Liferafts are like having insurance on a boat, it is one of those things you hope never to use, but you want the correct solution if the time comes. As always and it is with liferafts too, that you get what you pay for.
First let's take a look at the different types of rafts available and what they are designed to do:
Coastal – These liferafts are usually an open design with small baffles (sea anchor) and one inflatable camber. They are designed to spend no more than a few hours in them as coastal means you can be reached by vessel or helicopter within that time.
Offshore – Now the liferaft has larger baffles and usually comes with two independent air cambers and has some kind of shelter/shade canopy. Also the raft will be equipped with flares and other signaling safety equipment and some water and food plus some first aid materials. These rafts are designed so that you could spend up to 2 or 3 days in them and are good for 100 to 300 miles offshore.
Trans Ocean – At this point you get a liferaft to take when crossing oceans or when going more than 500 miles offshore. These liferafts have double air cambers of larger size, optional inflatable floor (needed when sailing cold waters) extra large baffles, larger canopy that in many cases can be used to sail the raft, and to collect rain water. Such a raft comes with food, water, fishing gear and lots of safety and medical equipment. Some optional equipment could be an EPRIB. As you can tell these rafts are designed for being at sea for a prolonged period of time before rescuers can reach you.
One other important consideration is access to the Liferaft. It might look simple in a picture but how easy is it really?
Knowing all this you will have to make a choice between the following two options:
Valise – This is a soft sided pack/bag in which the liferaft is packed and this bag will need to be stored below decks or in a cockpit locker.
Canister – A hard sided box with straps in which the liferaft has been packed, this box is usually stored on deck in a cradle or molded well as seen on many Catamarans or mounted in a cradle on the stern rail. In the case of a canister model you usually get the option for automatic hydrostatic release.
With this information you can choose the right liferaft for your boat as long as you know how many crew may need to make use of this raft, and if you are not sure go up one size. Also when you buy your raft find out when the next service date is as with some it is every year, others 3 years after purchase (vacuum packed) and then every year after that, in all cases don't let your raft go too far past it's expiry date as the batteries within could start leaking and damage the raft to the point of it being useless.
Gypsy Blues – We have a 6 person Trans Ocean Valise liferaft which is stored in one of our cockpit lockers with easy access. Next to this are our Type I life jackets and an extra bag with flares (our old ones). Our liferaft has an inflatable floor, extra fishing gear, plastic covered cards in addition to the standard items. When sailing longer trips we also pack a water proof ditch bag with many additional items such as long sleeve clothing, sun screen, books, granola bars, small binoculars, Portable GPS, Compass, Cell Phone, Sat phone, money and our boat papers and Passports, and yes some toilet paper.