SOLAS registered ships need to have at least 12 rocket parachute flares located on, or near to, the navigational bridge. For smaller vessels, however, the requirements vary considerably from country to country.
If your country does not give you specific guidance, A good starting point is to reference the requirements for flares in a ship’s lifeboat. Every lifeboat must carry at least: 6 hand flares; 4 rocket parachute flares; and 2 buoyant smoke signals.
What are Pyrotechnic Distress Flares?
Pyrotechnic distress flares are explosive devices designed for indicating your position when in distress at sea. They are recognised distress signals, contained within Annex 4 of the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea.
Different flares contain different chemicals, giving them the required colours when they burn. This is also how fireworks produce different colours. The exact colour of the flare depends on the type. Rocket parachute flares and hand flares are red. Smoke signals are orange.
Types of Pyrotechnic Flares
There are three types of pyrotechnic flare: Rocket parachute flares; hand flares; and smoke signals. They are all designed to indicate distress, but each one is made for a different part of the search and rescue process.
The technical details for each are listed within the Life Saving Appliances code, published by the International Maritime Organisation. In general, all pyrotechnics should:
- Be contained in a water-resistant casing;
- Have clear instructions for their operation;
- Have an integrated or self-contained means of ignition;
- Not cause harm to the person or vessel operating it.
Rocket Parachute Flares
Rocket parachute flares are designed to fire a projectile high in the air, then burn a bright red light while parachuting back down to the sea. They have the longest potential visual range out of all these pyrotechnic distress signals. They are meant to be used first, with the intention of attracting help from a long way off. Some rocket parachute flares claim a visibility of 30 miles, although that will vary with local conditions.
In accordance with the Life Saving Appliances code, rocket parachute flares need to meet the following operational requirements:
- The rocket should reach an altitude of at least 300m when fired vertically upwards;
- Near the top of its trajectory, the rocket should eject a parachute flare.
The parachute flare itself then needs to meet the following requirements:
- Burn with a bright red colour;
- Burn uniformly, with an intensity of 30,000cd;
- Burn for at least 40s;
- Descend slower than 5 m/s;
- Not damage its parachute or attachments while burning.
Hand Flares are small pyrotechnics designed to burn while you are holding them. They burn red and give off red smoke.
Hand flares are designed to pinpoint your position once someone is quite close and already searching. Having to hold them means that the range at which they will be seen is dependent on the height that you can hold them above the water.
In accordance with the Life Saving Appliances code, hand flares need to meet the following operational requirements:
- Burn with a bright red colour;
- Burn with an intensity of at least 15,000cd;
- Burn for at least 1 minute;
- Continue to burn after having been immersed for 10s under 10cm of water.
Smoke signals are different to the other two types of flares in that they do not give off a bright light. This means that they are not especially useful at night. At night they are only useful in so much as they give off some heat which could be picked up by a rescuer with thermal imaging.
They are mainly useful when rescuers are close by, to pinpoint your actual position.
Wind is a factor with these signals. If there is no wind, the signal will rise high up into the sky and be effective at longer range. The opposite of course applies if it is a windy day.
Smoke is particularly useful if a helicopter is searching for you because it will provide them with an indication of wind speed and direction at your location.
In accordance with the Life Saving Appliances code,smoke signals need to meet the following operational requirements:
- Emit smoke of a highly visible colour, at a uniform rate, for at least 3 minutes when floating in calm water;
- Not emit flame during the smoke emission time;
- Not be swamped in a seaway;
- Continue to emit smoke after having been immersed for 10s under 10cm of water.
While it only requires a highly visible colour, usually the smoke is orange. Orange smoke is the recognised distress colour of smoke from the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea.
Advantages and Disadvantages of Pyrotechnic Flares
Unless you are legally obligated to carry flares in your country, the decision will inevitably come down to your own assessment of the advantages and disadvantages.
- They are recognised distress signals. Any other navigator seeing them will know that you are in distress.
- They work independently of all electronic equipment. Not only are they independent of the power supply on your own vessel, they also don’t need their own battery. You never need to worry about the battery being flat.
- Nothing is better than bright orange smoke to indicate your position during the daytime. Not only does show up clearly, it helps rescuers by showing the wind.
- They will reassure your crew. Seeing bright lights and billowing smoke can help boost morale in an emergency situation.
- Pyrotechnics need replacing when they reach their expiry date. This is an additional cost, both financial and in time.
- The “danger” of having explosives on board.
- You do not know if your signal has been seen. If someone has seen your signal and taken action, you will probably be unaware until you actually see assistance coming.
- They only work if someone else is close enough to see you. Close to a busy coastline, or in a high traffic area, pyrotechnic flares will be very effective. On a remote stretch of coastline, there may well not be anyone close enough to see.
- You may have an emergency and still have no use for pyrotechnics. VHF, EPIRBS, SARTS and Satellite communication are far more effective in most situations.
Over the last few years, LED Flares have started to gain popularity. The idea is to replace the bright light that is produced by burning pyrotechnics with a bright light from a safe LED source.
They act in exactly the same way as pyrotechnic flares. They pinpoint your location to rescuers once they are already close to your position.
LED Flares can always be considered as additional safety equipment, but they are not yet as effective as pyrotechnic flares.
A few years ago, Practical Boat Owner conducted their own test of various LED Flares. You can read their review here: LED Laser Flares Tested
The Problem with LED Flares
The biggest issue with LED flares is that they are not actually a recognised distress signal.
At the beginning of this article we briefly discussed the International Regulations For Preventing Collisions At Sea and the definition of a distress signal. According to the IRPCS, LED flares are still not recognised as a distress signal.
If you are out at sea, and you use an LED flare, there is no guarantee that the lookout on a ship would realise that you are in distress.
Countries are starting to work together to establish a uniform set of standards for LED flares in the hope that they will be recognised internationally in the future. For now though, they remain an un-official way of indicating distress.
Country Specific Rules
For boats that fall outside of the SOLAS carriage requirements, different countries have different rules. Let me know in the comments section for other countries that you would like added to this list.
According to the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, pleasure vessels less than 13.7m are not required to carry pyrotechnic distress flares.
Vessels 13.7m and over, operating in category C waters and seaward, need to carry 4 red handheld flares and 2 orange smoke markers.
You can read more here: MIN_542
Pleasure vessels need to carry three distress signals. Pyrotechnic distress flares are just one of the types of signal available.
You can read more information here: USCG Boating PDF
Should you carry Flares?
As I said at the beginning, you are the only one that can truly decide. Obviously, if your country’s laws require your size and type of vessel to carry pyrotechnics then you must. If your boat is small enough that it is exempt then the choice is yours.
Personally, I will still carry hand flares and smoke as a minimum. At least until the electronic versions are properly comparable. Knowing that I am carrying some pyrotechnics anyway, I may as well then carry multiple types.
My reasons for avoiding pyrotechnics in the future is purely that I am less comfortable carrying explosives on my boat. For now though, the safety benefits of carrying hand flares and smoke do outweigh my concerns about explosives on board.
Rocket parachute flares do have their uses. In situations where I would actually use a Rocket Parachute Flare, I would prefer to use other methods though. VHF, EPIRBS, SARTS and PLBs are so much more effective than rocket flares today. Rocket flares are only useful within the narrow window where you are too far from observers for hand flares, but not so far that no one would see the rocket.
Once you have alerted rescue authorities, hand flares and smoke are still incredibly effective at pinpointing your final location. In time, I am confident that electronic flares will progress to such a level that they will be able to compete with pyrotechnics. As soon as that day comes, I will be one of the first to adopt them.