Flares are tools for des­per­ate times, so you should know these things about them

Soundings - - Contents - BY MARIO VIT­TONE

Mario Vit­tone dis­cusses why you shouldn’t throw away your old flares, and why prac­tic­ing with them is some­thing all boaters should do be­fore they are ac­tu­ally in an emer­gency sit­u­a­tion.

Only once in my ca­reer as a U. S. Coast Guard he­li­copter res­cue swim­mer did I sight a flare launch and have it turn into an ac­tual res­cue. Three com­mer­cial fish­er­men were at an­chor, sleep­ing, when their shrimp boat caught fire. By the time they got on deck wear­ing Type 2 PFDs and car­ry­ing the one flare they had grabbed from a locker, the wheel­house was ablaze. Let’s face it, if you ever find your­self light­ing off a flare to sig­nal dis­tress, things have gone very wrong. But given that they are tools for des­per­ate times, you should know some­thing about flares.

Flares never re­ally ex­pire. Fed­eral reg­u­la­tions re­quire all py­rotech­nic de­vices to carry an ex­pi­ra­tion date, which must not be more than 42 months from the date of man­u­fac­ture. This rule ex­ists to make it harder for you to have bad flares aboard—not be­cause they can’t last more than 42 months. Flares can go bad, they can rust or get dam­aged, but they don’t re­ally ex­pire. From ex­pe­ri­ence, I can tell you flares that ex­pired a decade ago have a high prob­a­bil­ity of go­ing off. If the cas­ing is cracked or de­te­ri­o­rated, the flares are bad, but flares far out­live their ex­pi­ra­tion date. That doesn’t mean you can count them among your re­quired flares. How­ever, you can keep them for use in an emer­gency. Put them in a box marked “ex­pired flares.” If your three up-to-date flares don’t get you res­cued, you’ll have back­ups.

The day end of a flare can be more ef­fec­tive at night. If you’ve burned through the night ends of your day/night flares, don’t give up. The day end works great at night. Not only does it put out orange smoke, it puts out ex­tremely hot orange smoke. Search air­craft have for­ward-look­ing in­frared, and crews fly­ing at night are equipped with night vi­sion gog­gles. The long trail of hot smoke is one of the largest, most vis­i­ble sig­nals for search air­craft. Com­pared to the bright, 20- to 30-sec­ond burn of a night flare, the day time use orange smoke is ar­guably more ef­fec­tive. When sig­nal­ing any search air­craft or ves­sel, re­mem­ber that the end of the flare stays hot long af­ter the thing has gone out. On in­frared scans, this heat paints a bright light, so con­tinue wav­ing ex­tin­guished flares if you think searchers are look­ing your way.

Flares can de­flate lif­er­afts. A flare is a form of phos­pho­rous that’s on fire, and it can pro­duce a liq­uid-hot drip. If you let that stuff fall onto your lif­er­aft, you’ve got your­self a hole. So, if you find your­self us­ing a hand­held flare, point the thing down­wind and hang it out over the side of a lif­er­aft.

Stowage mat­ters. Boats are ter­ri­ble places to keep things, es­pe­cially things that are af­fected by tem­per­a­ture and hu­mid­ity, such as flares. I of­ten see flares stowed in plas­tic zip­per bags. Per­son­ally, I dis­like that method. Though it of­fers some pro­tec­tion from mois­ture, it does noth­ing to re­duce im­pact dam­age if the flares get knocked around in a drawer. Pros keep flares in a plas­tic box. Wa­ter­tight stowage is great, but I drop in a des­ic­cant packet to make sure flares stay dry.

You must prac­tice. By the time you need to light a flare, things have gone hor­ri­bly wrong. The tim­ing will not be ideal for read­ing in­struc­tions. Prac­tic­ing legally and safely is not hard. You just need to in­form your lo­cal Coast Guard dis­trict ahead of time. Your drills will be added to the Lo­cal No­tice to Mariners and you will be free to fire away. If some­body re­ports see­ing your flares (and they will), the Coast Guard will know not to launch a res­cue mis­sion. Ide­ally, you will prac­tice off­shore, a solid half-mile from other ves­sel traf­fic since smoke and fumes are haz­ardous. Use your ex­pired flares to prac­tice, but make sure they are the same make and model as the ones you have aboard. If you don’t have ex­pired flares, buy a fresh set just to burn. It’s worth it. Read the direc­tions and do ev­ery­thing the man­u­fac­turer sug­gests. You’ll fin­ish that ex­er­cise with the con­fi­dence to use the de­vices that I hope you will never need.

Keep your old flares as back­ups; they may still save your life.

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