Life Raft Survival Kit Use

A Thermal Protective Aid, or TPA, being worn. Photos courtesy of the Alaska Marine Safety Education Association.

Years ago, a fishing vessel suddenly capsized and sank in the middle of the night. Only two crewmembers made it out into the frigid water. They reached their life raft and with great effort, despite the cold, climbed into it.

The next morning, the raft was found, but the crew didn’t survive due to hypothermia.

When rescuers located the raft the next day, they noticed that its survival kit, which contained two Thermal Protective Aids (TPAs), had never been opened. A TPA is an orange zippered mummy-shaped bivy sack that traps in heat.

Unless you live close to a certified life raft re-packer, most owners don’t see the contents of the survival kit that comes with every U.S. Coast Guard or SOLAS-approved life raft.

If you view the contents of the survival pack, some objects in the kit may be unfamiliar. Know beforehand what’s in the survival kit and how to use the items. 

Let’s look at some of the contents of a life raft survival pack.

There are three main classes of Coast Guard or SOLAS (International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea) kits. Their contents can be read in the accompanying chart and depend on the distance you operate offshore.

A few tips to get the most out of your survival gear:

Sponges – You usually get two of them. Use one to keep the floor dry; the other sponge—if kept out of the saltwater—can be used to recycle your breath’s moisture, which condenses inside the raft’s roof.

Knife – If you’re in the raft, there is a safety “J” knife in a pocket just inside the doorway that you can use to cut the painter line in case the vessel sinks. Most kits also contain a folding knife. Be careful so that they don’t poke the raft.

Quoit – Besides being a great Scrabble word, it’s a red rubber throw ring just outside the doorway and looks like a round dog toy with a lanyard. Even with a sea anchor and water ballast bags under a raft, in a strong wind your raft can travel faster than a swimmer. Throw the quoit out to the swimmer.

Repair kits – They can be either round plugs, patches similar to a bicycle inner tube patch, or better yet a set of clam shell clamps whose one side can be inserted into the raft tube hole and the other side clamped to the outside of the raft tube with the thumb nut. One family used one of the clam shell repair clamps on their raft for more than 60 days until they were rescued.

Survival instructions – They tell you not to drink water for 24 hours, but this is outdated information. Let your body tell you when to drink. Most people get rescued in hours, not days, thanks to EPIRBs and radios.

Food – If you don’t have water, don’t eat. Digestion takes a lot of water from your body to do its job. The food in the kit will be blocks of easily digestible carbohydrates—flour, fat, sugar. Proteins are not in a life raft because they use up more water from body since they’re harder to digest.

Tin openers – Why tin openers when they no longer put water in cans in a raft? The openers are still in the kit in case you get canned food off the vessel. Can you imagine how horrible it would be if you got your favorite canned pineapple or pickled quail eggs off the sinking vessel, but there was no can opener to open the tin? Tragic.

Anti-seasickness pills – Never been seasick, you say? Take them as soon as you get in the raft. The raft is like a waterbed on top of another waterbed. Soon the person next to you will be feeding the fish, but in your lap instead. Take the pills.

Pressure relief valve plug – Most people don’t recognize this item. When the raft inflates, the excess CO2 is emitted through a pressure relief valve outside of the raft, usually near the top. Over time, rough seas compress the raft, forcing air out of the relief valve or you could also just have a leaky valve. Either problem results in a lot of pumping up the raft with the hand pump. The relief valve plug in the kit is usually a yellow or orange plastic knurled knob with a threaded end that screws into the relief valve. It stops the leak, saves a lot pumping and helps the raft retain its proper shape and buoyancy.

Also: life rafts fit into a tight canister, but you can ask the repack technician if there’s room for additional small items that can be included like a PLB, medication, spare eyeglasses or contacts, a handheld radio or a hand-operated desalinator.

If you can arrange to see your raft being repacked, do so. Repack technicians can show you what is in your SOLAS kit and are a great resource for knowing how to launch and get the best use of your raft in an emergency.

Know before you go. You never know how your day is going to end.