A life raft is a piece of safety equipment which is used to provide emergency transportation to get people away from a sinking or endangered vessel. Life rafts are at least partially collapsible, in contrast with life boats, which are solid. Typically, life rafts are stored in their collapsed state, and they need to be regularly inspected to confirm that they are in good working order. When people get on board a ship, they should make a habit of determining where the life rafts are, and finding out if they have been assigned to a specific life raft or boat in the event of an emergency.
Some life rafts are inflatable. They are made from durable materials and may have attached inflation canisters which activate when a tab is pulled. This design is intended to ensure that the raft inflates quickly in an emergency, and that the inflation is easy to perform if no staff from the ship are available. Other life rafts may have collapsible designs such as sides which fold down when the raft is not in use.
In addition to providing a mode of transit, a life raft usually also provides shelter so that people are at least partially protected from the elements. Modern life rafts also include homing beacons, location transponders, and other tools which are designed to make them easier to find, such as a tall mast with a flag which will make the life raft easy to spot. Life rafts can also contain rations of food and water, weather sheets, and a basic first aid kit.
The goal of a modern life raft is to provide a reasonable shelter which will last until people are found. Thanks to the numerous safety features in place on life rafts, ideally, people should not have long to wait. Rescue ships and aircraft can be dispatched from the nearest land when an emergency signal is sent, and people can quickly be taken to safety. However, the ocean is a big place, and things do go wrong; sometimes a liftboat drifts for days before it is found.
Historically, safety procedures on ships were rather happenstance. Through the early 20th century, ships were not even required to carry enough life rafts or boats to accommodate their maximum capacity. With the sinking of the ocean liner RMS Titanic in 1912, a safety movement arose, and ships were required to carry life rafts and observe other safety procedures. This sinking also served as the impetus for the Ice Patrol which covers the North Atlantic to monitor sea ice conditions for safety.