Army Corps of Engineers staff conduct a life raft drill in Norfolk, VA. The "out-of-water survival craft" carried by small commercial vessels don't have to be this sophisticated, but they will be costly. (Flickr photo/Army Corps of Engineers)

Army Corps of Engineers staff conduct a life raft drill in Norfolk, VA. The “out-of-water survival craft” carried by small commercial vessels don’t have to be this sophisticated, but they will be costly. (Flickr photo/Army Corps of Engineers)

Small-boat fishermen who were being compelled by law to buy new liferafts this year have gotten a reprieve.

Congress and the President earlier this month passed a bill turning back a rule which would have required all commercial fishing boats working offshore to carry self-inflating rafts.

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President Obama signed the legislation on February 8. It rescinds Coast Guard rules set to go into effect Friday, February 26.

Steve Ramp is a commercial fishing vessel safety examiner with the Coast Guard in Sitka.

“Since 2010, Congress and the Coast Guard have been working toward requiring any vessel working more than 3 miles from shore to have a survival craft. And that survival craft keeps them out of the water.”

That’s Coast Guard-speak for liferaft. Under existing rules, only commercial vessels 36-feet or greater in length, or carrying four or more people, are required to have a so-called “buoyant apparatus.”
Big boats that satisfied the existing requirement with something other than a liferaft, would have been required to upgrade to a raft by November 1.

“Now those changes are on hold.”

Well, why not carry a liferaft? It seems like a no brainer. But Ramp says this equipment is more complicated than you might think.

“Inflatable buoyant apparatus is basically a liferaft without a roof or boarding platform. They are collapsible, inflatable, and they come in a case. And you pull the cord, inflate, and climb in. They have to be sent in every year after they’re two years old to be repacked, inspected, and repaired as necessary, and put new equipment in for stuff that’s expired.”

And they’re more expensive than you might think.

“And on the low end of the cost scale, I think our vendors in town got down to around $1,700 ballpark to purchase a valise pack buoyant apparatus, which is the kind that’s kept inside a soft pack inside the boat — it’s not on a rack out side — you throw it outside, pull the cord, and climb in when your boat is sinking.”

And again, this rule would have applied to any boat working more than 3 miles offshore — even a hand troller in an 18-foot Boston Whaler fishing off Cape Edgecumbe on a bluebird day.

Sitka marine supply store, Murray Pacific, has sold eight liferafts to fishermen planning to comply with the now-rescinded law. Store manager Linda Boord says she’s happy to take them back for refunds.

These eight rafts, plus 12 more in stock — including both the valise-pack and the hard-pack rafts — will be returned to the wholesaler, and ultimately to the manufacturer, Survival Tech. Board says she’ll pay a 25-percent restocking fee.

But Boord also understands if some buyers want to keep the rafts. “I really like these guys to live,” she says.

Steve Ramp, with the Coast Guard agrees. He calls buying rafts a considerable expense, but also a considerable improvement in safety.

Four years ago the vessel Kaitlin Rae flooded in rough seas off the Cape. The skipper, Mac Huffman, made it into his survival suit and found his way ashore. The deckhand, 19-year-old Ryan Harris, only had time to climb into a blue fish tote, in which he drifted for the next 24 hours.

“That blue tote was an out-of-water survival craft, which the Coast Guard wants to require for all boats outside three miles.”

Harris survived, of course, and so might the rules. Ramp thinks the raft requirement will reappear in other Coast Guard rulemaking in the not-too-distant future — possibly as early as a year from now.