Calling for Help

The three boats in Tom Cunliffe’s scenario all found different ways of coping with difficult weather conditions, and all made it to port with little or no drama. But what if things had turned out differently? How would they have called for help?Visual distress
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The three boats in Tom Cunliffe’s scenario all found different ways of coping with difficult weather conditions, and all made it to port with little or no drama. But what if things had turned out differently? How would they have called for help?

Visual distress signals

Lives are lost each year because people go out on boats without packing any means of attracting attention. Few of them are sailors; a healthy respect for the sea and the dangers it presents to the unprepared and the foolish is drummed into us from our earliest days on boats, so we tend to actually carry items like flares and signal mirrors and whistles. Having always packed a good selection of pyrotechnics, I had never felt the need to check the Coast Guard guidelines for visual distress signals; I was surprised to find that they’re not as rigid as I’d expected.

For instance, if you have an open, engineless boat under 26 feet, there is no requirement for you to carry any distress signals at all, unless you sail at night on coastal waters. Huh? It seems to me that since 90-something percent of all sailing is done in daylight, you are more likely to get into trouble in daylight. Nor do you have to carry a distress signal on any boat under 16 feet, or on a rowboat. Well, maybe that’s fair enough. On the other hand, I’ve often seen boats much smaller than 16 feet bobbing around several miles offshore, their occupants cheerfully fishing without a care in the world. Since it’s mainly fishermen who tend to get themselves into trouble, it would seem to be a good idea to encourage them to carry flares or even a VHF.

But let’s not talk about compulsion. The key here is common sense. Anyone who’s actually been even a few miles offshore knows how hard it can be to see a small boat afloat just a few hundred yards away, let alone one that’s swamped or barely awash. If there’s a swell running it might be visible for 10 seconds or so out of every minute. This is why, if I owned a 26-foot engineless open daysailer, I would be sure there was a box of assorted distress signals stowed on board. You don’t want to get obsessive about safety, because that detracts from the sailing experience, but there’s no shame in being prepared for the worst.

The Coast Guard only requires you to carry three day and three night signals (or three day/night signals, e.g. red flares), no matter if you’re sailing on a lake, river or open ocean. That, to my mind, is nuts. If you are in a situation where you need to attract attention, you’re going to want more than three red flares.

Throw in a few red aerial flares or a flare pistol, a smoke signal, perhaps a dye marker, a strobe, a whistle, a signal mirror, and you’ve got a decent coastal cruising distress kit. If you think some of this stuff is non-essential, you may be right—but what’s the harm in carrying it? Lives have been saved by silly little things like the sun reflecting off a CD.

Annoyingly, flares need to be both Coast Guard-approved and replaced every three to four years. Out-of-date flares can be kept on board as backups to your in-date signals. There’s no consensus on when you should throw out old flares, but I would be leery of expired-date parachute flares. Either way, the leather gardening gloves that you wear when you’re getting the anchor up will come in handy if you ever need to set off a flare.

Flare types

Handheld Red: Visible for about three miles and last for around 40 seconds. Only use them when you have a possible rescuer in sight.

Red Parachute: In clear weather these can be seen up to 25 miles away. Some will climb to nearly 900 feet.

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Aerial Flare: Fired from a 12-gauge launcher, these can reach 500 feet and will burn for 7 seconds. Like parachute flares, you should fire two within two minutes of each other; one to alert rescuers, the other to provide a bearing.

Orange Smoke: Only use in daylight if a rescuer is within visual range—one to three miles, depending on wind strength. Handheld smokes last around 40 seconds, floating signals up to three minutes.

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