Rupert Holmes looks at considerations for buying distress flares and the advantages of new technologies in this field
A decade ago few people would have predicted that carrying distress flares on board would become a potentially controversial subject.
However, that’s what’s currently happening thanks to the development of alternative means of signalling distress, even if regulatory bodies are not keeping pace with new technologies.
What it means is that, with a few notable exceptions, the old habit of buying pyrotechnics that have only a three-year lifespan, and disposing of them afterwards is no longer universally applicable.
If you doubt that, here’s what the RYA (the UK’s national governing body for the sport of sailing) has to say on the subject:
“Modern technology provides safer and more reliable options for distress alerting than flares, and presuming such technology is carried aboard a pleasure vessel, the owner may now wish to consider reducing their complement of flares.” Read more on the RYA website.
Other than buoyant orange smoke flares, which are still a brilliant day time signal, I now only carry pyrotechnics when required to by regulations, such as World Sailing’s Offshore Special Regulations when racing.
Even then, World Sailing regulations now prescribe only orange smoke and hand-held red flares – there’s no longer a requirement to carry red parachute rockets, other than as part of the liferaft’s safety inventory (some of which can, optionally, be packed in a grab bag).
Instead, raising the alarm when offshore is best done with the combination of a VHF radio with a DSC distress function and an EPRIB, plus a satellite phone if you’re more than around 60 miles from land.
EPIRBs have reduced in price at the same time as battery life has been extended, making the overall cost of ownership very affordable. For help choosing, read YBW’s guide to the best EPIRBs on the market right now.
However, it’s important to remember that many jurisdictions have laws that require leisure craft to carry pyrotechnics.
This includes the USA and the UK, for leisure craft of more than 13.7m (45ft) overall length. It’s also important to ensure you carry a sufficient number of each type to meet local requirements.
While electronic flares can be shipped easily, the same is not true for pyrotechnic flares. However, in the UK the large chandlers offer delivery at sensible prices (considering they can’t go in the regular post).
In the USA, West Marine only offers a collection from store service. However, there are a couple of Amazon sellers that offer delivery of individual pyrotechnics, but unfortunately not fully USCG compliant flare packs.
9 of the best safety flares
Odeo LED Distress Flare
Like Daniamant’s Odeo Mk 3 that was launched in 2014, the latest version of this electronic flare is an LED device, but it has been redesigned, with several useful improvements.
The new unit is smaller than its predecessor, yet also adds an infra-red LED signal that can be picked up by the night vision devices used by helicopter pilots and other rescue assets.
Illumination time has been extended to 8 hours, a 25 per cent improvement, when fitted with user-replaceable AA size lithium batteries. These have an impressive 8-10 year life, meaning the flare has far more longevity than standard pyrotechnics.
Activation is simple and can easily carried out wearing gloves or with cold hands. The compact size and long activation time makes it ideal both in a main flare pack and as a grab bag item. Additionally, as the Odeo Distress is battery powered, transport is not a problem, even when flying.
I have had two of them, including one in a grab bag, for several years. If I ever need to pinpoint my position at night, they are undoubtedly what I will reach for first.
Note: We may earn a commission when you buy through links on our site, at no extra cost to you. This doesn’t affect our editorial independence.
Ocean Signal rescue ME EDF1
This is claimed to be the world’s most compact electronic distress flare, making it easy to carry and ideal for a grab bag.
Yet it has a very high specification with four operating modes, including an SOS function. It’s also bright enough to be seen for up to seven miles.
The LEDs provide an all-round 30 degree horizontal beam, plus a weaker light in the hemisphere above the unit that can be seen by aircraft.
Operational battery life is six hours and is user replaceable. However, it’s a custom size and must therefore be ordered in advance.
ACR ResQFlare LED Electronic
This unit flashes an SOS signal at an intensity that’s visible for up to six miles. User replaceable C-size batteries give an operating time of up to 20 hours.
It’s also supplied with a distress flag kit (black square over back circle), which means the combination satisfies US Coast Guard regulations, allowing leisure craft under 65ft to forgo the requirements to carry pyrotechnics in US waters.
The unit is fully waterproof and will float with the light uppermost.
Seago Floating Smoke Flare
While electronic flares are ideal for pin pointing the exact position of a boat in distress at night, they are no where near as visible as a traditional orange smoke flare in day light.
The big advantage of these is that the big cloud of orange smoke is impossible to miss – if anyone at all is looking they are guaranteed to see it.
While hand-held smoke flares are available, I’m a big fan of the buoyant type for several reasons. In a tense situation being able to activate the flare and throw it in the water next to the boat allows you to carry on with dealing with the emergency situation.
This is also a more attractive proposition than holding a burning pyrotechnic in your hand.
Finally, the buoyant type has a greater capacity, typically burning for three minutes, instead of 40 seconds. In more remote areas the bigger cloud of smoke is therefore more likely to be seen, while in busier waters it’s more likely to be associated with your boat, rather than blowing away on the wind in the direction of other craft.
Ikaros Night and Day
There are some situations in which carrying a buoyant smoke flare is impractical – when going ashore in the dinghy, for instance, or when engaged in watersports such as canoeing or windsurfing.
These combined smoke/hand held red flares are small enough to be easy to carry. At 135X41mm in size they are even just small enough to be strapped to your upper arm.
Yet they are powerful enough to raise the alarm if you get into trouble within a few hundred metres or so of the shore. The downside is reduced burn time compared to standard size pyrotechnics – this is only 15-20 seconds.
Exposure Spot-Me Red Micro Flare
When engaged in watersports we tend to assume that any problems will always be encountered in daylight. After all, you wouldn’t plan to go kitesurfing or paddle boarding at night.
However, the reality is these activities often take place in the evening, which means a problem that results in a 30 minute delay might leave you still on the water as the sun goes down.
The Spot-Me Red Micro Flare is a brilliant small device that’s easy to activate, even with fingers that are almost numb from the cold.
It weighs only 33 grammes, yet the rechargeable CR123 battery has an operational life of five to six hours.
Seago coastal/world Sailing flare pack
If you do need to carry traditional pyrotechnics this pack provides everything necessary for coastal sailing.
It also satisfies the requirements of World Sailing (formerly ISAF) for offshore racing and the UK Maritime and Coastguard Agency’s prescriptions for leisure boats of more than 13.7m (45ft) length.
However, it’s important to recognise both bodies assume the boat carries an EPIRB, VHF with DSC and other electronic safety devices.
The pack contains two buoyant orange smoke flares for day time use, plus four hand-held reds for use at night.
Assuming good visibility, all are visible for around three miles and will pinpoint your position to enable rescue craft to find exactly where you are.
Seago offshore flare pack
This is the equivalent of the old RORC packs from back in the days that offshore racing yachts were also required to carry four red parachute rocket flares.
In good visibility the parachute rockets can be seen for up to 30 miles. The pack also includes two buoyant orange smoke flares and four hand-held reds.
There was a time when such a flare pack would also include hand held white anti collision flares. However, today’s waterproof torches and search lights are now so good that these are generally considered a safer and more reliable option.
Orion Blue Water Alert/Locate Flare Kit
This kit is US Coastguard-approved for navigation by day and night.
Unlike UK and European flare kits it includes a pistol style launcher for the aerial signals, which reach a height of 500ft and burn for seven seconds.
The kit includes five hand-held red flares, one hand-held orange smoke, six 12-gauge red aerial flares, a pistol style launcher and a soft, buoyant bag.
Didn’t find what you’re looking for? Head to Amazon’s dedicated sailing page for more marine products.