Technology can be a marooned sailor’s best friend. When foul weather gets the best of your boat, reliable and effective equipment can be the difference between being rescued and becoming fish food. Another factor to take into consideration is the convenience of the equipment: is it easily carried when sailing? Can you quickly get to it if your vessel is in trouble? If an emergency item is constantly stowed out of arm’s reach, it can render the product useless because one could easily fall overboard without having the chance to access the rescue aid.
Sat-phones and Personal Locator Beacons (PLBs) are excellent in telling rescuers where in the world you are, but rarely will they get the rescuers to your exact position. They tell rescuers that you need help, but they aren’t pinpoint accurate. Not to mention, sat phones and PLBs can only transmit for a short time before their batteries die. This is where a laser flare comes in. Instead of burning phosphorus like most pyrotechnic flares, laser flares use a beam ray to grab the attention of would-be rescuers to alert them to your exact position.
A good laser flare should be strong enough to be seen from over ten to fifteen miles away, it should be compact enough to be carried easily while sailing, and the unit’s battery life has to last longer than sat-phones and PLBs, just in case a sailor is without rescue for more than a day.
Using these as guidelines, the Greatland Green Rescue Laser Flare is the best flare a sailor can have to be seen and rescued when in distress.
This laser flare looks no different than a small aluminum flashlight. The unit is small enough to be stowed easily in any pocket, and the outer casing is made of rugged brushed aluminum. The unit is waterproof up to 80 feet thanks to oversize O-rings on either side of the internals, and it worked perfectly after I threw it in salt water for ten minutes while testing the other flares. The on/off switch is knurled so the device can be operated with only one hand, or with gloves on if need be.
The unit omits a laser beam ray that diverges four degrees off center. This means that at two miles, the beam is about 700 feet wide, and at 16 miles the beam will cover over 6000 feet across. This offers a huge advantage over normal laser pointers because normal laser pointers must be pointed directly at a target, while the Greatland flare’s beam is wide enough to be swept across the vision of the pilot or rescuer. Rather than having a nearly impossible chance at hitting a pilot’s eyes from miles away, the Greatland flare can be noticed from up to 30 miles away at night. In the past couple of years, Greatland has begun to include a sight ring on their new Laser Flares. This allows the user to simply select their target through the sight ring and signal with only one hand.
The Green Rescue Flare is powered by a single 123-cell lithium battery. The Greatland website claims the life span of the battery to be 5 hours of continuous use, but other tests have shown that the battery readily exceeds that time. The green laser is the same one the U.S. army uses for their signaling devices.
The Greatland Green Rescue Laser Flare is a finalist for Ocean Navigator’s Chuck Husick Award, an accolade given out every year by a dozen of the magazine’s editors to the most innovative marine products.
Getting noticed with the Greatland flare follows a similar process as mirror signaling. First a target in the distance is placed between to outstretched fingers at arm’s length. The beam of the laser is then swept from side-to-side between the user’s fingers, as to make the laser flash in the target’s eyes. This scanning technique is essential to getting noticed because while holding a laser still it could be mistaken for a buoy or other light. Green light is much more easily reflected off of water vapor, dust and clouds, so the beam is much easier to aim than Greatland’s other laser flares.
The Green Laser Flare’s closest competition in effectiveness is in its sister products: The Rescue Laser Flare Magnum and the Original Rescue Laser Light. Both of them use red lasers rather than green. Two AA batteries power the magnum, while the Original Flare uses the same lithium 123-cell battery. The range of the red lasers is notably shorter than the Green Flare, and the human eye is more attracted to notice green light than red. Other than those issues, the other Greatland flares are solid alternatives to the Green Laser, and aesthetically they are essentially the same. And now to focus on some of the other signaling devices on the market.
If price is an issue, or perhaps you are a marine Luddite, a pyrotechnic flare could be your best bet. Most flares produce a large plume of smoke that can be seen from a mile or two away from the air. Really though, they are effective for about a minute: strikingly less time than laser flares, and they are awkward and can be unsafe to carry during normal sailing. When comparing laser flares to pyrotechnic flares, there is almost no comparison. Laser flares win every time.
The most similar product we could find to the Greatland Laser Flares is the Odeo Flare. It resembles orange pyrotechnic flares, but it is made of plastic and one end is chocked full of five red LED lights. The Odeo flare has an effective range of up to three nautical miles, and the lights rotate and flicker within the flare, mimicking a real flame. One category that the Odeo Flare flat-out beats the Greatland Flares is its ease of use. There is no aiming to be done, because the lights rotate and scatter on their own. Ease of use may be nice for testing, but in reality light range must take priority over ease of use. Three nautical miles is a good range for a standard flare, and it is certainly better than nothing, but the Green Laser Flare’s thirty mile range blows the Odeo Flare out of the water.
Doug Ritter from Equipped.com chose the Green Laser flare for his choice in emergency rescue signals. In his tests, like ours, the performance exceeded the manufacturer’s claims. Both visibility distance and battery life exceeded what the manufacturer claimed they would be, and no other flare really comes close.
In a 2011 Practical Sailor article, they affirm 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.”
In a separate testament to the Greatland Laser Flares on Practical Sailor, a user said his five-year-old flare would not turn on after replacing the batteries. He emailed customer service, and the President of the company, Kim Erickson, emailed him back within the day. The man was given a replacement Laser Flare, and they even asked that he send the unit back to find it had stopped working. After his experience, the man wrote: “Very impressive customer service and commitment to sailing safety!”
The Greatland Green Laser Flare was a complete standout in our tests, even when compared to the Magnum Flare made by the same company. The green laser beam is immediately noticeable, and unlike red lights which could just be a buoy, it is hard to mistake a green beam for anything else but a distress signal. It has much better daytime performance than any of the other flares that we tested, and the added sight ring makes signaling simple, even with only one hand. There really is no good reason to omit adding a Greatland Green Laser Flare to your safety repertoire.
The Greatland Green Rescue Laser Flare is available only at marine supply stores for about $150.