Flares; requirements and use

Carriage requirements and the use of flares for alerting and locating.

In last month’s Cruising News we published information on Electronic Visual Display Signals (EVDS), more commonly referred to as “laser flares”.

As a result we have had several enquiries from members asking if flares are carried on board simply to meet official requirements and if the merits of hand-held flares could be discussed following reports of a number of accidents involving their use.

Current requirements for the carriage of flares

Current regulations require recreational craft that are operating commercially, such as those that are used for training or for charter and private pleasure craft of 13.7 metres (45ft) in length and over to carry flares of one kind or another dependant on the area of operation.

The requirement for commercially operated vessels is set out in Marine Guidance Note 280 and for pleasure vessels in Marine Guidance Note 489(M).

Where carriage is not mandatory, boaters are free to choose what they wish to carry.

The issue of flare disposal has been a continual source of irritation for recreational boaters since the Health and Safety Executive amended the rules for carriage and storage, the MCA lost Crown Exemption for time expired flares collected and held on Coastguard premises and the withdrawal of the free collection and disposal service which was once provided by the MoD Explosive Ordnance Disposal Teams.

This, together with costs of replacement, has made devices such as EVDS seem like a much more attractive option, particularly for those who would much rather not carry pyrotechnics.

Using flares for alerting and locating

Most of us accept that it is prudent to carry some method of sending a distress alert and locating our position should SAR services be required.

In the past, the carriage of flares has satisfied both of these functions and the distinction between the two has become blurred.

COLREGs Annex 4, makes it quite clear that any flare is an internationally recognised signal for indicating distress.

The fact that a fired flare can be seen and recognised as such in order to raise an alert obviously at the same time provides a visual location.

With that in mind the RYA has set out the alternatives for the Alerting and Locating functions. The table has been endorsed by both the MCA and the RNLI.

Modern technology

Clearly there are those who will swear by the carriage of flares for use in distress and we fully respect that.

However, modern technology such as EPIRB, PLB and VHF DSC provides a more reliable option for distress alerting than flares, and presuming such technology is carried aboard a pleasure craft, the owner may now wish to consider whether there is a need to carry, flares, principally rocket flares, for alerting.

We make it quite clear that EVDS are not to be considered as an alternative for distress alerting.

“The final mile”

Assuming you have selected an EPIRB, PLB and/or a VHFDSC radio as the primary means for initiating distress, you need to consider how to aid your visual location.

Search and Rescue (SAR) services, equipped with radar and specialist homing equipment, may not need anything further, but in many instances locating the vessel in need of help in the “final mile” can be challenging, especially if the rescuer is another small craft.

Traditionally a handheld red flare at night time or in poor visibility or an orange smoke by day has been and probably still is the most effective solution for the “final mile” pinpointing of a vessel in distress.

However, the MCA recognise that EVDS do now provide a viable alternative, particularly at night. Thus it is now possible for a pleasure vessel under 13.7m (which is not by law required to carry flares) to indicate distress and its location without carrying traditional pyrotechnic flares.

An alerting device such as EPIRB (ideally with GPS and a homing device) or VHF DSC set (correctly connected to the GPS) which is suitable for the intended area of operation together with some form of EVDS for location in the final mile can provide a suitable and safe combination.

Additional Information

The RYA's Table of Guidelines for pleasure craft under 13.7m in length, outlines the combinations of equipment including flares, EPIRB, and VHFDSC, you could consider carrying and using to indicate that you need assistance, depending upon the type of your vessel and where you use it.