LED-pow­ered dis­tress sig­nals are quickly re­plac­ing flares. But are they as ef­fec­tive?

Power & Motor Yacht - - IN THIS ISSUE - By Bob Ar­ring­ton

LED-pow­ered dis­tress sig­nals are quickly re­plac­ing flares. But when it comes to be­ing res­cued, which one is more ef­fec­tive?

If you see some­one in a nearby boat wav­ing a flare or smoke sig­nal, there’s lit­tle ques­tion what they’re after— you know im­me­di­ately they’re try­ing to get your at­ten­tion. The ques­tion is, would you no­tice some­one wav­ing an elec­tronic flare in the same man­ner? A marine po­lice of­fi­cer in a busy city har­bor re­cently asked him­self the same ques­tion when con­tem­plat­ing the pur­chase of an elec­tronic sig­nal de­vice for his own boat. His con­cern stemmed from years of lo­cat­ing dis­tressed boaters at night, and the dif­fi­cul­ties therein—es­pe­cially with the lights of the city in the back­ground.

His per­sonal (al­beit un­sci­en­tific) test con­cluded that most boaters do not rec­og­nize the SOS sig­nal. The of­fi­cer po­si­tioned his boat in the cen­ter of the har­bor at dusk on a clear evening and stayed there un­til dark. He held his elec­tronic dis­tress sig­nal by hand while stand­ing near the bow of his 26foot cen­ter con­sole. Not a sin­gle nearby boater re­sponded to his faux emer­gency.

Hail­ing the Coast Guard and other res­cue per­son­nel can be the dif­fer­ence be­tween life and death in an emer­gency, but, more of­ten than not, it’s our fel­low boaters who come to our res­cue. All boats are re­quired to carry day and night dis­tress sig­nals, which have been his­tor­i­cally py­rotech­nic smoke sig­nals and flares.

Py­rotech­nic de­vices work ex­tremely well for draw­ing the at­ten­tion of oth­ers, but a burn­ing de­vice on the deck of a boat can be dan­ger­ous, or just plain in­ef­fec­tive if it’s past the ex­pi­ra­tion date. That’s why more and more boaters are opt­ing to carry new elec­tronic sig­nals in place of py­rotech­nic ones.

Quickly—what are the char­ac­ters for SOS in In­ter­na­tional Morse Code? Don’t feel too badly if you don’t know the an­swer. Few boaters to­day have the “dot-dot-dot, dash-dash-dash, dot­dot-dot” Morse Code char­ac­ters com­mit­ted to mem­ory, and un­for­tu­nately, even fewer would rec­og­nize them if seen flashed in a pat­tern. How­ever, this would be re­quired in or­der to in­ter­pret a fel­low boater try­ing to get your at­ten­tion us­ing a re­cently ap­proved elec­tronic vis­ual dis­tress sig­nal.

Ac­cord­ing to the Coast Guard, in or­der for an elec­tronic vis­ual dis­tress sig­nal to be a le­gal sub­stitue for flares it must be marked with the state­ment: “Night vis­ual dis­tress sig­nal for boats—com­plies with U.S. Coast Guard re­quire­ments in 46 CFR 161.013—for emer­gency use only.” It must also be marked with the man­u­fac­turer’s name, re­place­ment bat­tery type and lamp size.

The wa­ter­proof de­vice must also last for 60 con­tin­u­ous hours, be vis­i­ble for at least 10 nau­ti­cal miles, flash only an SOS se­quence and float lens-up. And lucky for the for­get­ful types, it doesn’t ex­pire. There are cur­rently only two de­vices on the mar­ket that meet these re­quire­ments, but there are surely more to come. They are a log­i­cal re­place­ment to py­rotech­nic sig­nal de­vices for night use, how­ever their suc­cess de­pends on our abil­ity to rec­og­nize their use and will­ing­ness to of­fer as­sis­tance.

A white light flash­ing the SOS pat­tern of three short flashes, three long flashes and three short flashes in an im­me­di­ate se­quence is a re­quest for help. Be on the look­out for these in­creas­ingly im­por­tant safety de­vices while on the wa­ter.

The best bet to get help in a hurry might just be a belt-and­sus­penders ap­proach: carry a com­bi­na­tion of old-school, tra­di­tional flares and new-school elec­tronic ones. That’s a sure­fire way to get their at­ten­tion.

There are a few things you should know about LED flares if you’re count­ing on them to save your life.

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