With the right signaling equipment, most mariners can save their own lives in case of trouble at sea. However, today’s communication-rich world offers so many ways to signal for help — electronically and with smoke and flares — that the options can be confusing, especially since no signaling device is perfect.
Let’s start with EPIRBs, which should be any boater’s primary offshore electronic signaling device. Short for Emergency Position-Indicating Radio Beacon, EPIRBs are a kind of radio beacon that’s saved countless lives. Properly maintained, an EPIRB alerts the Coast Guard you’re in distress. However, nearby ships won’t know you’re in trouble until the Coast Guard relays your emergency signal.
Even with your coordinates, nearby vessels may have trouble pinpointing your position. If you have the newer, costlier GPS-enabled, L-band type of EPIRB, Coast Guard ships can still only guess your position within a radius of two nautical miles. If you have the less expensive 406-Megahertz EPIRB, the search area is even wider. Fortunately, EPIRBS also transmit a 121.5-MHz signal to help rescuers better home in.
EPIRBs are most effective near shore, since few oceangoing ships have the radio direction finding (RDF) equipment needed for precise specs. In reduced visibility, even RDF-equipped rescue helicopters can fly over you without actually seeing you.
Close to shore, VHF radios allow you to call for help and also notify surrounding vessels. Digital selective calling (DSC) equipment can even transmit your exact GPS coordinates. Given the option to take one signaling device with me into a life raft, I would reach for an EPIRB. But electronic devices alone are simply not enough.
In the United States, all vessels on coastal waters, including the Great Lakes, are required to carry visual signaling devices in addition to any electronics they carry. This means smoke canisters, flares and/or lasers. Since the Coast Guard only approves smoke canisters for use during daylight hours, most boaters select day/night-approved pyrotechnics. But this is a mistake. Many of the pyrotechnics in the West Marine catalog burn for only seconds; even the longest-burning model burns for three minutes.
However, SOLAS floating smoke, our recommended visual distress-signaling device, burns for a full four minutes. The SOLAS stamp means the device meets the rigid standards of the International Maritime Organization’s Safety of Life at Sea Convention (SOLAS) and is approved for use on large ships. Some Coast Guard-approved smoke canisters burn for only one minute, but SOLAS flares provide a full four minutes of thick, rich orange smoke. They also burn hotter and float.
The Coast Guard only approves smoke for daytime use, but marine safety expert Mario Vittone, a former Coast Guard rescue swimmer, suggests you also consider using smoke at night. In Marine Flares, More than Meets the Eye, an article on gCaptain.com, a leading maritime website, Vittone writes that:
“Using [smoke] at night would be just plain stupid, right? Wrong. That’s because what they put out isn’t just orange smoke, it is very hot orange smoke. Fifty years ago, that wouldn’t have mattered, but again, consider who is looking for you. If it is a modern Coast Guard on the case, there is a very good chance that searching aircraft are equipped with FLIR (Forward Looking Infrared). That hot smoke shows up very well on FLIR devices. Big swathes of smoke also show up very well on Night Vision Goggles (NVGs), so do not discount daytime signaling devices at night.”
One caveat about smoke is that if it’s released the wrong way into the wind, it can blind you and the people around you. This is another reason we recommend SOLAS smoke. Like a grenade, you pull the pin on the smoke canister and toss it downwind where it will float harmlessly.
All vessels can see smoke during the day and during bright, moonlit nights, but only FLIR-equipped rescue teams see them during the darkest nights. For this reason, and because it’s a legal requirement in most places, we recommend augmenting your smoke with a few pyrotechnic flares.
As with smoke canisters, we recommend purchasing only the costlier SOLAS flares, which provide a burn time of at least 40 seconds. We say at least because SOLAS flares come in two varieties: handheld flares burn for 60 seconds while rocket flares shoot up to a height of 1,000 feet and slowly drift down on a parachute. The can be seen, according to Vittone, for up to 36 nautical miles. Among flares we have tested, the SOLAS-approved variety burn brighter and longer and, just as important, are waterproof.
Which should you buy? Handheld or rocket? Both! Rockets, also called meteor or parachute flares, more effectively alert vessels to your distress, while handheld flares are better at helping vessels already on their way visually locate your position. So the rocket flare goes first, followed by the handheld one.
Of course, you have only as many chances of being seen as you have flares. If you have plenty, you may want to light one right away then fire off more at fixed intervals. But once you’re down to just two flares, stop and wait until you see the running lights of a ship or helicopter pointing in your direction.
Another caveat with both handheld flares and smoke devices is that they get hot and can be dangerous. Both release hot, dripping phosphorus that can burn your skin or a hole through the floor of your life raft, and continue burning underwater.
All pyrotechnic flares expire after 42 months. Some boaters keep expired flares aboard in addition to their legal complement. If you take this route, take the extra step of separating the expired flares. Store the expired flares in a separate waterproof can labeled “EXPIRED” in big block letters. I like to include a few desiccant packets to help keep the flares dry.
Store your primary, unexpired flares in a ditch bag along with a flashlight for reading directions, and a handful of glow sticks to attach to each person’s life jacket. Separating the expired and unexpired flares should also keep Coast Guard inspectors happy and make it easier, in the event of an emergency, to use the expired flares first.
If you don’t separate the new flares from the old ones, Murphy’s Law is sure to do it for you. Don’t be the sailor who shoots his last flare when he spots a long-awaited rescuer only to discover it’s the oldest flare in the bunch. Save your best SOLAS-rated flares for last!
What About Flare Guns?
SOLAS parachute flares are self-contained units, with each flare coming in its own launcher. But many of the least expensive Coast Guard-approved ones are sold as 12 or 25-mm handguns. We suggest you ignore these and, instead, choose the SOLAS variety. However, if you are an inland boater who lives in a fairly well populated area and never wanders far from land, flares may be a good, less expensive, alternative. If you do choose a gun, opt for the larger 25-mm variety, even a five dollar adapter will allow you to fire 25 mm shells from a 12-mm handgun. Reason: the larger shells typically burn twice as bright as the 12-mm shells.
Coast Guard-approved smoke canisters, flares and flare-gun shells vary somewhat by manufacturer, but the SOLAS variety, which are also Coast Guard approved, all share a pretty equal playing field. You’ll do equally well with any of them.
Laser flares emit a fan-shaped array of laser beams: just point and flick them like you would a signaling mirror. Their big advantage over traditional pyrotechnics is a much longer burn time.
Practical Sailor, the Consumer Reports of boaters, has tested laser flares and reports that: “Compared to other visual distress signals, the Green Rescue Flare is an impressive tool. Its exceptionally brilliant light can be seen from greater distances than red laser flares, flashlights, and strobe lights; its signaling capability lasts hours rather than the minutes an aerial flare lasts; and unlike pyrotechnic flares, it is compact, can be re-used, doesn’t expire, and can be carried through airport security. The downsides of the green flare include its battery life, its hefty price ($250), its line-of-sight limitations, its ineffectiveness in daylight, and the fact that green is not a universally recognized color of distress.”
REAL LIFE TESTING
Many flare tests have been conducted in boating magazines but we decided to do things differently and send two boats out to test the effectiveness of flares. We departed harbor on a day with light fog and noted the visibility was approximately 5-10 nautical miles. positioned the S/V gCaptain, the test vessel, and M/V Pappagallo, the observation vessel, three nautical miles apart and recorded the results.
Orion Handheld Flares.
Donning heavy leather gloves I ignited the flare by removing the cap and striking it like a match. I held it at arms length over the water. It quickly began dripping slag into the water and created enough heat to feel through the heavy gloves. The observation boat reported that the flare looked dim. We had planned to extinguish the flare in a bucket of sand but, for safety reasons, I was forced to jettison it.
Solas Handheld Flares
The SOLAS handheld flare was ignited by unscrewing it’s end cap and pulling the ignition cord. The flare was almost blinding in intensity and I had to look away from it. The flare itself was housed in a steel casing that helped reduce the amount of slag dripping from it but the casing became extremely hot and was uncomfortable to hold even with gloves on. The observation boat reported the flare was bright and very noticeable.
12 Gauge Meteor Flare
The flare loaded easily in the gun and, pointing it skyward, I cocked the handle and pulled the trigger. The noise was not as loud as a real gunshot but enough that it made my ears ring. I gave no warning to the observation boat and they completely missed the launch. They did not miss the second round but reported it was moderately dim and did not burn long enough for them to get an accurate bearing.
SOLAS Parachute Flares
Instructions for the SOLAS parachute flare were printed on the side of the unit. To launch I unscrewed the bottom, pointed it skyward and pulled a tab on the bottom. There was a noticeable kick-back when it launched. The flare rose to an impressive height and deployed a parachute. It burned for about half a minute. The observation boat reported the flare was bright and burned just long enough to get a bearing.
Orion Handheld Smoke Flare.
I ignited an orion smoke flare and black smoke was followed by bright orange which quickly caused me to start coughing. I jettisoned the smoke before it fully ran it’s course and the smoke dissipated quickly. The observation boat noted that the smoke was moderately visible.
SOLAS Smoke Flare
The SOLAS smoke flare is designed to float so I unscrewed the cap, pulled the cord and tossed the canister downwind. The smoke burned bright for a full three minutes and the observation boat reported a the smoke cloud was dense and visible. As a side note, I felt this was the safest pyrotechnic I tested.