Distress Signal Testing
As sailors, we carry pyrotechnics on board—per U.S. Coast Guard and SOLAS regulations—and hope we’ll never have to use them. In fact, it’s illegal to use them, unless you’re experiencing an actual emergency or have received permission from the proper local authorities. As a result, few sailors get a chance to become familiar with how flares work until the crucial moment arises.
Flares can be quite dangerous when not handled properly, potentially making an emergency situation even worse. In the words of West Marine safety guru Chuck Hawley, “Pyrotechnics are great because they draw attention to you and make you stand out against your environment in times of distress, and you don’t have to rely on electronics or another energy source. On the other hand, having a hot, burning flare on board isn’t all that safe.”
Like many of you, some of us at SAIL had never fired off a single flare, despite having sailed for years. So we headed out to the mouth of Marblehead Harbor in Marblehead, Massachusetts, to see for ourselves just what it feels like to set off the various devices found in a typical emergency signaling kit. All flares we tested were made by Orion (one of only two existing manufacturers) and were supplied by West Marine.
Red and White Handheld Flares
These are long-duration sea-level flares that help rescuers already in the general area pinpoint your location. The fine-print instructions on the Orion coastal flares we launched were difficult to read, even on a sunny day, so it pays to study them in advance. To ignite these flares, first remove the bottom cap, then use it as a striker to light the flare as you would a match. Many of these flares are waterproof and will ignite in the rain.
Ours burned for approximately three minutes while dripping molten slag and emitting plenty of heat—which we felt even with heavy gloves on—so you should hold them at arm’s length. Their brightness was unimpressive during the day, but would be satisfactory at night. We set off a couple of handhelds that were six months out of date and these burned less brightly and for a shorter time. The flares were difficult to extinguish, even when fully immersed in a bucket of water, so exercise extreme caution when using them.
Red SOLAS Handheld Flares
The flares manufactured to the SOLAS (Safety of Life at Sea) commercial regulations burned much brighter and hotter than the other Orion handhelds we tested. In fact, they were almost too bright to look at directly. They are lit the same way as coastal flares, but give off more smoke and burn only for a minute. Despite having a steel casing to help contain the hot slag, the label on the casing still became extremely hot, even catching fire at one point, so be sure to hold the flare over the side of the boat to prevent burns. It makes a lot of sense to wear a heavy-duty work-style glove with a cuff to protect your hand and wrist when handling these kinds of flares. A SOLAS flare is a serious piece of pyrotechnics. Offshore sailors will want to have these aboard their boats in order to be seen by rescuers from a fair distance away.
Orange Smoke Flare
A handheld smoke flare will help rescuers locate you in the daytime. It is activated the same way as the other handhelds, except thick smoke billows out and lasts for around three minutes. The smoke gave off a faint odor and dissipated quickly in only 7-knot winds. However, it was still the most visible flare from a distance in daylight, as it created a bright orange cloud that sat low over the water.
Aerial 12-gauge Meteor Flares
These are short-duration high-altitude flares fired from a pistol to alert others that you are in distress, as opposed to identifying your specific location. Firing these flares was self-explanatory: break open the pistol shotgun style, load the shell into the barrel, snap the pistol shut, cock the hammer, point the pistol overhead and slightly downwind, and pull the trigger. The flares burned brightly for seven seconds. Expect your ears to ring a little after firing one. There’s no concern with slag or sparks here, and because they’re easy to handle, coastal and lake sailors will find them ideal. Like any pistol, however, they are extremely dangerous if mishandled, because they can be discharged at any angle. Never point a loaded pistol (or any flare for that matter) at another person! Fire off two pistol flares within a few seconds of each other so rescuers can confirm the sighting and general location of your signal.
Red Aerial Skyblazer Handhelds
These are virtually the same as the pistol-fired meteor flares, minus the pistol grip and trigger. To launch them you unscrew the bottom cap and pull down on an ignition chain. The flares burned for seven seconds, and though they didn’t burn as brightly as the pistol flares, they reached a higher altitude. Intended for coastal and lake sailors, these flares float and are compact and waterproof.
Given a choice, though, we would opt for pistol flares, because they are easier to launch and can be fired with one hand, so you can steady yourself with the other hand aboard a heaving boat. We tried launching two Skyblazers that were five years out of date, and the ignition chains on both pulled out from the bottom, causing some concern—had we activated them or not? The instructions on these were also especially difficult to read, because they had rubbed off over time.
SOLAS Parachute Flares
These were more complicated to launch, as they were protected by two wooden blocks that took some time to unscrew. To trigger them, fold up a small metal tab that pops out when the cap is unscrewed at the end. It wasn’t entirely clear to us when or how the trigger would ignite the small rocket inside, and we were surprised when it suddenly whooshed into the air with a burst of smoke and flame.
The first of our two $69 Orion flares kicked against the wind and the parachute failed to deploy, but the second flare reached an impressive height and burned brightly, with the parachute keeping it airborne and visible for some 25 seconds. Because of this, offshore sailors are required to have them on board so they can summon help from a greater distance. Be sure to keep several on board in case of misfires.
ODEO Laser Flare
The lack of a uniform, safe way to travel with or dispose of pyrotechnics, combined with the danger of having explosives on board, has led to the development of new laser-flare technologies like the ODEO flare, which received a SAIL magazine Pittman innovation award in the safety category in 2012. These run on batteries and emit a bright multidirectional laser beam at variable speeds (so you don’t confuse it with navigation lights) for over five hours. To operate, simply twist the bottom cap until the light goes on—obviously, it’s much safer to use than a pyrotechnic flare. During the day, this flare was less visible than the others we tested, but should be easily seen at night. You’ll want to keep extra batteries handy when relying on this flare.
Keep your flare kit in an accessible, dry place. Know what’s on board and ensure that everyone knows where the kit is. Take flares off the boat in the fall and store them in a cool, dry, safe place at home where kids can’t get to them.
Flare Maintenance and Disposal
Flares have a short lifespan: they expire 42 months after their manufactured date. Disposing of expired flares is a problem—you’ll need to locate a hazmat facility in your area, or see if the fire department will take them. Better still, organize a training session with your club or a group of friends, alert the authorities, and then fire off all your recently expired flares.
Our day in Marblehead proved to be more than just an excuse to shoot off some fireworks. It was a useful learning experience, where we put flare theory to practice in a safe environment.
What We Learned
- Although fun, pyrotechnic flares can also be intimidating, so if you get an opportunity to practice firing some, take advantage of it
- Directions on all the flares we tested were in small print and hard to read in daylight, let alone at night or in foul weather; read all instructions thoroughly beforehand
- Be prepared for flying sparks and dripping slag when igniting handheld flares; executive editor Adam Cort burned a hole in his jacket lighting his first flare and wore a heavy work glove afterward. Stashing an old work glove with a cuff in your flare kit is advisable
- The slag from a handheld flare can easily damage a boat deck or liferaft, so be sure to hold the flare over the leeward side of the boat and well away from your body
- Red handhelds are not as bright during the day as we imagined them to be. The same goes for the meteor flares. Smoke works best when the sun is shining
- Aerial flares should be aimed slightly downwind, but once fired, they can kick against the wind. Be careful when aiming a launcher or pistol flare
- The expired flares we tried either misfired or didn’t burn as brightly, so make sure the contents of your flare kit are up-to-date
- Even brand-new flares can misfire, like one of our SOLAS parachute flares did, so be sure to have backups
- The pistol flares were the most intuitive, easiest and safest to use—provided you NEVER aim them at yourself, your crew or your boat
- Remember that pyrotechnic flares should only be used as a last resort, after all electronic signaling devices (VHF, EPIRB, PLB) have been tried. Electronic distress signals are ultra-reliable; flares serve best to guide rescuers who are already in the general area to your exact location—not as an initial call for helpThanks to West Marine for supplying the flares used in this demonstration.