complaint was that the low canopy and single small door made the raft claustrophobic. Some occupants complained that it was difficult to breathe, and there was no way to get any ventilation. Considering that this 8-person raft had the second highest floor space per person, 4.3 sq. ft. (behind the Winslow Ocean Rescue) this is indicative of what a deficit in a single area can have on mental well-being, a critical element of survival.

The tight entry made boarding difficult for some larger testers. The entry aids consist of a three-rung webbing ladder with the bottom rung a piece of hard plastic tube, and a triangular boarding assist ladder inside. The tube rolled underfoot, causing feet to slip off. The first handhold of the interior ladder was too far away to be reached by some shorter testers. The toggle used to disconnect the inside ladder was difficult to operate; it would be extremely difficult with cold hands. There's an integral inflatable floor and five V-shaped ballast pockets around the raft. The sea anchor has to be threaded through the observation port to be deployed, and this created some confusion.

The raft knife used to sever the painter is secured to the inside of the canopy beside the entry and is largely hidden from easy view. Above it are the Immediate Action instructions, also not very prominent. Most of the other interior placarding was also printed on the canopy, high enough to be readily noticed.

Switlik Rescue Pod 8
Switlik's bright yellow Rescue Pod 8 is a unique offering that doesn't exactly compete with any other manufacturer's products. It was developed in part to provide the U.S. Coast Guard with an affordable, air-droppable raft, suitable for short-term survival until a rescue can be made.

The most notable difference between the Coast Guard's version and the one you can buy is that the former is equipped with Switlik's excellent Toroidal ballast as used on the SAR 6 Mk II that we rated highly in the previous test, while this one has four moderately large ballast bags. Based on limited experience in trying to overturn the USCG version of the Pod 8, the Toroidal ballast does make a significant difference, though this conventionally ballasted raft is still a very good performer in this respect. Stability is assisted by the self-deploying parachute sea anchor equipped with a swivel in the rode. Richard Switlik, company president, told us that a swivel is now standard on all their rafts.

The octagonal raft has a single 15" buoyancy tube with Switlik's internal sleeve system, which maintains 50% buoyancy in most cases if there's a puncture. There's no question that it's better in this respect than a single tube with conventional bulkheads. It also means you can re-inflate to essentially full buoyancy without stopping to repair the tube in most instances. The yellow double-coated polyurethane material is lighter than Switlik uses on their other marine life rafts, but does meet TSO C70a aviation specifications - plenty strong from our perspective.

There's no need to look for the entry, it's right in front of you - but that didn't stop some testers from searching in vain for a better one. Each segment of the octagon has its own boarding ladder, a two-rung webbing design with flat semi-rigid rungs. The interrupted two-inch webbing lifeline serves as a grab handle centered on the exterior of the tube, and there's a similar one inside. An additional grab line is attached to the floor, but it was out of reach for our shorter testers. Many ended up grabbing hold of the rolled canopy atop the tube for assistance, with no ill effects on the canopy. Those shorter, seriously overweight, or bottom-heavy had a difficult time boarding. The aids were adequate. A common suggestion was that one or two really good aids would be better than eight aids that merely get the job done.

The canopy is similar to that on the smaller RescuePod we tested last time - a segmented inflatable affair that's tied down to the tube upon deployment. Material is the same as used in Switlik's inflatable aviation life vests and PFDs. Where each segment is joined, the exterior is trimmed with retro-reflective fabric.

The far-larger size of the Pod 8 dictated some other means for inflating the canopy besides huffing and puffing into the oral inflation tubes. Each of the five canopy segments has its own PFD-style CO2 inflator. There are two segments on one side, three on the other. Double-action zippers close the canopy, forming a teepee.

One thing that troubled every tester, and seriously troubled a few, is that the interior of the canopy is black. Even with a water-activated light on in the interior, once zipped up tight, claustrophobia quickly set in for some who had no such issues with any other canopies. In addition, two testers reported becoming nauseous almost immediately. Even given enough time to adapt, it's still a very black hole inside; you'll need the included flashlight. Switlik advised us that the Coast Guard "requested (a) black interior on (the) POD-8 for lessening of vertigo." We also have some concern about getting out quickly if the raft inverts. On the positive side, the canopy becomes your back-up buoyancy device - sort of an oversized air mattress.

The inflated canopy will likely work adequately in moderate conditions and moderate winds. The insulation will be an advantage, particularly in cold conditions. However, in wilder conditions the canopy isn't likely to fare as well. In our fire hose test, which all the other rafts took in stride, the canopy whipped about, leaked a lot through the top at the zipper, then quickly collapsed in the middle, forming a pool of water in the center of the raft, with the canopy supported on the bent heads of the occupants.

The Pod 8 has minimal floor space - a hair under 3 sq. ft. per person by our measurements. Said Switlik, "The USCG rates the raft for eight persons, hence the name. At 4 sq. ft. per person (normal marine specification) it rates at 6-person with a 9-person overload capacity." Remember, this pod is not intended for long-term survival.

Lack of space was one of the most common complaints. Downrate the capacity and this isn't a factor, but we test at the capacity advertised, and Switlik promotes it as an 8-person.

The survival equipment pack (SEP) is pretty good, considering the projected use of this raft. Besides the flashlight, it includes three SOLAS-grade handheld flares?but, surprisingly, no signal mirror.

Our Pod 8 came in an ill-fitting valise - the least expensive option. Other than a choice of valise or canister, the only other option is Switlik's independent inflatable floor with oral inflation ($225), a good choice if you expect to travel in colder waters.

Viking RescYou Pro 6
The Viking RescYou Pro 6 is a self-righting boat-shaped offshore life raft, the first such that we've tested for the recreational marine market, though the Givens we tested last time came close. "Self-righting" means that if the raft inflates upside down, it automatically rights itself. This is accomplished on the RescYou Pro 6 via a pair of oversized canopy support tubes that make it unstable when inverted.

What occurs if you happen to be inside if it capsizes, as has been the case in real-life survival episodes such as the infamous 1998 Sydney to Hobart Race? We simulated this, and with occupants dropped down onto the inside of the canopy it stabilized on its side. Exiting the raft resulted in it turning back on its bottom immediately. We expect that a skilled crew should be able to right it relatively easily from inside if they can keep their wits about them.

Viking has eliminated the righting line common on conventional rafts, but we'd prefer it there as backup. The self-righting capability is dependent upon the canopy supports being fully inflated, and this might not always be the case.

Viking's primary boarding aid consists of a wide, fat, tapered inflatable tube that protrudes 12" from the lower buoyancy tube, and is the same as used on their SOLAS rafts. The top of this mini-platform is orange for better visibility. There's a single grab handle at the outboard end with a single loop of webbing hanging down from the end. No one noticed it in the water. There are also grab handles on the interior of both buoyancy tubes (pretty much hidden from view) and one more on the floor of the raft.

This boarding aid proved adequate for most of our testers, but one extra large volunteer found it impossible to board, despite the lowest freeboard of any offshore raft we've tested. Determined to succeed, he eventually became so exhausted that he called for assistance from the lifeguards. Better grab-handle locations or an interior assist ladder might have made a big difference.

The secondary entry aid consists of a single loop of webbing hanging down over the hard inflation cylinder and a good vee-shaped interior boarding assist ladder. The ladder easily disconnects from the floor.

Compared to previous Vikings, the RescYou is constructed of lighter natural rubber fabric (with much less noticeable smell) that reportedly still meets SOLAS specification, built with the same double-taped seams and robust construction we've seen before. Two semi-circular entries - one big and the other bigger - open up the sides of the raft for excellent ventilation in good weather. There's also the spaciousness of the double-arch, semi-opaque orange canopy, giving much more headroom and volume than other rafts we've tested. The rectangular interior lends itself to somewhat more comfortable seating, and there's an integral inflatable floor.

The immediate-action instructions are hung from the water collector in the canopy, and are readily accessible. Some testers were unable to read the fine print. Placarding was minimal inside and out, and received numerous negative comments. The exterior and interior lighting was the best of this bunch, fully SOLAS-compliant and very bright.

In our fire hose test, the raft was "dry, dry dry!," to quote one tester.

There are four voluminous ballast bags, two on each side and located well outboard for maximum effect. The self-deploying sea anchor is equipped with a swivel, and performs decently.

The raft is equipped with a drain tube that acts as a partial self-bailer. This open fabric tube at one end of the raft will help drain the raft down to a more manageable level - approximately the top of the bottom buoyancy tube - if it is filled with water by a wave before it can be closed up.

The Viking heaving line remains the only one we've tested that actually pays out neatly when thrown. The Viking's standard "E" offshore survival equipment pack was of good quality, with the exception of the raft repair gear. The sealed SOLAS med kit had a leaking container of "paraffin dressings." We weren't impressed with the manual topping pump (also used by Zodiac in their Class Ocean), a plastic affair sold in the U.S. to inflate balloons.

Viking's new and robustly constructed lightweight fiberglass canister looks like what you might expect from a Danish company - a sleek contemporary design. Unfortunately, while pleasing to the eye, it failed an important functional test. The hand-holds, vital to allow you to lift the raft for launching, were nothing more than glossy-smooth, sloped indentations; virtually useless, even in dry, stable conditions. Responding to our query and concerns, Viking redesigned the handholds to provide a decent grip with no-slip tape adding an extra measure of security. The strap bisecting the handhold is less than perfect, but the grip is effective.

Winslow
Winslow had no totally new rafts, but showed refinements and added features on their established line of rafts that won top honors last time. They provided three rafts, a Canopied Coastal Plus, Offshore ORC (simply their Super-Light Offshore Plus with additional ORC-required features) and their top-of-the-line Ocean Rescue. Unless noted, performance and features were the same as previously reported - excellent for class in most all respects.

Winslow now vacuum-packs its rafts. As we noted previously, while not essential, it's hard to argue against the benefits of sealing the raft against the marine environment. With this change comes an increase in the recommended service interval to every two years.

Their vacuum packaging is unique compared to the PVC used by others - a 6-ply laminated aluminized film that is claimed to be more cold, heat, flame, moisture, puncture, abrasion and ozone-resistant and impervious to ultraviolet. They claim UV blocking is an advantage for deck-mounting where even heavy fiberglass canisters allow some damaging UV through.

Winslow has added an inflatable boarding platform as standard on all their offshore rafts; it's a $260 option on the coastal and inshore rafts. Similar in concept to the DBC boarding platform that was top-rated last time around, this platform has more support. Even our shortest and heaviest volunteers were able to board easily using the new platform and the robust interior boarding ladder. This is especially noteworthy considering that the Ocean Rescue has 20.33" of freeboard, far more than any of the others, but the platform was still effective for the heavy tester who didn't make it aboard the Viking.

The 8-person Ocean Rescue (5 sq. ft. per person) was fitted with a boarding platform at all three of its entries, which we thought a bit extreme. Winslow later advised us that the two auxiliary entries come standard with their ladder entry; the additional boarding platforms are optional.

Winslow has significantly upgraded the integral inflatable insulated floor. The floor now has 21 reeds (these restrain the floor from ballooning) - more than four times what was used previously and more by far than the other such floors we tested. The result is something akin to tufted upholstery, both more comfortable and providing more even insulation while reducing the total volume of air required to inflate the floor to an effective state. Inflated reasonably hard, like an air mattress, it was impossible to feel someone punching the bottom, even with just a single person in the raft - a tough test that only the Switlik independent floors have passed previously. Testers who had previously tested the top-rated Switlik drop-stitched floor rated the new Winslow floor nearly as comfortable.

Nobody would ever suggest that manually inflating an insulated floor with the topping pumps provided in any of these rafts (while sitting aboard) is effortless. Winslow has addressed this issue with an automatic or semi-automatic inflatable floor. Standard on the Ocean Rescue and a $250 option on all other models, inflation is provided by its own cylinder. It can either be automatically activated when the raft is deployed, or manually by a survivor. On larger rafts, 10-person and up, this may not fully inflate the floor at lower ambient temperatures, but will still give a survivor a big head start. This feature was a big hit with our volunteer testers. The downside, besides cost, is the 4 lbs. of added weight. If we were cruising colder waters, it would be high on our option list.

Winslow has also upgraded its already excellent placarding with the use of detailed pictograms, common on European rafts. This feature received numerous positive comments.

Winslow's survival equipment packs carry individually vacuum-packed items grouped by use with a list of what's inside, and packed into the SEP bag in logical order. They have also upgraded to SOLAS handheld flares as standard throughout their product line, addressing one of their few weaknesses.

The optional "SOLAS-A Plus" SEP included in our Ocean Rescue remains the most complete by far of any we've tested, though it means extra weight (5.5 lbs. in our raft) - and the price is a staggering $1,727. Ours was also fitted with a 406-MHz GPS EPIRB, a $598 option over the included standard 406-MHz EPIRB.

Winslow's new polyurethane-coated fabric valise is bright yellow and appears even tougher than the one used previously.

The list of Winslow improvements goes on, covering dozens of items including new ballast construction for quicker filling and an improved interior boarding ladder, to note a couple.

Zodiac Class Ocean
Zodiac's Class Ocean represents a significant advance for the inflatable conglomerate, their first raft to compete head-on with the higher-end specialty U.S. manufacturers. Their raft is similar in many respects and features to Switlik's top-of-the-line Search and Rescue Mk II.

The six-person boat-shaped raft deploys open-topped for easy entry and retrieval. Survivors must unroll the canopy top from one side and attach it to the other with a zipper, as with the SAR Mk II. In our test a cloth tie came loose and the canopy came partially unrolled upon deployment, though this didn't seem to hamper entry. We had considerable difficulty getting the zipper to work, because of how it was sewn into the canopy. In darkness, with cold hands and numb fingers, this would have been an even greater challenge.

The canopy openings on both sides zip up from the tube. The closures can be adjusted to suit conditions and for ventilation. The entire canopy is insulated via lightweight blue fabric, which provides a trapped airspace and a blue canopy interior, per SOLAS specifications. Testers said it was quite watertight.

The boarding ramp looked like a jumble of webbing and fabric, but worked well with the relatively low freeboard. The fabric platform is loosely attached to the ramp's ample inflatable support. This provided good purchase for climbing aboard, with plenty of bright yellow one-inch webbing for handholds. With ramp support deflated, the webbing handholds can still act as ladder rungs.

There was also a four-rung webbing ladder hanging from the end of the ramp. The auxiliary entry was comprised solely of a five-rung webbing boarding ladder and wasn't all that effective, lacking any interior assists.

The Class Ocean is equipped with Zodiac's insulated foam floor with a reflective interior coating - good in cold climes, less good, we think, in the tropics.

A self-bailer of sorts is fitted to the center of the floor. We say "of sorts," because survivors must operate it manually, lifting it up repeatedly to drain the water. On the other hand, this is still a lot easier than using a traditional bailer. If survivors have the presence of mind to twist the bailer cone open and hold it there, then it will self-bail. Our testers didn't, and there's no placard to lend advice.

We were pleased to see Zodiac abandon the screw-in raft repair plugs heretofore favored by the European manufacturers, and provide instead superior-design U.S. MilSpec-style repair clamps, one each 3", 5", and 7" (the 3" was missing; Zodiac had no explanation). Instructions for use would also be helpful.

The SEP is minimal for offshore use; no water or medical kit and no optional extended offshore kit, as some provide. It includes SOLAS-grade flares, but no signal mirror. Alan Brocious of Zodiac explained that owners can choose their own equipment and this reduces the repacking cost.

Zodiac continues to fold and tightly roll up their difficult-to-read immediate-action instructions, attaching them to an interior grab line with a rubber band, about the only piece of reading material in any of the rafts that testers didn't access. The time-critical nature of this information doesn't seem to be given much priority. Zodiac includes a video on using the life raft, but that's no substitute for good placarding and instructions on board.

Unlike previous Zodiacs we've tested, this one came in a well-constructed and sturdy fiberglass canister. A valise-packed raft is not available.

Conclusions
Street prices can vary a good deal. Prices shown in the chart are suggested list. Boat shows and the Internet often offer the best opportunity to get a deal.

Switlik's Rescue Pod 8 fills a niche and may offer just the right combination of features for some. Not a full-fledged coastal life raft, but with better redundancy than many coastal rafts and most inshore rescue platforms, the canopy is its biggest drawback for more serious use. Don't buy one if you are claustrophobic. On the other hand, with the insulated canopy and adding the optional insulated floor, it makes a dandy cold-water rescue platform or inshore raft. Entry aids are adequate, but if you're on the bulky side we'd suggest a raft with better ones.

Switlik's robust construction means greater weight and more space demands. It also isn't inexpensive. For a slightly greater investment at street prices you can get a reasonably capable double-tube offshore raft like the Viking we tested.

The Avon Open Ocean is an uninspired raft at an inexpensive price, a generation behind the other designs, with nothing in particular, except price, to recommend it. We think the West Marine by Zodiac Offshore we tested last time represents a far better raft overall, and a better value.

The latest top-of-the-line European rafts are closing the gap with Winslow and Switlik, and exceeding them in some areas. Keeping the Zodiac Class Ocean from surpassing Switlik's SAR 6 Mk II is the ballast - not even close to as effective as Switlik's Toroidal, and the problems we had with closing the canopy top (easily addressed). In other areas - boarding aids, integral bailer, and nice insulated canopy - it's superior. The foam floor isn't as comfortable as Switlik's optional drop-stitched or air mattress style, and there's that reflective finish, which could be good or bad depending on where you're cruising.

Nobody beats Switlik's fabric for toughness, even Zodiac with their PVC. On the other hand, the Zodiac is $3,800 list, the SAR 6 Mk II is $5,295 list, without an insulated floor, but with a more capable SEP. That's a big difference, and the value scale has to tip towards Zodiac. While still not the performance equal of the SAR 6 Mk II or the well-equipped Winslows, this raft is head and shoulders above previous offerings from Zodiac.

Viking's RescYou Pro 6 has some very nice features, especially its self-righting design, and we think it's way ahead of the raft we tested previously in some other respects. It was popular with testers, who liked the open, airy canopy and feeling of spaciousness that it provided. It's stoutly constructed, and we don't see the lighter-weight fabric as an issue. It also has a good offshore SEP and bit of extra room. The improved ballast helps to compensate for the boat shape.

The entry aids, better by far than the previous raft, remain a concern - fine for those in reasonable shape or not already exhausted from fighting a storm, but there's significant room for improvement based on what we've seen on other rafts. The revised canister is beautiful, and that alone may prove an important selling point for some. At $3,100 or $3,300, valise or canister respectively, it's well worth consideration - a Best Buy (just for the Pro series, not the basic RescYou, a substantially different raft in critical respects, that we didn't test).

Winslow has not stood still, and the improvements to both their coastal and offshore rafts are worthy of note. Their new boarding platform and floor make a very good raft even better. They remain the overall performance leader as tested, in our opinion, and in the opinion of the majority of our testers. None of the other manufacturers seem to take into account human factors the way Winslow does. As one tester said, "Someone thought about the guy who might use this thing."

Nobody offers the custom pack options or the breadth of available life raft and survival equipment options that Winslow does. Considering the entire lifesaving system, the scale still tips in Winslow's favor, though you will pay a premium price.

Winslow has added service stations and still picks up continental U.S. shipping for factory service, but lags behind others in the number of authorized service stations, especially Zodiac and Switlik. Consider that if your cruising takes you to faraway places.

Be careful to compare standard versus optional equipment. The ratings on our chart cover the rafts as tested, including options, and encompass more than we could possibly discuss here.

Contributing Editor Doug Ritter is the editor of Equipped To Survive(www.equipped.org).

 

Also With This Article
Click here to view the Life Rafts Value Guide.

 

Contacts - Avon Marine, 410/643-4141, www.avoninflatables.co.uk.
Switlik Parachute Company, 609/587-3300, www.switlik.com.
Viking Life-Saving Equipment, 305/374-5115, www.viking-life.com.
Winslow LifeRaft Company, 941/613-6666, www.winslowliferaft.com.
Zodiac of North America, 410/643-4141, www.zodiac.com.

 

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