On Deck

Would you choose elec­tronic or py­rotech­nic dis­tress flares? Here are the pros and cons of each

SAIL - - January 2019 Vol 50, Issue 1 - Elec­tronic “flares” are eas­ier to stow and safer to use than tra­di­tional py­rotech­nics, but are they a bet­ter deal for cruis­ing sailors? Duncan Kent in­ves­ti­gates

The United States Coast Guard re­quires that all boats op­er­at­ing in coastal wa­ters or on the high seas carry a se­lec­tion of vis­ual dis­tress sig­nals. Al­most in­vari­ably, such sig­nals in­clude the py­rotech­nic type, ei­ther hand­held or fired from a flare pis­tol, but surely there are bet­ter and safer ways to call for help than using such out­dated tech­nol­ogy?

With the ma­jor­ity of sea-go­ing ves­sels, both com­mer­cial and leisure, now fit­ted with high­level tech­nol­ogy such as radar, EPIRBs, SARTs, AIS and more, one might be per­suaded to as­sume that elec­tronic gad­getry is the only way to go. But of­ten you hear of peo­ple be­ing res­cued af­ter sum­mon­ing help using the most ba­sic of tools—bright lights! Sec­ond to the ubiq­ui­tous cell/sat­phone, some­times there can be no bet­ter way to at­tract the at­ten­tion of a pass­ing ship, or peo­ple on the shore, than a very pow­er­ful light—es­pe­cially one that flashes the uni­ver­sally un­der­stood SOS code.


A py­rotech­nic flare is a use­ful backup when ev­ery­thing else fails, but at a price. These flares are dif­fi­cult to store and dan­ger­ous to use, par­tic­u­larly on a rolling boat in stormy seas. It’s even worse at night when it’s hard enough to read and un­der­stand the op­er­at­ing in­struc­tions, let alone safely dis­charge such haz­ardous de­vices. If they were used in lab­o­ra­tory con­di­tions you’d need some se­ri­ous train­ing be­fore even be­ing allowed to han­dle them. And yet we ex­pect any­one on board to be com­pe­tent enough to set one off in a panic sit­u­a­tion!

So, why not first try using one of the many elec­tronic meth­ods of putting out a dis­tress call? Not ev­ery­one will have read the man­ual and re­hearsed the use of all the elec­tronic giz­mos on board, but at least they won’t be risk­ing fir­ing a bunch of burn­ing phos­phates into the boat—or worse, into them­selves and their crew­mates. Be­sides, it’s easy to stick a boldly printed, bul­let-pointed ba­sic in­struc­tion list above each com­mu­ni­ca­tion de­vice, so that even an un­trained pas­sen­ger can have some idea of how to call for help.

Enough of the pol­i­tics. Are the non-pyro de­vices bet­ter than the tra­di­tional flare? Well yes, and no. That is—they can be, if con­di­tions are right, but they of­ten aren’t.


Tra­di­tional flares have two ma­jor plusses—the para­chute ver­sions can be shot high up into the sky and they all burn ex­tremely brightly for a minute or so. The first ex­tends their vis­i­ble dis­tance by many miles, the sec­ond hope­fully gives the un­trained eye ashore plenty of time for the mean­ing be­hind the flare to dawn on them.

Hand-held flares are very good at pin­point­ing a ves­sel’s po­si­tion up to three miles away and in the case of a he­li­copter res­cue, the smoke can also in­di­cate the wind strength and di­rec­tion to the pilot above. Against: Firstly, as an ini­tial means of at­tract­ing at­ten­tion, flares can be (and of­ten are) eas­ily con­fused with fire­works. Se­condly, they need to be stored care­fully so as not to let them get wet, which ex­cludes car­ry­ing a few in your pock­ets when you’re on watch on a rainy night. Fi­nally, though rare, they oc­ca­sion­ally prove un­re­li­able and have even been known to ex­plode in the user’s hands—par­tic­u­larly if they are close to or be­yond their use-by date.

Oh, and they’re ex­pen­sive, which only en­cour­ages sailors to keep the out-of-date ones on board. And then they’re dif­fi­cult to dis­pose of at the end of their life. All of which makes me feel it’s time mar­itime law was up­dated to free us boat owners of the oner­ous task of car­ry­ing such volatile ex­plo­sives on board our (ex­tremely flammable) plas­tic or wooden boats.


I’m con­vinced that to­day most skip­pers would ini­tially head for the VHF to re­port a prob­lem—I know I cer­tainly would. Mod­ern DSC-en­abled VHF ra­dios al­low even the most techno-pho­bic user to lift a cap and press a big red but­ton for five sec­onds. Even if the rest of the dis­tress info was omit­ted from the mes­sage, lis­ten­ers would still re­ceive the dis­tress call and your GPS po­si­tion (as­sum­ing you’ve had the good sense to con­nect the VHF to your GPS).

If I was off­shore, I’d prob­a­bly then go for an EPIRB if in im­mi­nent danger and en­sure all my crew had their PLBs and LED bea­cons in their

pock­ets in the event we needed to aban­don ship. At this point I’d get the grab-bag handy, along with the flare can­is­ter, but I wouldn’t think of set­ting one off un­til the last resort, and cer­tainly not un­til I had waited a rea­son­able time to see if any­one replied to my elec­tronic dis­tress sig­nals.

Pos­si­bly, if I was sail­ing in sight of land and my boat was sink­ing to the point of the ship’s bat­ter­ies be­com­ing over­whelmed, then I’d start think­ing of other ways to at­tract at­ten­tion, such as flares and torches.


The early mod­els of elec­tronic flares were laser types which, though very bright, tended to emit a very fine beam. This meant they needed to be pointed at a spe­cific tar­get and could be hard to spot when moved or jerked about on a rolling ves­sel. Laser flash­lights are also avail­able, but per­son­ally I wouldn’t want to risk blind­ing some­one by point­ing one of these at them—es­pe­cially some­one com­ing to res­cue me.

More re­cently, high-pow­ered LEDs have pro­vided a bet­ter al­ter­na­tive to lasers as they can have mul­ti­ple LEDs point­ing in many dif­fer­ent di­rec­tions, more ac­cu­rately sim­u­lat­ing the light from a tra­di­tional flare.

Cur­rently, only one LED flare re­place­ment bea­con has been ap­proved by the US Coast­guard—the sin­gle LED Weems and Plath SOS Dis­tress Light (C-1001). It looks a lit­tle like a con­ven­tional MOB light and floats in a ver­ti­cal po­si­tion with a Fres­nel lens on top that flashes a con­stant SOS sig­nal in a bril­liant white light. Pow­ered by three reg­u­lar alkaline C-cells, it is said to be vis­i­ble up to 10nm away and will op­er­ate for up to 60 hours con­tin­u­ously. When car­ried along with the manda­tory or­ange day-sig­nal flag, it re­moves the le­gal re­quire­ment for US-reg­is­tered leisure ves­sels to carry py­rotech­nics on board. Orion, the well-known maker of py­rotech­nic flares, has also de­vel­oped an elec­tronic flare that com­plies with USCG stan­dards but is not yet USCG-ap­proved. It also comes with an or­ange day-sig­nal flag.

There are other types of well-proven elec­tronic flare avail­able—the Ocean Sig­nal Res­cueME EDF1, the Odeo Flare MkIII and the new Odeo Dis­tress Flare for in­stance—but, as yet nei­ther they, nor other LED/Laser de­vices are USCG ap­proved, so owners still need to carry tra­di­tional py­ros.

There are many high-pow­ered LED flash­lights avail­able and some can be set to flash SOS con­tin­u­ously, but as with lasers they are uni-di­rec­tional, few are gen­uinely wa­ter­proof and even fewer can float. Fur­ther­more, most use recharge­able bat­ter­ies only, which is hope­less if you’re in a lif­er­aft and are more than likely not go­ing to be charged up when needed in a hurry.


For: Un­like most py­ros, elec­tronic flares are wa­ter­proof and sub­mersible and some even float. They can usu­ally op­er­ate for sev­eral hours and can be switched off at any time. They’re also easy to test, can be fixed to a rail or hung in the rig­ging while you get on with sav­ing the boat and the smaller ones can be at­tached to a life­jacket or car­ried in a pocket in case you go over­board or are forced to aban­don ship. Af­ter the ini­tial pur­chase cost, you do not need to think about re­plac­ing them for years. Against: E-flares are not as vis­i­ble as py­ros in day­light and at night they can eas­ily be mis­taken for nav­i­ga­tion marks, ship’s lights or il­lu­mi­na­tions on the shore.

At the end of the day, a good skip­per should al­ways take all rea­son­able precautions to en­sure he and his crew have a var­ied se­lec­tion of meth­ods to call for help in an emer­gency. Speak­ing for my­self, I would choose to rely on mod­ern elec­tronic de­vices be­fore fi­nally re­sort­ing to the py­rotech­nics. s

A typ­i­cal se­lec­tion of py­rotech­nic flares, as car­ried on a cruis­ing or rac­ing yacht Orion’s SOS flare is fully USCG-com­pli­ant

An or­ange dis­tress flag can be car­ried in lieu of a smoke can­is­ter for day­time sig­nalling

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