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