All you need to know about distress flares
When it comes to taking your boat out to sea, it is important that you know about distress flares. These pieces of equipment are a vital part of your boat’s inventory and they are extremely important and can be the difference between life and death in some situations.
Distress flares are still the most instantly recognisable signal that someone at sea is in distress. These pieces of safety equipment can allow for an instant signal to be sent out, which can be seen by passers by who can then raise the alarm.
You should always carry a distress flare on your boat, however, it’s also worth knowing all there is to know about the different types of flare available to you, and how to use them. So, here is our guide to distress flares, along with plenty of advice and information that can be of use to you.
What are the different types of flare available?
Distress flares tend to be separated into three different types. Which are:
- Hand flares
- Rocket flares
- Buoyant floating flares
Here is a bit more information on each of these...
Hand flares are distress flares that are handheld, obviously, and that are used at arms length. They tend to produce a bright burning flame or a coloured smoke once they have been ignited. There are a number of typical hand flares, that include:
- Red hand flares
- White hand flares - which are used for collision warnings
- Orange hand smoke flares
- Combination day and night distress flares
Rocket flares are still hand held, however, they fire a coloured star high into the sky, which can be seen from long distances. This star can sometimes by suspended by a parachute in order to slow its descent, or it can simply fall into the water. Again, these flares can come in a number of forms, including:
- Red parachute rockets
- Mini flare kits, which are used on smaller boats such as kayaks, dinghies etc
- White parachute rockets, which are used for general illumination
Buoyant floating smoke flares
These distress flares are normally used on larger yachts and motor vessels, as well as on commercial ships of a number of sizes. These flares are used in a very different way to the first two. You pull the pin out and throw the whole device into the water. Then, once in the water, the floating flare will begin to emit a dense cloud of smoke, which can be seen from far away. There are two types of buoyant floating flare, which are:
- Buoyant orange smoke flare
- MOB smoke and light markers, which are used on larger commercial vessels
Which flares should I use?
When it comes to deciding on which flares to use on your boat it is simple. The flares you use, depend wholly on the distance you travel from the shore. This can be divided into three different zones, the inshore zone, the coastal zone and the offshore zone.
The inshore zone is usually classified as being up to three miles from the shore. If the visibility is good and the weather is reasonable, then an individual who is stood on a beach or at sea level, should be able to see a red hand flare or an orange hand smoke flare on a boat that is up to three miles off shore.
If you are only going to be using your boat within this zone, then a small selection of hand flares is usually perfect for you. You can often purchase an Inshore Distress Flare Pack, which tends to consist of two red hand flares and two orange hand smoke flares.
The coastal zone tends to be classified as up to shore miles from the shore. This is because it is generally considered that on a reasonable day, with reasonable visibility, the visible horizon is around seven miles from shore. Therefore, if you are using a hand flare on your boat between three and seven miles from shore, it may be difficult for someone stood on the beach to see it, due to the curve of the earth and the sea conditions.
Due to this it is advised that you have a rocket flare on board allowing you to deploy your distress signal at a greater height. This will allow it to be seen over a much larger distance. When out boating in the coastal zone you should aim to have a combination of hand flares and rocket flares. If you purchase a Coastal Distress Flare Pack then they tend to consist of two red hand flares, two red parachute rocket flares and two orange hand smoke flares.
The offshore zone is classified as anything over seven miles from the shore. When a boat is over seven miles from the shore, it will usually be over the visible horizon, which means using hand flares is not a good idea. If you are in the offshore zone then it is advised that you use a rocket flare that projects to around 350m in height, as this is the only way you would be able to attract attention from over the horizon.
If you are going to go boating in the offshore zone, then it is highly recommended that you carry a decent amount of distress flares, including a number of rocket flares for long-range signalling. If you do purchase an Offshore Distress Flare Pack, then it will tend to include four red hand flares, four red parachute rocket flares and two buoyant orange smoke flares.
How to use flares
As previously mentioned, there are three different types of distress flare. It is always worth remembering that you should only use these flares in a genuine emergency as they indicate that there is grave and imminent danger to someone’s life or to a vessel. The incorrect use of a distress flare can lead to you wasting the time of safety teams and coastguards.
How to operate a hand flare
You should remember that these flares are only visible if you’re up to three miles from shore and they should only be used if you yourself can see the people on land, if you can see another boat, or an airplane.
If you aren’t able to see anyone, then it is likely that no one can see you, so don’t set off your hand flares. You don’t want to waste them. You should wait until you see another vessel or until someone on land comes into view. You need to try and be disciplined and avoid setting them all off in a panic.
Set one flare off initially and let it burn. You should then wait for three minutes to see if anyone on shore stops and looks, or if a vessel has changed its course and is heading towards you. If no one has seen you, but you can still see them, then you should set off your second flare. If someone on shore waves at you or acknowledges your signal, then you should set off another distress flare to confirm to the person that you are in trouble.
Red hand flares are best for use in the night or on days with poor visibility, and orange hand smoke flares are best for use during the daylight hours, especially on bright and sunny days. On sunny days the sun can reflect off the sea and mask a burning red flare, however, the dense cloud of orange smoke that is created by a smoke flare is unmistakable at sea.
How to use rocket flares
When over three miles from shore it is worth remembering that people most probably won’t be able to see a hand flare from the land. If you are at this distance then you will want to use a rocket flare. However, as you aren’t able to see the individuals on the shore, you will want to be more disciplined with your flares.
It is worth checking to see if another vessel is within sight, and if one does come into your vision, you should set off a rocket flare immediately. You should then wait three minutes and set off a second rocket flare and wait again to see if the vessel changes course towards you. As soon as the other vessel does begin to head towards you, you should either use a red hand flare or an orange smoke flare (depending on the light) to pinpoint your location.
How to use mini flares
Mini flare kits are useful if you own small craft such as dinghies, kayaks or jet skis. They are often used in a similar manner to rocket flares. You should wait until people on shore become visible, or a vessel is in sight, and then load a cartridge into the end of the pen-ejector. Once it is loaded you should fire the cartridge into the air in a downwind direction.
You should then wait 60 seconds and fire a second cartridge off in the same way as you did before. 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 genuinely in distress.
Dos and don’t of owning distress flares
DO keep tough protective gloves in your flare pack to protect your hands
DO read the instructions printed on the flare before you use it
DO hold a hand flare downwind and at arms length
DO put the hot empty case of the flare in a bucket of water to cool it down after use
DO fire rocket flares downwind at an angle of 10-15 degrees, they will naturally curve back into the wind and burst overhead.
DON’T point a distress flare directly at someone.
DON’T use a distress flare that is past its expiry date
DON’T allow children to handle distress flares
DON’T use one of these flares unless you are in serious trouble
DON’T keep distress flares that are expired as spares or back-ups
So, there you have it, our complete guide to distress flares. Hopefully this has all been of some use to you, and hopefully, you will never be in a situation where you will have to use any of it.