The Carley Float Killed More Men Than It Saved

The only thing worse than being in a lifeboat in the open sea was being aboard a raft or a float. Those crewmen who ended up on rafts rarely survived if not rescued quickly. The standard raft aboard Allied merchant ships and warships was the “Carley float”. They were manufactured in three different sizes, designed to fit one inside the other in a stack of three. The raft was easy to construct. A long tube of copper from 12 to 20 inches in diameter was bent into an oval. Kapok or cork was wrapped around the tube, covered with canvass and waterproofed. The pipe was divided into a number of water tight chambers to provide additional flotation. The bottom of the raft was made of slatted wood which made it impossible to stay dry.

Getting stuck on a raft rarely saved one’s life. It just prolonged it for a few days. The Carley floats were a disaster. The following is from: Churchill’s Navy (3 stars)

…the largest was 10 feet long, 5 feet broad, and 17 inches deep and designed for twenty men…It offered no protection against the cold and rain, and was designed so that half the men would be outside the raft clinging to ropes, and the rest, sitting round the rim, were never completely dry. It was barely adequate for war in the North Sea or Mediterranean, and completely unsuitable for the Atlantic or Arctic, where rescue might be delayed and the men were vulnerable to exposure.

An inquiry of 1946 reported, ‘Time and again large numbers who have reached their refuge (the Carley float) have collapsed from cramp and cold, and died before rescue arrived.’

While the rafts had provisions and water and paddles secured in boxes and lashed inboard, those were often lost if the raft was thrown into the sea in heavy weather. And that’s how they were usually launched. The men threw them overboard and jumped in after them. Storms often flipped rafts over and flung the men off whether they were in the raft or outside the raft. Trying to find the raft in a stormy sea, then swim back to it and climb aboard, or grab a rope on the outside, was often beyond the strength of most of the men particularly if the water was cold.

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Charles McCain

Charles McCain is a Washington DC based freelance journalist and novelist. He is the author of "An Honorable German," a World War Two naval epic. You can read more of his work on his website: http://charlesmccain.com/

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