Features like boarding ramps rather than web ladders add to raft cost but are important considerations. "If you can't get into a life raft, it does you no good," Bohne says, pointing out that raft freeboard may be 24 inches high. He says there is no substitute for seeing equipment while contemplating which features fit individual cruiser's needs and scrutinizing differences between manufacturers in raft and survival gear quality.
"You wouldn't buy a boat without looking at it. Why would you buy a life raft without seeing it first?"
Sometimes Bohne sells less raft than a customer originally intended. Other times the opposite is true. "When you're 500 miles away from anything, you have to be self-sufficient," Bohne says. "If you don't have the budget, let's find you a used raft or find some other way. I try to make sure they walk out the door with the raft they need."
$1,000 to $2,500: Not quite life rafts, rescue platforms or compact rafts are a recent trend intended simply to get survivors above the water. Canopies are options, but all have rudimentary ballast systems. With no equipment, an EPIRB and a basic ditch bag are critical.
$1,700 to $6,000: Coastal life rafts offer a safe haven when quick rescue is expected. Typically with just one floatation tube and small ballast bags, they aren't intended for rough water. Most have self-deploying canopies and all have basic signaling and survival equipment.
$2,800 to $10,000: Offshore rafts offer better ballast systems — Switlik and Givens are considered the best. All offshore rafts ride on two inflated tubes for higher freeboard and redundant flotation, which also helps in rough water. They include more survival gear than coastal rafts.
Options that increase the price of both coastal and offshore rafts include inflatable or insulated floors to prevent hypothermia in chilly water and boarding ramps instead of web ladders, a definite consideration for all but the most physically fit.
Weather or Not?
While 406 MHz EPIRBs quickly notify rescuers of distress, weather may hinder rescue, and nasty weather doesn't require extended ocean passages. In 1980, a tropical wave near Africa on Aug. 1 became fast-moving Hurricane Allen on Aug. 2 and intensified to Category 5 strength south of Puerto Rico by Aug. 4. Caught unexpectedly near Jamaica, the crew of the 48-foot Island Princess took to their Givens raft (shown to left) in 190 mph winds and 35-foot seas, miraculously never capsizing even right through the eye of then the most powerful Atlantic hurricane on record. A coastal or lesser offshore raft wouldn't have faired as well. Consider too that stability and warmth come from filling a raft near its rated capacity, so don't buy too large a raft for offshore voyages.
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The U.S. Coast Guard is asking all boat owners and operators to help reduce fatalities, injuries, property damage, and associated healthcare costs related to recreational boating accidents by taking personal responsibility for their own safety and the safety of their passengers. Essential steps include: wearing a life jacket at all times and requiring passengers to do the same; never boating under the influence (BUI); successfully completing a boating safety course; and getting a Vessel Safety Check (VSC) annually from local U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary, United States Power Squadrons(r), or your state boating agency's Vessel Examiners. The U.S. Coast Guard reminds all boaters to "Boat Responsibly!" For more tips on boating safety, visit www.uscgboating.org.