You are looking for a life raft and have heard about SOLAS, USCG or ISO life rafts but what does it all mean?
There are two broad categories of life rafts used in the United States; those that meet USCG requirements and those that do not. Commercial fishing boats, tugs, vessels carrying passengers for hire and freighters are types of vessels that are required by the USCG to carry life rafts, thus their rafts must be USCG approved. Racing sail boats, cabin cruisers and yachts are types of vessels who are not required to carry a life raft so they have the option of choosing a non approved model.
Looking first at approved rafts, these are required to undergo testing to show that they meet the specifications set by the USCG. There is oversight at the factory when they are built and at a service facility when they undergo their required annual maintenance. Common terms associated with this class of product include:
- SOLAS or Safety of Life At Sea is a set of standards that come from the International Maritime Organization (IMO). Countries that belong to IMO then use the standards in developing their own requirements.
- USCG (U.S. Coast Guard) is the agency in the United States that uses the SOLAS standards in writing our regulations. The Coast Guard is also in charge of oversight for both manufacturers and life raft service facilities. They are also the party that issues approvals for life rafts in the United States.
- Third Party is a term used for independent inspection agencies such as Underwriters Laboratories, American Bureau of Shipping or Lloyds Registry. Quite often the USCG delegates its oversight task to a third party which shift the expense to the manufacturer from the taxpayer. Like SOLAS, third party agencies do not issue approvals for life rafts in the United States.
Vessels which are normally used for recreational purposes run in to a completely different set of terms:
- ISO or the International Organization for Standards like SOLAS publishes a set of standards for inflatable life rafts. The current standard is ISO 9650 which came into existence in 2005. This is a totally voluntary standard and if a manufacturer chooses to use it there is no oversight by a third party showing that the life raft actually meets the standard.
- ISAF or the International Sailing Federation is a non-governmental group that sets standards for yacht racing. They did develop a standard for a yachting life raft but since the introduction of ISO 9650 racers have been able to choose between the two standards. For the most part manufacturers have chosen to produce life rafts to the ISO specification rather than ISAF due to its international acceptance.
So if you have a vessel that is required to carry a USCG approved life raft your choice is easy, for the rest of us it is somewhat a case of buyer beware. Do your homework and talk with service facilities who have a much better understanding of what is being built than your big box stores.