Learn all about visual distress signals
Every boater should know how to use visual distress signals. U.S. Coast Guard regulations require powerboats 16 feet and over and sailboats 26 feet and over to have three day/night flares onboard. Remember, flares expire 42 months after manufacture, not after purchase, so always check the expiration dates when you buy them to avoid buying old flares that will expire soon.
Most of us are familiar with handheld flares, which resemble road flares but are made specifically for boating. Other types of flares include flare pistols, which shoot flares into the air, and small floating cans of smoke-producing flares for daytime use.
Each type of flare has different benefits. Airborne flares can be seen from greater distances, so if you are stranded, they might be best at alerting boats that are farther away. Handheld flares pinpoint your location; use them when another boat is reasonably close and heading in your direction.
Use smoke flares in daytime only as the orange smoke is more visible in bright daylight than regular flares. Smoke flares don’t count toward the Coast Guard’s three-flare requirement. Carrying a combination of smoke, handheld, day/night, parachute and electronic flares gives you the opportunity to use the flare best suited for your situation.
Originally designed for commercial boats and offshore use, SOLAS (Safety of Life at Sea) flares are now available to the general public. These fully waterproof, extremely bright flares don’t spray or drip hot flare residue. Although more expensive than regular day/night flares, they are much brighter and last longer. SOLAS flares come in handheld, smoke, and parachute versions.
Consider buying more than one type of flare: handheld, smoke, airborne or parachute. Combination kits contain a variety of devices and an orange flag, which can be useful in bright daylight. Also, consider buying a new electronic flare device. The Coast Guard-approved Weems & Plath SOS Distress Light satisfies the three day/night flare requirement. Electronic flares are much safer than conventional flares and can save you money in the long run. For night use only, electronic flares come with an orange signal flag for day use.
Flare usage tips
Always wear protective gloves and hold handheld flares overboard when in use, or carry a metal or wooden pole to keep them away from passengers and the boat’s deck. In a pinch, you can tape the handheld flare to the end of a boat hook and hold it overboard to light it. Don’t let the flare burn down too far or it could catch your pole on fire or damage your boat hook.
Unused, expired flares can still save your life. Always save a few of your most recently expired flares for emergencies, even though they don’t count toward your minimum of three day/night flares. Dispose of very old flares as you would any other hazardous material. Don’t throw them in the trash. Call your local fire department or wait for a hazardous waste collection day in your area. Be sure the hazardous waste collection folks know you are giving them a box or bag of flares. –Randy Headrick
Originally published in The Buoys, the newsletter of Cape Coral Power Squadron/22.