Wednesday, March 26

Flares - Hot Stuff

by Jeff Strunka

With all of the technological advances to improve safe boating, flares may not always be at the top of the list.  So do you carry only the minimum requirement to satisfy the Coast Guard or is it worth a little more investigation? We think it’s worth it.

Imagine this; you are on a night crossing, 25 miles out of Chicago on a 36’ sailboat heading for Muskegon, Michigan. A storm rolls in fast and the boat is struck with lightning knocking out all of your electronics, power, and put a hole in the hull of the boat. The hole is in an inaccessible area from inside the boat. You are in 3’- 5’ seas, the water is 58 degrees, and there’s no moonlight.  You are well out of cell phone range. Pretty scary indeed!

From the list of safety items below, choose the items that you currently have on your boat left to your disposal.  Since all electrical power is lost and you’re out of cell phone range you won't have a cell phone, AIS, VHF radio, DSC, or a hard wired GPS.


If you do not own an EPIRB (Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon), flares are now your main communication available to call for help. This example may make you think how important a life raft could be, but we will focus on flares for now.

The purpose of carrying flares is to signal and locate. With flares the most important thing is having them at your disposal when needed and using them when there is the greatest chance of being noticed. After putting on your life-jackets, locating and making your flares available is crucial.

There are many things to consider, but understanding the distance the flare will be seen at and matching that distance to the type of sailing you do, is extremely important. Due to the curvature of the earth, we are very limited in how far we can see. A man whose eyes are 6’ above the ground is able to see 3 miles to the horizon. 

A hand-held flare being held while standing on the deck of an average boat can be seen for 5 miles. At 21 miles out, the aerial flare needs to be propelled 250’ above the surface  of the water to be seen. At 40 miles, the aerial flare must be propelled over 1000’ to be seen. Of course, these ranges are based on perfect conditions. Add in rain, fog, etc and the visibility of your flares will be greatly reduced.

Looking at the example of seeing a flare from 21 miles out, it would only be seen when it reaches its highest point and only for a brief second.  From 21 miles, the 25mm Parachute Flare or Solas (Safety Of Life At Sea) flare that burns for 30 – 40 seconds and floats from a parachute, would offer the best chance to be spotted. At 25 miles out the standard 12 gauge red meteor would not be seen unless there was a boat within 21 miles and they happen to be looking in the direction that you are in. 

Along with flares, another USCG requirement is to carry smoke signals. These are most effective for daytime use. A hand-held  signal lasts for about 1 minute while a floating canister lasts for about 3 minutes. They both put out a large volume of orange smoke. If your boat is going to sink and you will be in the water or a life raft, hand-held flares and smoke signal flares will be needed to locate a small target during the daylight hours.

Click on this link for a list showing the capability of different flares offered by Orion Signal Flare Company.

Determine the type of sailing you do (day, night, offshore, ocean or coastal) and then compare the type of sailing you do to the product available. For a person that day sails within 5 miles of shore, the standard 12 gauge Meteor Pistol and hand-held flare kit should be adequate.

The cost of flares is another factor to consider too. Look at them as insurance. Most people have home insurance. Would you drop it because you never needed it in the last 15 years? What would you pay for flares if you were involved in the scenario presented in the beginning of this article? Be sure to come to Yachtapalooza on March 29th for a flare demo. You can see the full schedule of seminars here

Don't forget about 'Aftapalooza'! Columbia Yacht Club is hosting their annual Yachtapalooza after party, Aftapalooza, at the club. Get 1/2 off ALL drinks at the bar between 6-9pm plus live music by Patrick Gemkow.

See you there!

Have a happy and safe boating season! 

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