What better time to propose a new safety standard for inflatable lifeboats than the hot summer months when the yachtsmen are doing their thing?

The Coast Guard has come up with proposed rules on life rafts that "would significantly improve their stability in heavy seas by requiring large ballast water chambers on the bottom of the rafts," according to the June 29 Federal Register (page 33341). By law, Coast Guard-approved life rafts are required on commercial vessels that the service inspects, such as tank, cargo, passenger, mobile offshore drilling and oceanographic ships.

Yachts and fishing vessels don't have to carry Coast Guard-approved life rafts, but most do so voluntarily.

After years of study, the Coast Guard has concluded thast adding heavy ballast to a liferaft would "lessen the chances that the occupants would enter the water," and thus improve chances for survival by preventing the onset of exposure.

In 1980, the Coast Guard carried out a series of joint exercises on life raft safety with the governments of Iceland and the United Kingdom off the coast of Iceland. On the basis of those tests, the Icelandic Directorate of Shipping moved to require ballast pockets on the bottom of its rafts.

The Coast Guard move toward ballast also was influenced by the findings of an inquiry into the 1979 Fastnet yacht race tragedy, when 15 lives were lost in a race between England and Ireland after high winds forces crews to abandon their yachts.

At Fastnet, the winds were up to 65 knots and the waves almost 60 feet high. All the life rafts launched were either lightly ballasted or unballasted, and the study found that the rafts "clearly failed to provide the sae refuge which many crews expected." Three people who abandoned their yachts lost their lives when their rafts failed, yet their yachts were later found afloat.

The Coast Guard is accepting comments on the proposal through Sept. 28.