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Man the Life Boats

Fishing far offshore? A life raft may be your most important boating investment.

Switlik "Man Overboard Module" deployed.

Warming weather and the arrival of migratory fish draws more and more boaters far from shore this time of year. Many of us are already making plans for long-range trips to The Bahamas, Middle Grounds, Dry Tortugas and other far-flung fisheries.

Let's take a break from the daydreams for a moment and look at a serious piece of boating gear: a life raft. When a nightmare becomes real, that raft, next to an EPIRB, ensures you'll have a second chance.

Rafts are expensive, generally bulky, and let's face it, the odds are astronomical that you'll ever need one. Most of us could go offshore every weekend from now until we're too old to swing a gaff and never have need of a life raft.

But suppose you did?

Many tragic endings would have only been fascinating cocktail hour stories if a life raft had been on the boat.

Switlik "Man Overboard Module" ready for deployment.

While most fishing boats will remain afloat even when awash, those over 20 feet do not have to have upright flotation, and in rough seas even those with upright flotation often don't stay upright.

What's more, you may have to get off the boat fast—a fire offshore gives no option but to get away from the boat, quickly, before the fuel tanks ignite.

And these days, some very serviceable rafts are neither space-consuming nor prohibitively expensive.

The Switlik MOM 600, for example, is a four-person inflatable that comes packed in a case just larger than a throwable boat cushion and weighing only 15 pounds. It's vacuum-packed and requires service only every five years—price is $999;

And Revere's Coastal Compact rafts store in suit-case like bags weighing as little as 16 pounds for a four-person raft and measuring hardly bigger than a tacklebox when stowed. Typical cost is $999 for a two-person raft to $1,699 for a six-person raft;

The right raft for you will have space for the maximum number of people you're likely to have aboard for an offshore foray. It will have drogues or other water-catching sea-anchor devices to keep it from being blown downsea the instant it inflates, and also to help it stay upright in gale-force winds—some can kite in the wind without these devices.

And your choice will depend on how far offshore you typically operate. Rafts suitable for operation to 20 miles out are designated “coastal” models by most manufacturers; they are single-tube rafts designed for short-term use. Those for operation farther out are designated “offshore” models and are built with at least two air chambers and most also have a sun/rain shelter. Prices start at around $2,500. There's also a “trans-ocean” designation, but specs and price of these exceed the needs of most Florida anglers.

Whatever the raft, you'll want an emergency gear kit or “ditch bag” either stowed inside or attached to it by a strong cord. That kit will contain at least a half-gallon of fresh water for each person aboard, a few MREs or other nonperishable, energy-rich food in waterproof packs, a flashlight, a signaling mirror, a compass, a whistle, a knife and a fishing line along with a few jigs. Plastic space blankets are useful both for warmth at night and as sun-shields by day, and can also be used to catch rainwater if the opportunity arises.

Last but not least, an Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB) signaling device that will beam your location to rescuers should be attached to the raft or in your ditch bag. Personal Locator Beacons start at around $150, while full-featured EPIRBs that can broadcast for days in all conditions start at about $650.

Stow the raft and gear bag where you can reach them in seconds, not minutes; by definition, emergencies come at you fast. Many stow in a fiberglass container that allows them to be mounted on the bow deck or cabin roof where they can be reached instantly in an emergency and will float free if the boat sinks abruptly.

That life raft may never be used, but just knowing it's there on every trip offshore will give you and your crew a feeling of security that's well worth the cost. FS

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