Guest Column: Flare smart

Distress signal flares are some of the most important pieces of emergency equipment on your vessel, and many boaters don’t have a clue on how and when to use them.

The purpose of signal flares is to first attract attention, and secondly, to provide a homing signal to guide emergency assistance to your boat. Aerial flares and parachute flares are the most effective visual distress signals because they are moving, spectacular and cover a large sighting area. Handheld flares, orange smoke signals and flags can help pinpoint your position when help is on the way.

Below are outlined some signaling guidelines.

Guideline No. 1: Wait until you can see or hear a vessel or aircraft before using a signal flare; conserve your signals!

The U.S. Coast Guard recommends that you fire two aerial flares – one immediately after the other – so rescuers can confirm the sighting and direction of the signal. Parachute flares need not be fired in twos, since they burn for 25 to 30 seconds. A normal aerial flare has a burn time of only five to 10 seconds.

Typically, a normal 12-gauge flare can reach a maximum altitude of 500 feet. The 25 mm flares do not reach the same altitude but burn with about twice the brightness.

To fire a shell from a safety pistol: Locate yourself so are clear of any overhead obstacles; load a shell into the pistol breech and close securely; hold the pistol over your head in the one o’clock position; cock the pistol hammer; turn your head away and pull the trigger; and never point the pistol at anyone; fire it horizontally or at the water.

Guideline No. 2: The surface-to-surface sighting range of handheld flares intended as homing signals is only three to five miles, depending on boat elevation. For example, if a rescuer is approximately 10 nautical miles away going 20 knots, it will take 30 minutes to get to you. Thus you wouldn’t start the flare in this example until 20 minutes has elapsed. Make sure you have 10 to 12 minutes of flare burn time on the vessel. While standing, ignite the flare and hold the flare away from your body at a 45 degree angle. Do not hold it over your head!

Guideline No. 3: Use common sense. Use a mirror, signal horn, whistle, flashlight, blink your running lights, wave a piece of clothing or distress flag or anything else that will attract attention. Stay with your boat if possible – it’s easier to spot than a swimmer.

Guideline No. 4: Know how to use your flares before you leave the dock. Time is of the essence in an emergency. Make sure your flares are up to date. An old flare is no flare, according to U.S. Coast Guard regulations.

Contact Marco Island Sail and Power Squadron for information about our excellent teaching courses and seminars on all aspects of boating and safety.

Call Chuck Wilson, squadron education officer, at (239) 389-9587, or visit our website:

© 2013 All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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