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Life Rafts in the Desert

Life Rafts in the Desert

Belvoir PubsOn January 20-22, 2000, a group of volunteers from throughout the U.S., and even one from Europe, joined Doug Ritter, publisher and editor of Equipped To Survive™, to participate in the most comprehensive tests ever done by consumer publications of marine and aviation life rafts. These tests were conducted in collaboration with Belvoir Publications' Practical Sailor, Powerboat Reports and The Aviation Consumer publications. The Belvoir publications are entirely subscriber supported and do not accept advertising.

USCG SAR logo The United States Coast Guard sent two representatives, the Coast Guard's senior rescue swimmer, Master Chief Keith Jensen, and Lieutenant Commander Paul Steward from the Office of Search And Rescue at USCG Headquarters, to attend the life raft tests, both to participate and observe. LCDR Steward noted that "these tests offer a unique opportunity to further our knowledge of recreational marine and general aviation life raft features and performance which can be extremely valuable information when conducting search and rescue operations."

Wave Action at the Life Raft TestsThe volunteers, who quickly nicknamed themselves "raft rats," spent three exhausting days testing 34 offshore and coastal marine life rafts and aviation life rafts in a wave pool in Tempe, Arizona. Most of major manufacturers selling to the recreational boating and general aviation markets were represented.

It was an eye-opening experience for all involved. Reaction to the life rafts ranged from "better than ending up fish food" to "awesome!" In addition to the righting, boarding, stability and general performance tests, the Tempe Fire Department provided a hydrant and hose to test the effectiveness of the life raft's canopies in protecting survivors in extreme weather conditions. The screams of volunteers emanating from inside the life rafts provided quick testimony to any deficiencies that let in the cold water.

34 life rafts being roudned up"Our aim is to ensure that anyone looking to purchase a life raft for their boat or plane will be able to make an informed decision based on independent, unbiased information," commented Doug, "when you're talking about equipment to which you're going to trust your life in extreme circumstances, you need hard data, not just the manufacturers' sales and marketing hype."

The comprehensive in-water tests were performed in controlled conditions using the wave pool to ensure consistency and enable accurate comparisons and measurements. With the wave machine cranked up to give its most aggressive waves, one Raft Rat noted, "the waves are a whole lot more realistic than I expected, it really is like being in the ocean." While taking a flotilla of boats and the life rafts out into open water might have been more fun, experience has shown that it is extraordinarily difficult to cope with the logistics involved under such conditions and difficult as well to draw useful comparisons because of the inherent variability of the natural environment. And, the logistics of dealing with 34 life rafts, even in the controlled environment on land, taxed everyone.

Rafts-R-UsPrior experience has also shown that testing only in calm waters off a pier or on a bay can mask deficiencies that show up under rougher conditions. Doug has previously conducted two series of breakthrough evaluations on aviation life rafts using similar procedures. Subsequent open ocean testing of many of the same life rafts proved the results are accurate and scalable.

After completion of the wave pool tests, the rafts were moved to a warehouse where Doug meticulously detailed each life raft, measuring, taking gigabytes of photos and making notes of design features and equipment--both good and bad. Sea anchor/drogue effectiveness, manual inflation pump tests and other equipment tests are also being conducted. Each Survival Equipment Pack is opened and the contents analyzed and photographed, and where appropriate, tested. Once that is completed, the writing begins, including sorting through nearly 300 written evaluations by the volunteers, approximately 3,000 digital images, a dozen rolls of print photos, plus almost 12 hours of digital framed video!

Initial publication of the results for the marine life rafts was in the May issues of Practical Sailor and Powerboat Reports in an article titled "Life Rafts: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly". This provided general findings of our evaluations. The article was presented in three main installments, the second appearing in the June issues (Coastal Life Rafts), the third in July (Offshore Life Rafts). Two added installments in August (Life Raft Materials and Servicing) and September (Inshore Life Rafts) discussed additional details and results. The aviation life raft results appeared in the July issue of The Aviation Consumer.

Equipped To Survive's™ in-depth, nitpicking, and incredibly detailed reports and photographs of the aviation life rafts are now available in Aviation Life Raft Reviews. Similar coverage of marine life rafts is planned.

Photographing a SEPIn conjunction with the life raft test, Equipped To Survive™ and the Belvoir boating magazines are also conducting a survey of boat owners, both those who own a life raft and those who don't own a life raft. The survey was included in the December issues of Practical Sailor and Powerboat Reports, or the survey can be easily and quickly completed online at

Doug concluded, "I am honored to be able to cooperate with Belvoir on these tests, their reputation and willingness to ‘tell it like it is' make a perfect companion to our ETS ‘take no prisoners' approach to equipment evaluations."

Photo credits: Wave pool images by Steve White.

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Publisher and Editor: Doug Ritter
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