Distress Flares Essential Advice for you and your Crew

Distress flares are an essential part of any boat equipment inventory.  Here, Karl Pentin, Director of safety specialists, Safety Marine, offers some useful reminders and tips for you and your crew about which flares to choose and how they should be used safely.

Distress flares are still the most instantly recognisable signal that someone is in distress. Looking out from cliff tops and beaches, countless passers-by have been the first to raise the alarm on sighting a glowing red star, or billowing orange cloud of smoke.

Although many boat owners carry distress flares as a matter of course, many do not really know what type and how many of each flare they should really have on board.

Distess flares can be separated into three different types:

• Hand flares
• Rocket flares
• Buoyant floating flares.

1. Hand Flares
A hand flare is any distress flare that is held in the hand at arms length.  It will produce either a bright burning flame or a cloud of coloured smoke when ignited.

Typical hand flares include:

• Red hand flares
• White hand flares (for collision warning)
• Orange hand smoke flares
• Combination day and night distress flares

2. Rocket Flares
A rocket flare is any distress flare that is held in the hand and fires a coloured star high into the sky. The star can often be suspended by a parachute to slow its descent, or it can simply fall.

Typical rocket flares include:

• Red parachute rockets
• White parachute rockets (for general illumination)
• Mini flare kits (for use on kayaks, dinghies, jet skis, and by hill walkers and climbers)

3. Buoyant Floating Smoke Flares
This type of distress flare is normally used on larger yachts and motor vessels as well as on commercial ships of all sizes.

The flare is activated by pulling a pin and throwing the whole device into the sea. The floating flare will then begin to emit a dense cloud of smoke.  There are two types of buoyant floating flare:

• Buoyant orange smoke flare
• MOB smoke and light markers (used on larger commercial vessels )

Which flares should you Choose?

The type and quantity of distress flares you should have on board will simply depend on the distance you intend to travel from shore.

1. In-shore Zone
The in-shore zone is classified as being up to 3 miles from shore.

On a day with reasonable weather and visibility, a person stood on a beach (ie at sea level) should be able to see a red hand flare or an orange hand smoke flare burning on a boat up to 3 miles off-shore.

In the in-shore zone a small selection hand flares are normally adequate. These are most commonly supplied in an Inshore Distress Flare Pack and consist of:

• 2 red hand flares
• 2 orange hand smoke flares

2. Coastal Zone
The coastal zone is classified as up to 7 miles from shore.

It is generally accepted that 7 miles from shore is the visible horizon on a reasonable day with reasonable visibility. That means a hand flare being used on a boat that is between 3 and 7 miles from shore may not be visible to a person stood on the beach (ie at sea level) due to the curve of the earth and the sea conditions.

In these circumstances a rocket flare would be required so the distress signal is deployed at a greater height and can therefore been seen over a much greater distance.

In the coastal zone a combination of hand flares and rocket flares are normally the best choice. These are supplied in a Coastal Distress Flare Pack and consist of:

• 2 red hand flares
• 2 red parachute rocket flares
• 2 orange hand smoke flares

3. Off-shore Zone
The offshore zone is classified as over 7 miles from shore.

At distances of over 7 miles from shore a boat will normally be over the visible horizon and it is extremely unlikely that a person on a beach or on a cliff top would be able to see a hand flare being used on the deck of a boat.

In these circumstances a rocket flare that projects up to 350m in height is the only distress flare that could attract attention from over the horizon.

In the off-shore zone it is recommended that a vessel carries a substantial distress flare inventory that includes a quantity of rocket flares for long-range signalling as well as hand flares for attracting the attention of other vessels that are within sight, or for signalling to aircraft.

An Offshore Distress Flare Pack consists of:

• 4 red hand flares
• 4 red parachute rocket flares
• 2 buoyant orange smoke flares

10 Safety Tips

1. NEVER point a distress flare at someone
2. NEVER allow children access to distress flares
3. NEVER use a distress flare unless there is grave and imminent danger to life or a vessel
4. NEVER use a distress flare that has past its expiry date
5. NEVER keep expired distress flares as spares or back-ups
6. ALWAYS keep tough protective gloves in your flare pack to protect you hands
7. ALWAYS read the instructions printed on the flare before use
8. ALWAYS hold a hand flare downwind and at arms length to prevent burning debris being blown back at you
9. ALWAYS fire rocket flares downwind at an angle of 10-15 degrees. They will naturally curve back into the wind to burst overhead
10. Once a distress flare has been used put the hot empty case in a bucket of water to cool down.

How to Use the Different Flare Types

The use of distress flares indicates that there is grave and imminent danger to life or to a vessel, so they should only be used in a genuine emergency.

1. Using Hand Flares
• Because hand flares are only is visible up to about 3 miles from shore they should only be used if you can see people on land, or if you can see another boat or an airplane.

• If you cannot see anyone, then realistically no-one can see you – so don’t waste them! Wait until another vessel, or someone on land comes into view. In a panic it is easy to fire them all off in a hurry, so try to be disciplined.

• Set one flare off, let it burn and then wait at least 3 minutes to see if anyone stops and looks, or if a vessel changes course toward you.

• If no-one appears to have seen you but vessels or people on land are still within view, then set off a second flare. As soon as someone on land waves or acknowledges your signal, or when a vessel or an aircraft appears to head in your direction, set off another distress flare to confirm to the person or the vessel that you are in genuine distress.

• Red hand flares are best used at night, or in bad visibility. They burn at an intensity of around 30,000 candle power and are extremely visible in poor light conditions.

• Orange hand smoke flares are best used during daylight hours, especially on bright sunny days when the sparkle and reflection of sunlight on the sea could potentially mask a burning red flare. The dense cloud of orange smoke produced by a smoke flare is unmistakable at sea and in light wind conditions should remain visible for some minutes after the flare has gone out.

2. Using Rocket Flares
• When a vessel is over 3 miles from shore, it may not be possible to see a hand flare from the land. In these circumstances a rocket flare is best used to attract attention as it can potentially be seen from 25 miles away.

• It is unlikely that you will be able to see anyone on the shore yourself, so you will have to be even more disciplined when firing off your flares.

• If the situation allows, wait until another vessel is within sight, and then fire one rocket flare off immediately.

• Then wait at least 3 minutes before you set off a second rocket flare, and wait again to see if a vessel changes course toward you.

• As soon as a vessel or aircraft heads in your direction, use either a red hand flare or an orange smoke flare to pinpoint your location.

3. Using Mini Flares
• Mini flare kits are extremely popular and are often carried as personal distress flares in small craft such as dinghies, kayaks and jet skis. They are best used in a similar manner to rocket flares.

• Wait until another vessel, or someone on land comes into view. Load a cartridge onto the end of the pen-ejector and then fire it into the air in a downwind direction.

• Wait 60 seconds and then fire a second cartridge off in the same manner.

• Look to see if anyone stops or waves, or if a vessel changes course toward you, and when they do, fire off another cartridge to confirm that you are in genuine distress.

For more advice about distress flares, contact the Safety Marine technical team on advice@safety-marine.co.uk or call +44 (0)2380 226300.


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