Over the years we’ve diligently replaced our offshore flare pack every three years as the flares expired. When we had our previous boat in commercial operation the coding rules required us to equip her with a full offshore flare pack, but Speedwell is a private vessel so we can chose what safety equipment we carry.
When our last flare pack expired we decided not to replace it with another set of pyrotechnics, this page discusses why we decided to do that and what our alternative solution is. This is just a description of the decisions we made for our boat, it’s up to other boat users to decide what’s best for them.
What are Flares For?
There are several different type of flare that you could be carrying, each for a different purpose. Here are the common options for a cruising boat:
- Distress Flares: Red or orange flares to be used in an emergency situation. These serve two distinct purposes:
- To raise the alarm: Let others know that you’re in distress, so calling for help. This is the primary purpose of red parachute flares.
- To guide a rescuer in: Pinpointing your position so that a rescuer knows where you are. A handheld red flare or an orange smoke flare are normally the best choices here.
- Anti-Collision Flares: White handheld flares that can be used to make your vessel’s position clear in a potential collision situation. The sort of situation I’d imagine using one of these in is as a last ditch attempt to avoid being run down when a big ship has failed to see me.
- Area Illumination: The instructor on the sea survival course that I attended suggested carrying some white parachute flares to be used in case of a man overboard at night. These can illuminate quite a wide area so could assist finding a head in the water in the dark. That sounds like a sensible idea, but I’ve never added white parachute flares to any of my flare packs and I don’t know anyone else who has.
Why not Carry Flares?
Pyrotechnic flares have their disadvantages:
- Safety: Pyrotechnic flares are explosive devices. A rocket parachute flare accidentally fired at someone could kill, and a flare let of below decks could start a fire. Even in-date flares from reputable manufacturers occasionally malfunction; a few years ago a sailing instructor was seriously injured by a malfunctioning handheld flare during a flare firing demonstration. I don’t know how a flare pack would behave in a fire, but I wouldn’t want to be close by.
- Short Shelf Life: Pyrotechnic flares typically have a 3 year life, after which they should be disposed of. A full offshore flare pack isn’t cheap and it seems a pity to buy one just to dispose of it (hopefully unused) a few years later. There was a time when I’d keep a few out of date flares as spares in the flare pack, but following the news of an in-date flare malfunctioning I decided that the risk of using an out of date flare was too high so I stopped doing that. In any case it is illegal to carry out of date flares in some countries, so that practice could cause problems when cruising abroad.
- Disposal: In the UK it is becoming increasingly difficult to dispose of out of date flares.
Our Distress Solution
We already had a number of alternatives for sending distress messages onboard, as well as the foghorn, torches (flashlights) and signaling mirror these include:
- Fixed VHF: Our main VHF set is a DSC unit so is able to send a digital distress message as well as the traditional voice mayday call. If we lose our main antenna we can connect it to the AIS antenna on the mizzen mast.
- EPIRB: We carry a 405MHz EPIRB. Ours is a McMurdo Smartfind Plus that has a built in GPS and a 112.5MHz homing transmitter so it can provide an accurate location and help to guide the emergency services in.
To take the place of the flare pack we’ve added a few items to our grab bag:
- Handheld DSC VHF: A Standard Horizon HX851E.
- Laser Flare: An Odeoflare laser flare.
- Spare batteries for the laser flare and the VHF.
- A battery tray allowing normal batteries to be used in place of the VHF’s rechargeable battery.
The cost of the new handheld VHF and the laser flare was rather more than a new offshore flare pack, but we hope we won’t need to replace them every three years.
Raising the Alarm
Even when we carried pyrotechnics my first resort in a mayday situation would be to send an electronic distress message. In coastal waters or in sight of other vessels a VHF DSC distress call is the obvious choice. This will sound an alarm on every DSC set that’s in VHF range so people in a position to render assistance would know we were in difficulties and, because the VHF is linked to our GPS, would know exactly where we are (at least when we raised the alarm). The VHF also gives us a voice channel to talk to potential rescuers and pass more information.
Offshore and with no vessels around the EPIRB would be the method to use. As ours has a built in GPS it includes its position in the distress message, which it carries on sending for at least 48 hours. This should be picked up by satellite and passed to the coastguard who will then have good information to base a rescue on. The EPRIB is completely self-contained so it’s also available if for some reason we’re unable to use the fixed VHF.
Should we need to abandon to the liferaft, we’ve got our handheld DSC VHF in the grab bag. To raise the attention of a passing vessel a DSC call will sound an alarm that will be hard for a watch-keeper to miss. This seems a much better option than firing a flare in the hope that they’re looking in our direction.
In the UK a handheld DSC VHF has to be licensed separately to the ship’s VHF (it has a different MMSI). The UK license restricts use of the DSC function to UK territorial waters, but in a distress situation I’d rather face prosecution for miss-use of DSC than not be rescued.
All of these methods both raise the alarm and include an accurate position fix. They are three independent systems so should one fail we have the other two to fall back on.
Using pyrotechnics the first choice to raise the alarm is a parachute rocket flare. A typical offshore flare pack contains four of these and the normal advice is to fire one then follow it with a second, in the hope that the first gets noticed and the second confirms it’s a real distress situation and gives whoever spotted it a chance to get a bearing. This means that the flare pack gives two attempts to raise the alarm. A parachute flare burns for something like 40 seconds, so you’ve not got long for it to be spotted. Assuming someone does see the flare the best that they can do to estimate your position is take a bearing (you’d have to be very lucky for two different observers to get bearings for a two point fix).
Of course a rocket flare goes several hundred meters up in the air so provided it’s not lost in cloud it should be visible over a wide area, further than the range of a handheld VHF. However there’s no point using up a flare if there’s no one to see it so in I’d want to save my flares until I could see another vessel, and if I can see them then they’ll be in line of site for a VHF transmission.
Pinpointing our Location
These days satellite navigation is pretty much ubiquitous on sea going vessels so in principle an up to date GPS position is all that a rescuer needs to get to the casualty. In practice some sort of visual indication will make it much easier to identify the casualty and make the final approach, and is essential if the casualty isn’t able to provide an up to date position fix. With pyrotechnics this is the main job of a handheld or smoke flare.
We have an Odeoflare laser flare in our grab bag to indicate our position in an emergency. Whilst not as bright as a pyrotechnic it can run for over 5 hours on one set of batteries, we’d never be able to carry enough traditional flares to match that. The laser flare’s batteries have a 14 year shelf life, after which just the batteries need replacing, and these have none of the disposal problems that normal flares have. It will also run on standard AA batteries so we have some of these in the grab bag as a back-up.
Another nice feature of the laser flare is that we can test it by briefly turning it on (being careful that we’re not somewhere where that could be mistaken as a call for help). So we can be reasonably confident that it’s in working order should we need it. Performing this test also means that we know how to turn the flare on when we need it (our own private flare firing practice).
As it burns a handheld flare drops hot ashes, a potential fire hazard (or sinking hazard in a liferaft). We don’t have this problem with the laser flare.
During daylight a smoke flare has the advantage of both showing your position and showing the wind direction, which is useful for a helicopter rescue. Our laser flare won’t give any information about wind conditions, but at least in the UK I understand that rescue helicopters carry smoke flares that they can drop if needed to verify the wind conditions.
White flares are intended to be used for collision avoidance. The idea is to make yourself as visible as possible in a situation where another vessel hasn’t seen you and there is a serious risk of collision.
A collision situation in which you would use a white flare is going to develop quickly (if there’s a long time to the collision then you’ve got time to take avoiding action or contact the other vessel). This means that you’ll need to be able to get hold of a white flare quickly, it’s no good having to rummage around in the flare pack looking for the right one. So to be any use, anti-collision flares need to be close to hand, clipped just inside the companionway or taped to the binnacle for example. I don’t like the idea of having a flare below decks where if could accidentally be set off, and having one on show above deck makes it a target to thieves or vandals, so I’ve never had one to hand on my boats.
During daylight if another vessel has got close enough for there to be a high collision risk without seeing us then they’re probably not keeping a proper lookout, so I’m not sure that there would be a good chance of them noticing a bright light on the boat that they’ve failed to notice.
At night, particularly inshore where a yacht’s navigation lights could get lost in background lights, there’s a higher risk of not being spotted. At night we carry a spotlight in the cockpit, if we need to make sure we’ve been seen we can shine this on our sails. A light shining on a sail should be quite visible at night and also makes it clear that we’re a boat rather than just some sort of bright light.
Of course the best form of collision avoidance is avoiding getting into a close quarters situation in the first place. Our AIS is a great help in avoiding big ships in poor visibility. If we are in a situation where we’re unable to take avoiding action then the AIS gives us the MMSI of at least all commercial shipping so we can make a direct DSC call using either our main or handheld VHF, which gives both sides much more information than a white flare can provide. To make us more visible we’ve got an active radar transponder in addition to a normal radar reflector, and if shipping is monitoring AIS then our class B transponder should show up.
Our main precaution against a man overboard is to clip on in bad weather and when under way at night, so I don’t feel the need to carry white parachute flares to assist with a night time MOB recovery. When we start venturing further offshore then I think it would be worth investing in some additional equipment for all of the crew.
There are various personal use systems available, including proprietary MOB alert systems and personal EPIRBs, but recently personal AIS beacons have started to become available and I think one of these on each lifejacket would be my choice for an ocean passage. Leaving aside the case of solo sailors, the nearest rescuer for a person overboard in mid ocean will be the boat that they fell from. Getting position information back to the boat is far better than raising the alarm with a distant coastguard station.
With a personal AIS it should be possible to drive the boat back to the MOB regardless of the visibility. Some proprietary MOB alert systems can also provide information to help get back to the MOB, but AIS is an international standard so has the advantage that any AIS equipped vessel in range will be able to find the beacon.
A laser flare for each crew member could also be a sensible precaution.
For personal safety equipment you need one of each item for each crew member so costs can quickly escalate. On the up side, the price of electronic equipment tends to fall over time so these systems are becoming more affordable.
Almost Pyrotechnic Free
We carry a liferaft on Speedwell and that contains its own set of flares, so we can’t claim to be 100% pyrotechnic free. These flares are safely out of the way in the liferaft canister and when they’re out of date they get disposed of by the servicing station so they don’t have the same set of problems as the main flare pack.
If we were ever forced to abandon to the liferaft I’d hope that we’d be able to take the grab bag and EPIRB with us, so my first choice for raising the alarm would still be the electronic equipment. But if all else fails, or if we don’t get a chance to grab things, then we have got the liferaft’s flares as a last resort.