Types of distress flares and how to use them

29 August 2017

When going to sea it’s important that you have the means by which to raise the alarm and call for help in the event of an accident, injury or other distress situation. It’s also worth remembering that sometimes you may just want to highlight your position to the shore or to another vessel.

In addition to a short or long range radio, satellite phone, or mobile phone if sailing inshore within signal range (or even a morse lamp or semaphore flags !) a useful item for your grab bag would be a set of flares.  

Of course, flares are pyrotechnics and as such they must be handled with great care. They should also be properly stored in a robust, watertight container and when handling them it is prudent to use a heavy duty pair of heat retardant gloves and some protective goggles. Flares also have an expiry date which should be checked before going to sea.

There are three basic types of flare, namely the handheld flare, the parachute or rocket flare and the smoke canister.

The handheld flare is, as the name suggests, held by the user and burns fast and bright for approximately 60 seconds. The light it generates is very bright and you should not look at a burning flare. It is also sensible to hold the flare downwind and over the side of the boat to avoid the flare dripping onto your hands or the deck.

Next, there is the parachute or rocket flare. This is slightly larger and is fired slightly downwind. It is designed to seek the wind and should burst above your head before floating down to to sea on a parachute. Rocket flares should NEVER be used when helicopters are in the vicinity.

Finally, there are smoke flares. They normally take the form of a large baked beans can and have a peel away top. Usually the top is peeled away and the can is dropped into the sea on the leeward side of the vessel. Smoke flares are usually orange and are effective when marking a position for Search and Rescue Helicopters.

Whilst distress flares are red in colour, white flares are also available and can be effectively used to mark a position or illuminate a large area at night. 

Flares should always be taken with you to a liferaft but most importantly, make sure you know how to use your flares before you go to sea. When using red parachute distress flares it is sensible to use them in pairs a few minutes apart. That way a first flare that might be dismissed by a deckhand on watch will be confirmed minutes later by a second.

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