Sailing Emergency Tips: Liferaft or Lifeboat? You Decide!

Captain John from takes an intriguing look at liferaft use vs. the flotation of your own vessel.

Read most survival sailing tips and they talk time and again about how you must equip your boat with the latest liferaft with ballast chambers, survival gear and such. Indeed, many racing committees require the yacht to be equipped with one before they can qualify to race. Is it time to give this accepted practice a reality check? Read on and then you decide.

Sit around a yacht club bar long enough and you might hear the old ditty that goes something like this: “Wait to board a liferaft until you can step (not jump) aboard from your boat to the raft.”

Compare the pictures of folks boarding liferafts to those you see in sailing books of folks being recovered after falling overboard. Ignore the folks and look at the background. What do you see? I’d be willing to bet the seas are flat and the wind calm. Reality? No way, I say–and here’s why…

Most of the time, vessels are abandoned for liferafts in survival conditions–gale to storm force winds and towering seas. Weeks later, you will often read that the mother ship (sailboat) drifted up onto shore or was found abandoned at sea–floating.

When I taught Coast Guard license courses, we always emphasized that the most hazardous part of abandoning a vessel was to get from the boat to the liferaft. Your sailboat has built in flotation in the way of air chambers. Unless she has been stove in or a thru-hull has failed, she will float. And even if stove in, she will float if fitted with extra flotation.

Add air filled bladder bags or foam flotation to any compartment to increase flotation. Some boats like the Outbound sailboats (photo above) carry watertight bulkheads–athwartship partitions that seal off one part of the boat from another–that will keep the boat afloat.

I believe our boats are our best bet for survival–our ready-made lifeboats. Sailing safety should begin there. Liferafts cost thousands and require yearly inspections to maintain the right way. Spend the money on the mother-ship first and foremost to make her your primary survival craft. Then make a decision on whether to carry a liferaft.

Equip your sailboat to be so strong and watertight that even with a cracked hull, she will stay afloat. Consider these alternatives to turn your sailboat into a lifeboat that will stay afloat through thick and thin:

- Purchase flexible, inflatable bladder bags.

- Add foam flotation to your boat (consult a marine expert on placement).

- Carry additional empty 5 gallon Jerry-Jugs or similar flotation.

- Install watertight bulkheads fore and aft.

- Upgrade your “plug ‘n patch” kit to one designed for offshore sailing.

- Make your boat more watertight (see “Related Articles” below).

- Discuss hull modifications with a marine surveyor or expert.


Consider these survival alternatives when you equip your small sailboat for coastal or offshore cruising. Gain the peace-of-mind that your sailboat will keep you “afloat and alive”–wherever in the world you choose to go cruising!

Courtesy of

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