Boating Safety Flares
** Affiliate disclosure. This web site is supported by its awesome audience. When you click or purchase through links on our site, we may earn an affiliate commission.
Boating safety flares are a great way to increase your visibility on the water in case of an emergency. They also provide a safe way to signal to rescuers where you are on the water and what your current position is.
US Coast Guard regulations require that boats over 16 feet in length carry approved visual distress signals for both day and night. They can include a flag, or an electric light that flashes the SOS pattern.
Handheld Red Flare
A handheld red flare is a pyrotechnic signal for use on ships, lifeboats and life rafts. It is also the best pinpoint signal for pleasure craft.
These flares can be held over the downwind side of a boat and are effective at line-of-sight distress signaling day and night. They are bright and can burn for up to 60 seconds.
They should be held downwind, outboard and tilted away from the operator for maximum visibility from a search aircraft. You can fire multiple hand-held flares at once, but it is important that they are used safely.
US Coast Guard requirements for visual distress signals are equal to or better than those for pyrotechnics, according to Joseph Carro, who works for the office of boating safety in the United States. Regardless of the type, the devices must be approved or certified by the Coast Guard and carry warnings to hold them downwind.
Floating Orange Flare
Pyrotechnic signal aids, such as flares, help rescuers locate a boat in distress. They also indicate wind direction and strength during rescue operations.
The US Coast Guard requires powerboats 16 feet and over to carry three day/night flares on board, minimum. These flares must be Coast Guard Approved, in serviceable condition and readily accessible.
Expired flares must be disposed of correctly. Because marine pyrotechnic flares contain perchlorate, they are not allowed to be thrown into the trash and must be incinerated at an authorized facility.
Electronic flares, which have been approved by the US Coast Guard, are an excellent alternative to traditional pyrotechnic hand flares. These battery-operated lights can be used to replace red handheld pyromarine flares as required nighttime distress signals.
Buoyant Orange Flare
Often airdropped by helicopters to pinpoint position and wind direction during rescue operations, this type of smoke signal is approved globally and meets the latest SOLAS regulations. It emits a dense orange smoke that can be seen by boats several kilometers away, giving excellent visibility for search and rescue helicopters.
The buoyant smoke flare is a great day time signal that’s easy to carry, and a handy way of marking your position on board. To use, remove the lid, pull the internal loop and throw it into the water.
A buoyant smoke flare burns for about three minutes, so it is ideal in calm conditions. They are not as visible at night so they’re not suitable for air rescues, but are still an effective signal when needed.
Flares are a legal requirement on any boat that sails more than one nautical mile offshore. Expired or damaged flares need to be disposed of properly as they can cause damage to the environment and may result in costly fines.
If you’re in need of emergency help, or if your boat is stranded at sea, you can use flares to alert other boats and aircraft that you need help. However, you should use them infrequently – and only after you’ve sighted other vessels or aircraft.
In the marine world, the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) requires all oceangoing vessels to carry visual signals. These include hand-held and aerial flares that burn bright red.
Aerial flares are more powerful and can be used to attract attention or signal a precise position. Aerial flares also help to keep pirates away from ships at sea. In Queensland, for example, all commercial ships and visiting interstate boats must carry two orange smoke flares and two red hand flares as part of their safety equipment. Personal watercraft that operate beyond smooth water limits are also required to have them.
Rick is the head writer at MaydayMarine.com Rick creates product review and ranking content in the maritime industry. His focus is mainly on safety offshore at MayDayMarine.com