Flares – do you or don’t you?

flares in hands

Are you confused about the value of flares? I am.

All the articles I read put forward such compelling arguments, some for, some against. As there is no legal requirement on what you should carry, all I can do is to try to classify these opinions and the reasons for them and leave you to make up your own minds whether you use them or not.

What are they?

Pyrotechnic / Visual Distress Signals are the group name for flares, rockets, smoke signals and other attention-getting devices that burn, splutter, smoke or explode. It is also the one type of safety equipment you are unlikely to use until you need it in an emergency. They include a variety of handheld or aerial flares for day and night use and devices that emit orange smoke for day use.

The Case Against

Flares are:-

  • Old-fashioned - In this electronic world there are few boats that do not carry VHF DSC radio, mobile phones, Blackberry email, sat phone, loudhailer and/or GPS-enabled EPIRB. Many sailors would rather use these than run the risk of holding an explosive device on the pitching deck of a boat.
  • Dangerous – Many sailors can cite examples of injuries from fire, fumes and explosion caused by flares, not to mention damage to the boat. Some question the wisdom of carrying explosive devices for safety purposes. The idea of putting an explosive device into the hands of someone who has had no training in deploying it seems more of a safety risk than a help.
  • Prone to failure – There are examples of in-date flares failing. In a life-or-death situation you need to be able to trust your safety devices.
  • Expensive – At over £200 for an offshore flare pack which will be out of date within four years, the temptation, therefore, to rely on the electronic equipment you already have is very tempting.
  • Ignored – Coastguards do not spend their time looking out to sea and there are many recorded incidents of distress flares being unseen or ignored by other shipping. You may be in an isolated area where there is no-one to see a flare of any kind.
  • Difficult to dispose of – Out of date flares should not be kept. They are subject to deterioration and may become dangerous. If you keep them on your boat they could easily fail when you need to use them. If you are caught with out of date flares in France, you could apparently be fined by French coastguards. They should also most definitely not be just thrown away, where any unsuspecting adult or child might pick them up. It is actually illegal to dump them at sea. And as for letting them off somewhere secluded to get rid of them, don't even think about it. Someone could mistake them for a cry for help and summon the rescue services. So where do you dispose of them? It seems that there are 18 nominated Coastguard stations around the UK which will take out of date flares but some have a maximum number they will handle and may need advance notice because of limited safe storage facilities. The fact that there are planned Coastguard Station closures may mean that some people could have to travel a long way to dispose of flares. Another idea is to enquire whether your chandler or supplier will take them, though he is likely to use a "new-for-old" service. You could contact your local council, police or fire brigade. Whilst there is no legal requirement for them to take responsibility for disposal, you may be lucky enough to find one that will accept them. Failing that you could contact a reputable Life raft Service Station or a Marine Safety Equipment Specialist, as they normally have the safe storage required, but there might be a charge.
  • Not always recognised – There have been many instances of false alarms where people have seen lights in the sky which they thought were flares, and also the inevitable hoaxes. Also there are those who have mistaken flares for fireworks and just assumed that a party was going on.

The Case For

Flares are:-

  • A good backup when electronics fail – With all electronic equipment there is the danger of failure, especially in the harsh environment at sea. There maybe no signal for mobile phones and lifeboats cannot home in on them.
  • An effective way of spotting the casualty vessel in the "final mile" – Lifeboat crews and Search and Rescue helicopters find flares invaluable in finding the vessel needing help, especially in the dark if it doesn't have lights.
  • Maybe the last way of summoning help – If the vessel is sinking, and the electronic equipment is under water, a flare may be the only option when the crew are on deck and trying to keep themselves safe from the water.
  • Developing in technology – There have been some developments in laser flare technology. These emit a strong beam which can be directed towards a potential rescuer, but they are not compatible with helicopter rescue and the technology is still in its infancy.
  • Life savers – Since 2006 there have been over 300 Lifeboat launches where flares were used to guide the lifeboat to the casualty and in the region of 50 lives have been saved.

What flares do you need?

This depends on the size of your vessel and the type of passages you do, but here is a rough guide:-

  • Boats undertaking ocean passages – 6 red hand-held flares, 12 red parachute flares, 2 buoyant smoke flares and 4 white hand-held flares.
  • Boats doing offshore passages between 50 and 500 miles – 4 red hand-held flares, 4 red parachute, 2 buoyant smoke and 4 white hand-held flares.
  • Boats that cruise along the coast within 10 miles or 4 hours of land – 4 red hand-held, 2 hand-held smoke, 2 parachute, and 4 white hand-held flares.
  • Boats operating only in daytime and close to a safe harbour – 2 red hand-held, and 2 hand-held smoke flares.

When letting off parachute flares it might be sensible to let off 2 flares consecutively. If people see the first one, they may not recognise it as a distress flare, but will keep looking in the area to see if it happens again and are more likely to take action when they see the second one.

Other types of flares

  • White Collision flare – this can be a quicker way of alerting another boat that there is imminent danger of collision, rather than radioing through to them.
  • White parachute flare – can be used to illuminate the area for such eventualities as a man overboard search at night. These should be easily accessible, in easy reach of the cockpit, so they can be used within seconds….but beware of loss of night vision.

A Compromise

The most sensible solution seems to be – don't rely on one method. Just as you never know when an accident will happen, or what it will be, it is also clear that there will be different ways of signalling for help and the greater your options are, the more likely you are to be able to use the most appropriate method to deal with it.

Whatever safety equipment you decide to use, do your research well and find out what the RYA, MCA and RNLI recommend for your particular type of boat and the sort of voyages you make. Hopefully, like the majority of those sailing the seas, you will never have to use them, but it is better to be safe than sorry.

Author – Dee White

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