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Old 13-02-2011, 20:47   #1
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Why Carry Pyrotechnic Distress Signals ?

US boats are required by the US goverment to carry distress signals.

According to the regulation I can find on the internet, for vessels longer than 16 feet that can eighter be 3 day use, and 3 night use pyrotechnics, 3 combonation day and night use signals, OR a day use distress flag, and a night use distress "SOS" signal lamp.

The flag seems pretty straight foward. The signal lamp also seems pretty straight foward. It's pretty much just a lamp that flashes "SOS" in morse code as long as the switch is on. They appere to never need replacing, with only requireing updated batteris for the light to fuction, and I belive I can be fairly confident that any idoit can make them work. Including yours truely.

A "SOS" signal lamp costs about 10-30 bucks, and the flag is a wapping $9 or so. This compares to flares that start at 20 bucks, or so and go up, with replacements required every 42 months. Plus a flare could be used 3 times, I'd immagion a flag could be used as long as the sun shines, and the lamp for dang near all night while the batteries hold out. And that's not to mention the pretty pitiful proformance of the USCG minimum flares, dyes, and smoke generators.

As such, I see nothing to recomend the more traditional pyrotechnical distress signals over the non pryotechnic types. About the only possible advantage is with the SOLAS rocket flares with parachutes that can extend the horizion that they're seen. The USCG minimum pistol flares might be able to claim the same thing, but their flight time, brightness, and altitude suggest they are of very limited use.

Am I missing anything?

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Old 13-02-2011, 21:15   #2
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There are only two times, mainly at night, that I can justify using a parachute flare.

First, right after I get settled in the liferaft in case someone is in range.
Second, if I actually see another vessel.

Any other time would seem a waste. Some keep a strobe with their MOB poles, which works pretty good for attracting attention. One in a liferaft would be extra insurance.

A flag would seem like a good idea if the boat's still afloat but from a distance wouldn't do much good, unless the passer-by's are peeping at you through binoculars, and hoping they know what the flag means.

Personally, I think it's best to carry as many different signals as possible. I'll use anything that'll keep me from starving/drowning. If your adrift there are never too many signals. I've even considered a kite in the ditch bag. If big enough it could even pull a life raft.
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Old 13-02-2011, 21:15   #3
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If I was in distress, I think I would want a flare as opposed to a flag. Mainly because I would want to be seen, and I don't think a flag is gonna do it. Just bought repacement flares to day (old ones had expired) cost me $16.99 at china-mart (wal-mart). They exipire in 2014. If that was the most expensive thing I had to worry about cruising, I would be one happy camper.
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Old 13-02-2011, 21:31   #4
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During the day you either need a whooping big flag or an observer with good binocs for the flag to attract attention. Also you need the observer to know that the flag displayed is a distress signal. Fire and smoke can attract naked eye attention from a lot farther away and almost everyone will realize they are distress signals or at least that they should investigate.

At night if you know there is someone knowledgable watching, the SOS light might be the way to go. Civilians might just think it is a goofy flashing light. Once again, flares and fire are more likely to be seen as distress signals, and they give a 360 degree signal to people you may not know are within range.

The one time I was personally involved in a distress situation, flares during the daytime brought help.

The one time I was aware of someone else's distress situation, flares were noted by someone in my party and the USCG was informed. The SOS light would not have been visible from people in the water at that range. More importantly the light would not have stood out against all the house lights on the hillside in the background.

If you are trying to meet USCG minimum requirements at the minimum price, go with the flag and light.

If you are trying for maximum safety go with flag, light, flares, smoke and handheld VHF.

If you have budget limitations, then you will have to make some difficult decisions.

The SOS light has to be waterproof, otherwise it does you no good when you try to use it while personally in the water.
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Old 13-02-2011, 22:24   #5
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If they can see your flag, they can see you in a raft, which means they're so close, that they can smell how long you've been out and the flag is pretty much a moot point.

If the cost of a minimum flare kit is keeping you up at night, then maybe this isn't the thing for you. The point of it all is to be seen which is very difficult at sea. Height is everything and even then, with high flying rockets, it's extremely difficult to be seen, so yea, waving a flag may be legally accommodating, but it's your ass you're kissing off, not the people looking for flares instead of the flag you're waving.

Personally, I look forward to blasting off my expired flares. It's a right of passage and time to be grateful you didn't need the damn things. Having been involved with several rescues, I can assure you, those that did get pickup were lucky, very lucky and if you want to short sheet your survival chances, by going with a flag and flashlight, then go for it, though ask yourself how lucky you really are, as you stand next to the shelf with the flare reloads, next to the flags and dinky flashlight.
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Old 13-02-2011, 22:52   #6
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The relevant CFR's:

Title 46 Sec. 25.25-19 Visual distress signals.

Each uninspected passenger vessel must meet the visual distress
signal requirements of 33 CFR part 175 applicable to the vessel.
Title 33 Sec. 175.110 Visual distress signals required.

(a) No person may use a boat 16 feet or more in length, or any boat
operating as an uninspected passenger vessel subject to the requirements
of 46 CFR chapter I, subchapter C, unless visual distress signals
selected from the list in Sec. 175.130 or the alternatives in Sec.
175.135, in the number required, are onboard. Devices suitable for day
use and devices suitable for night use, or devices suitable for both day
and night use, must be carried.
(b) Between sunset and sunrise, no person may use a boat less than
16 feet in length unless visual distress signals suitable for night use,
selected from the list in Sec. 175.130 or Sec. 175.135, in the number
required, are on board.




Subpart C_Visual Distress Signals

Sec. 175.130 Visual distress signals accepted.

(a) Any of the following signals, when carried in the number
required, can be used to meet the requirements of Sec. 175.110:
(1) An electric distress light meeting the standards of 46 CFR
161.013. One is required to meet the night only requirement.
(2) An orange flag meeting the standards of 46 CFR 160.072. One is
required to meet the day only requirement.
(3) Pyrotechnics meeting the standards noted in Table 175.130.
(b) Any combination of signal devices selected from the types noted
in paragraphs (a) (1), (2) and (3) of this section, when carried in the
number required, may be used to meet both day and night requirements.
Examples--the combination of two hand held red flares (160.021), and one
parachute red flare (160.024 or 160.036) meets both day and night
requirements. Three hand held orange smoke (160.037) with one electric
distress light (161.013) meet both day and night requirements.

Table 175.130--Pyrotechnic Signal Devices
number Number
under 46 Device description Meets requirement for required
160.021 Hand Held Red Flare Day and Night............ 3
Distress Signals \3\.
160.022 Floating Orange Smoke Day Only................. 3
Distress Signals.
160.024 Parachute Red Flare Day and Night \1\........ 3
Distress Signals.
160.036 Hand-Held Rocket- Day and Night............ 3
Propelled Parachute Red
Flare Distress Signals.
160.037 Hand-Held Orange Smoke Day Only................. 3
Distress Signals.
160.057 Floating Orange Smoke Day Only................. 3
Distress Signals.
160.066 Distress Signal for Day and Night \2\........ 3
Boats, Red Aerial
Pyrotechnic Flare.
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Old 13-02-2011, 22:56   #7
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Additionally, the night signaling device must meet USCG requirements.





Subpart 161.013_Electric Distress Light for Boats

Sec. 161.013-13 Manufacturer certification and labeling.

(a) Each electric light intended as a Night Visual Distress Signal
required by 33 CFR part 175 must be certified by the manufacturer as
complying with the requirements of this subpart.
(b) Each electric light must be legibly and indelibly marked with:
(1) Manufacturer's name;
(2) Replacement battery type;
(3) Lamp size; and
(4) The following words--
``Night Visual Distress Signal for Boats Complies with U. S. Coast
Guard Requirements in 46 CFR 161.013. For Emergency Use Only.
(c) If an electric light is designed for use with dry cell batteries
the label
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Old 13-02-2011, 22:59   #8
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The cheapest USCG approved light I can find is ~$30 if you use lithium batteries, so that's an additional $10. Your "$9" light is now "$40". A pack of four flares is $25.

I'm not saying to not use strobe lights for their emergency purposes. If it's a commercial vessel every life raft must have one equipped and they are terrific for search and rescue. But it's not as simple as fitting whatever cheapo strobe from the drug store up and calling it good.
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Old 14-02-2011, 00:58   #9
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I understand that "Laser" flares have now been ratified as "for use at sea" in the USA?

These do seem to be a great step forward in the distress signalling world.

Your "West Marine" sell them - Greatland Rescue Flares - I think they are called.

When friends of ours travelled to the US last year we tasked them with obtaining 2 for use on board Talisman. Came in at around $80.00 each, two AA batts last for 70 hours use, are water resistant to 10 meters and the Batts can be changed (so 80 bucks divided by (insert number of years use?) = not much per year).
Can't explode (as has happened here in the UK recently), any fool can work them, have been tested with Aircraft and found to be non damaging to the eye.

Difficult to find fault with them.

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Old 14-02-2011, 01:12   #10
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Originally Posted by Simes View Post
I understand that "Laser" flares have now been ratified as "for use at sea" in the USA?

These do seem to be a great step forward in the distress signalling world.
Yep! And here's the whole shooting match, kites and all.

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Old 14-02-2011, 01:32   #11
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At night, a fire is a great signal for help. One evening about 30 years ago, fuel from a backpacker's stove overflowed during priming, sitting upon a cookie sheet on the cockpit seat. Before it burned about (within 30 seconds), someone had motored out from a nearby marina and asked if we needed help.
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Old 14-02-2011, 03:47   #12
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I think blowing a trail of smoke has a benefit - as doesn't require an onlooker to understand the nautical niceties (i.e. passenger on a cruise ship or crew on another yacht ). Smoke is not good. Orange Smoke not a firework.

Of course not so good for attracting attention from a distance, but for me an EPIRB (and a VHF / DSC) wins hands down on that (I don't have an EPIRB, and probably won't get). But will always be possible circumstances where firing a flare straight up is the best solution.

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Old 14-02-2011, 03:57   #13
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Rocket lights can be seen from a far distance, better than each flash light or flag signal.
The orange smoke argument (post 12) would also convince me to carry pyrotechnic stuff too for distress purpose.
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Old 14-02-2011, 04:55   #14
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As a former USCG rescue helo have hit a subject I'm very comfortable with.

Flares are VERY limited in their rescue capabilities...only in 20 years did I see a few cases where flares actualy led to rescue...on the other hand...I never heard of an SOS light or flag contribute. Few people would even guess at most lights on the water are usually seen as blinking...the flag at any distance isn't very visible...waving arms would be better.

Nothing like an EPIRB or PLB. Strobes are good but only if someone is alraedy looking...otherwise you just look like fishing gear.

VHF radio..especially handheld can be the lifesaver in coastal areas.

It's the initial distress that's important. Unless someone THINKS you are in distress or you have sent a successful initial distress...about the only thing that gets attention IS a's the only thing the regular boater or landlubber sees easily as distress...therefore the bigger and more the merrier....

Now that USCG aircrews fly with night vision...reflective tape on PFDs can be seen clearly for miles in even just don't overlook the easy either.

Getting rescued is a several step process...think it through and put yor money where it does the most. And flares are a quantum leap above SOS lights and flags. EPIRBs and PLBs are quantum leaps over everything else.

Bottom line...think of rescue as a process that your life depends on...AND if you are worried about a few bucks over your and your friends/loved ones have to live with that if anything ever happens.

PS...most of the CFR references posted are for commercial vessels...other than 3 flares and PFD's for everyone on board...that's all that is required for signaling distress...obviously there's lots more you could have...but don't use just the commercials standards or requirements...they fall way short of what my life is worth!
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Old 14-02-2011, 07:01   #15
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During a life raft test, which had been cleared by the USCG, several miles off Pensacola, Florida, we used a variety of pyro Solas/nonSolas flares. By my memory, conditions were in daylight with steady mist to rain in very cloudy conditions with a variable ceiling near 5,000 feet, waves 1-2 feet, light and variable winds. Visibility was about 5 miles, variable. Air temp was in the 50s.

Whenever we released a series of parachute flares, we usually had a boat or two show up to render assistance; we didn't have the same kind of response with the hand-held flares. We did a similar test in the Chesapeake with similar results, although that test was only for a couple of hours in excellent weather. In a nutshell, the parachute flares were visible from a longer distance and they "signaled emergency very clearly," as voiced by some of the responders.

Of course, offshore Pensacola, near shipping lanes for traffic in and out of the bay, along with recreational boaters and fishing boats, there were many people who were available to respond to the flares, despite the weather. Well offshore, most signaling would be limited to times when a sea going vessel or low flying aircraft was visible. Moreover, some devices are best suited for visibility from an airplane, and some from a surface vessel, some for both; directions of travel need to be considered as well.

In the Pensacola weather conditions, colors were dramatically diminished (but yellow life rafts/survival suits seemed more visible than orange). Flares were dramatically visible through the haze, especially the Solas flares, which also offered longer burn times. Some high-powered flashlights were tested (but not the SOS type light discussed in this thread) and they were not very visible. We didn't test them at night. BTW, the Solas/3M reflective patches were outstanding in reflecting light, either from the flares or flashlights.

I don't recall how many flares we discharged, but we went through large boxes of them. Many of them were out of date - some by several years - but most of them discharged (even a few current flares failed to discharge). Space permitting, save your out-of-date flares.

One salient issue: The SOLAS flares were superior, especially the parachute flares, which went higher, burned brighter and burned longer.

Smoke can add to visibility, but it dissapates fairly quickly and lacks the brightness of a flare. We used dye in the water too, and while adding some visibility, depending on the water conditions, it dissipates fairly rapidly.

In previous tests in Pensacola, reflective signal mirrors were used with good results, but they require practice to use effectively, and are most effective in good daylight, not in very cloudy conditions or night.

We also used the pencil laser flares - green and red - in an associated daylight land test. While we were successful in attracting attention up to several miles in our tests from ground to an airplane, this device required practice and skill in aiming. Moreover, we "cheated" a bit with careful pre-flight planning and using radio communication to help target the device.

I've flown airborne searches for small boats, and in lowered visibility as in Pensacola, seeing a small liferaft in the water especially without some signaling device, isn't as easy as it seems. Anything to add to visibility, is a good thing, such as trailing the (biggest) commercially available orange streamer behind a life raft, but I wouldn't stake my life on a flag. It just isn't big enough, but I'd rather have one than not. I've also heard of tethered inflatable "ballons," but I don't have any first-hand experience with them.

Pyro devices are not 100% fail-proof, but they are about as simple and durable as an emergency signaling device can be ... KISS at work. I wouldn't want to be without them (as many as would be practical) at sea. I wouldn't be comfortable with just an SOS signaling light, but the signaling light could be an additional asset, especially at night.

Of course, a properly-registered EPIRB (a float plan is good too) is the real key to rescue (depending where you are; some places don't have the resources to look for you). I'd opt for two of them (or maybe an EPIRB and a PLB). A properly equipped liferaft can help keep you alive long enough to be rescued.

The people conducting these tests were experienced mariners, pilots and rescue instructors, but many inexperienced folks participated. None of this stuff is magic, but when limited resources are available to ensure survival, understanding/training to use them is essential. None of these tools are intuitive, and the midst of an emergency is not the time to be reading instructions, or wishing for equipment you don't have.

Roger Whoops! I didn't realize how long this was. Sorry.

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