Practical Sailor says it concisely: “Today, the life raft’s primary mission is no longer to serve as means of navigating to safety, but rather a platform from which to signal for help.”
Used to be that, if your sailboat sunk, you wanted a life raft packed with food, water, fishing gear, desalinization gear, nav gear, a sail, oars, everything you’d need to stay at sea for possibly months on end until you could sail or drift to land somewhere. Today you want to make sure you have enough electronics and spare batteries. If you can survive the storm that sunk you, chances are very good that you’ll get rescued very soon – if you have the right electronics and they’re working.
Here’s the stuff you need:
EPIRB (Emergency Position-Indicating Radio Beacon – Don’t leave shore without it!) This gizmo hooks up with a GPS and broadcasts your ship identification and location on the 406MHz band which is monitored by a worldwide satellite system. This is the biggest advance in SAR (search and rescue) technology since radio was invented. You register your boat and your beacon so false alarms can quickly be eliminated.
While you’re at it, there is a personal version of the EPIRB called the PLB (Personal Locater Beacon) you carry in case it’s just you overboard in the middle of the ocean.
It’s good to have a VHF radio. Emergency frequency 121.5 is still monitored although not as much as it used to be. Most important, rescue craft can use the VHF signal to home in on when they get close to you and you can talk with them to make sure you get rescued rather than run down.
A satellite phone is well worth its outrageous per minute cost in this situation. Nice to send out a rescue signal and even nicer to know that someone got it and is on the way.
Low tech signaling equipment is important as rescuers get close and to avoid getting hit if you’re in a sea lane. This includes a signaling mirror or two, flares, smoke dye and sea rescue ribbon – even a whistle.
The raft still has to be tough. If a storm sunk your primary boat, it’s going to challenge your raft, too. Chances are you’re NOT going to get rescued until the storm is over so you have to survive it. Practical Sailor puts a lot of emphasis on the boardability of a raft. Remember, it has to be designed to let you clamber in or help an injured person board during a storm without getting swamped itself. You also need a way to bail it out and patch it.
The whole assemblage can’t weigh too much because you have to be able to throw it overboard in the worst of circumstances. So, if you have to choose between an extra week of food and more batteries, take the batteries – chances are, if you can communicate, you won’t spend the extra week lost at sea.