Do I Need a Life Raft?

Inflatable dinghy can serve as a raft on coastal trips.

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DSB 6-ISAF life raft

Photos by Ralph Naranjo and Frank Lanier

Im planning to take our Catalina 36 from our Chesapeake Bay homeport to Newport/Narragansett Bay. The trip may include offshore runs between Cape May, N.J., and Block Island, N.Y.-a distance of about 200 nautical miles, maximum offshore about 30 nautical miles.

Im deliberating what, if any, life raft I should have aboard for the trip, mainly for the offshore runs. Life-raft options that Im considering are: none; inflatable dingy lashed to the foredeck; coastal life raft (like the Revere coastal cruiser); full-spec offshore life raft. I have the usual VHF communication gear, as well as a radar, AIS, and a new Class 2 EPIRB. I would like your thoughts.

After the adventure, well probably stay mostly on the Chesapeake, except for a possible trip down the Intracoastal Waterway and a short hop across to the Bahamas.

Chuck Rushing
Catalina 36
Vienna, Va.

The run from the Chesapeake to New England is basically a coastal passage with many safe havens along the way. On a well-founded and sensibly crewed boat, we don’t consider a life raft necessary for this passage.

ACR ResQLink

Photos by Ralph Naranjo and Frank Lanier


In our opinion, the full-spec offshore life raft is over the top for your needs. Having an inflatable dinghy on deck and ready to go (already inflated, easily accessible) is the most reasonable option, especially if you have only a few crew and because your future plans do not include any offshore passages. The dinghy will not be a secure platform for many people for long, but assuming your EPIRB works, you shouldnt be floating too long. You might also look into a personal locator beacon (PLB), as an EPIRB backup. (For more on PLBs and other personal messaging devices, check out the April 2010, October 2012, and March 2013 issues.)

A coastal life raft is a worthwhile option to consider if youll have small kids on board or if you want to be particularly cautious (and for that hop across the Gulf Stream, if you do venture to the Bahamas). If youre set on having an actual life raft, renting is your best option. We recommend researching life-raft service companies in your area to see whether any will rent a coastal raft to you for this trip. Renting a raft will give you peace of mind without your having to fully invest in a pricey raft that youll likely not need again.

If you decide to bite the bullet and buy a life raft, be sure to read our Survival at Sea ebook (available at www.practical-sailor.com), which details how to choose and equip a life raft.

Darrell Nicholson, editor of Practical Sailor, grew up boating on Miami’s Biscayne Bay on everything from prams to Morgan ketches. Two years out of Emory University, after a brief stint as a sportswriter, he set out from Miami aboard a 60-year-old wooden William Atkin ketch named Tosca. For 10 years, he and writer-photographer Theresa Gibbons explored the Caribbean, crossed the Pacific, and cruised Southeast Asia aboard Tosca, working along the way as journalists and documenting their adventures for various travel and sailing publications, including Cruising World, Sail, Sailing, Cruising Helmsman, and Sailing World. Upon his return to land life, Darrell became the associate editor, then senior editor at Cruising World magazine, where he worked for five years. Before taking on the editor’s position at Practical Sailor, Darrell was the editor of Offshore magazine, a boating-lifestyle magazine serving the New England area. Darrell has won multiple awards from Boating Writer’s International, including the Monk Farnham award for editorial excellence. He holds a U.S. Coast Guard 100-ton Master license and has worked as a harbor pilot and skippered a variety of commercial charter boats.

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