With GPS, VHF, EPIRBs, and Cell phones, we feel pretty safe and hardly think about ever having to use Visual Distress Signals to get help.  Most automobile and recreational vehicle owners alike know they are required to get Fully Verified, but few really understand their use and purpose. The basic flare kit is purchased to meet USCG requirements and then stuck in a locker where it is forgotten about. A good understanding of how these devices work and what is required to have onboard is important to your safety as well as that of your crew and vesse.

              The USCG requires all vessels operating on coastal waters, the Great Lakes, the Territorial seas and those waters connected directly to them to a point where they are less than 2 miles wide,  to carry Visual Distress Signals.

 The only exceptions are the following pleasure vessels operating during daylight hours only:

1.            Vessels that are less than 16 feet in length. 
2.            Vessels that are self propelled (row boats).  
3.            Open sailboats less than 26 feet without an engine.  
4.            Boats participating in organized events such as races or regattas.  

The above vessels when operating at night must carry one electric distress light or three combination (day/night) red flares.

All other pleasure craft must carry the following at all times:

                One orange distress flag and one electric distress light or
                Three hand held or floating orange smoke signals and one electric distress light or
                Three combination (day/night) red flares: hand held, meteor or parachute type.

                Let’s look at the types of signals mentioned above and how they work as well as some non approved devices that are available. Some devices and signals are designed only for daytime use, others for night time use and some for both day and night. When reviewing the types of signals available it is important to remember not all are USCG approved to fulfill the above requirements. Boat owners need to have at least the minimum number of USCG approved devises onboard.

Day Use Only Signals:

Distress Flags; Distress flags must be at least 3 x 3 feet with a black square and

ball on an orange background. These are approved  by the USCG and SOLAS*.

Smoke signals; Are pyrotechnic devices that can be hand held or floating.  They produce a steady stream of orange smoke for a period of 1-4 minutes on average. Useful for helping rescue vessels and air craft locate you when close by. They can been seen from a mile or more by aircraft and  less than ½ mile for surface craft depending on wind conditions. They are approved by USCG and SOLAS. Like all pyrotechnics they have an expiration date of 42 months after the date of manufacture.

Dye Markers; Inexpensive and easy to deploy they come in a several different colors with florescent green being the most common. Although not approved by either the USCG or SOLAS they can be very useful to help search aircraft locate your position.  A dye is released into the water leaving a trail or pattern that can be seen from a distance of up to 1 mile or more by rescue aircraft. The dye will remain visible for 30-40 minutes although rough seas and high winds will greatly reduce this. Manufactures recommend you replace dye markers once every 3-4 years to ensure their usefulness.

Rescue Streamers; Made of light weight orange plastic, the streamers are 6-18 inches wide and 20-40 feet long. When deployed they float on the water’s surface in a long line that can be visible to search aircraft a mile or more away. Like smoke signals they are used to help air craft spot small targets such as a swimmer in the water. The advantage they have over smoke and dye signals is that they do not dissipate over a short period of time and can be deployed and left deployed till rescue arrives.  Streamers have an unlimited shelf life and do not need replacement if undamaged.

Signaling Mirrors: Made of polished stainless steel or mirrored Plexiglas signal mirrors are useful for reflecting sunlight towards rescuers creating a bright flash. Used in bright sunlight the reflected light can be seen for many miles, the record rescue from one is 105 miles at sea. A mirror 4 inches by 5 inches (standard United States Coast Guard size) or 3 inches by 5 inches (standard large mil-spec size) is ideal.  Inexpensive, small and light weight signaling mirrors are extremely practical although they do not meet USCG requirements. Mirrors have an unlimited shelf, but they do require occasional checking for damage or corrosion. Metal mirrors may require occasional polishing to remain effective. If a signal mirror cannot be located any polished metal or mirrored glass can be used. CD’s and DVD’s can also be used effectively. The draw backs to mirrors are they do not work on overcast days and can be difficult to use and aim while in a raft or the water.

Night Time Use Only Signals:

Electric Distress Light; The electric distress light is accepted for night use only and must automatically flash the international SOS distress signal, which is three short flashes, three long flashes, and three short flashes, flashed four to six times each minute.

Personal Safety Lights; Personal safety lights come in many shapes and sizes. They can use incandescent lights, strobe lights and LED lights. Battery powered they can operate anywhere from a few hours to more than 100 hours of continuous use. Lithium batteries are preferred and often required to meet USCG approval. Although they can be USCG approved they do not meet the minimum requires unless they flash SOS.  They require the batteries be checked and replace at regular intervals as recommended by the manufacture.  The strobe type are considered the best as they can be seen from the greatest distance and have a good battery life of 8-30 hours continuous operation.  The lights can be manually or automatically operated. Small and light weight they are very practical for attaching to life vests.

Day/Night Signals

Hand Held Flares; Pyrotechnic red hand held flares are approved for day or night use and meet USCG requirements for this. It has been shown that these flares are not very elective during times of bright sunlight. They are lit by sticking like a match or by pulling a trigger device.  Burn times are from 30-180 seconds. Caution is required as they burn very hot and can drop burning slag. The SOLAS approved type Have an aluminum tube to help control this but the tube itself can get very hot. The SOLAS flares will burn brighter but for a shorter period of time. Special care needs to be used when using hand held flares in an inflatable life raft. Hand held  flares can be USCG and SOLAS approved and have an expiration date of 42 months after the date of manufacture. Additionally you can get white hand held flares however these do not meet USCG requirements. White flares can be useful to caution approaching vessels and for providing light at night during rescue operations.

Aerial Flares; These come in two types, Meteor and Parachute. Both types can be fired from a gun launcher or as a self contained launcher. Some states and countries consider the gun type to be a firearm and there for use is restricted. One option is to get a car gun safe to protect those with curious hands. The guns come in 12 gauge and 25mm sizes.  Meteor flares have a burning time of around 7 seconds while the parachute type will burn for 40 seconds or more.  The height the flare goes can be important to being seen, average height is around 500 feet but some can go as high as 1000 feet.  More height is important to being seen the further you travel offshore.  Aerial flares can be USCG and SOLAS approved and have an expiration date of 42 months after the date of manufacture.

Laser Flares; New on the market are laser flares. Although they look a bit like a laser pointer they emit a fan of light instead of a pin point. They are also waterproof, more powerful, and can been seen as far away as 20 miles and can be seen day or night. As they are battery operated the batteries will need regular replacement. They are not USCG or SOLAS approved.

Other Types of Signals

There are several other non approved methods of visually attracting attention. Man overboard poles with Flags on them can be very useful for location personal who have fallen overboard. Signal flags hoisted or waved can be effective for getting the attention of other boaters in your direct vicinity. Spot lights waved or flashed at other vessels day or night can attract attention. Although not approved for international use masthead strobe lights are accepted for use in inland waters. In an emergency any method you have available to attract the attention of rescuers, can, and should be used.

What to do with expired pyrotechnics?

I get this question more than any other when talking about visual distress signals. Unfortunately it is easier to tell people what not to do with them. Pyrotechnics are considered hazardous waste and has to be handled as such. They cannot simply be thrown away. The problem is regulation vary from location to location.  The USCG will no longer accept them at any location. Without a national collection program, boaters can do one of several things:

Contact the local county public works or sanitation department to see if they’ll accept flares.

Contact local boating groups to see if they accept flares for use in demonstrations or classes.

Contact your local police or fire department to see if they can use old flares or dispose of them in burn units.

Do not set off any flares on the water or anywhere near the water or where they can be seen and mistaken for a distress call. This includes the Fourth of July unless part of a pre approved program. Firing a flare when not in distress could result in a Class D felony charge, six years in prison, up to $250,000 in fines and reimbursement of all costs the Coast Guard incurs as a result of the false distress.”

Even with GPS and radio communications visual signaling devices are still valuable to help rescuers locate you or your vessel when in distress. One should always keep in mind that, in the event of an emergency on the open seas, it is important to have as many rescue devices as possible on hand. Visual distress devices used properly are one more tool to get assistance as quickly as possible.

*The International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) is an international maritime safety treaty. The SOLAS Convention in its successive forms is generally regarded as the most important of all international treaties concerning the safety of merchant ships. The first version of the treaty was passed in 1914 in response to the sinking of the RMS Titanic. It prescribed numbers of lifeboats and other emergency equipment along with safety procedures, including continuous radio watches. Newer versions were adopted in 1929, 1948, 1960, and 1974.

Most boaters know they are required to carry these basic visual signaling devices, but few really understand their use and purpose. The basic flare kit is purchased to meet USCG requirements and then stuck in a locker where it is forgotten about. A good understanding of how these devices work and what is required to have onboard is important to your safety as well as that of your crew and vessel.

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