Visual Distress Signals 101

by Sherri ~ April 9th, 2010. Filed under: Kayaking Equipment, Paddling Safety, Safety Equipment.

IMGP2240I’m going to attempt to discuss the subject of visual distress signals, primarily “flares”.  For some reason I find this a complicated topic to describe in a written format, but here goes.  Feel free to e-mail questions to me if something doesn’t seem clear.  The links that I have included in this post are not intended as an endorsement of that particular site, only as a way to illustrate and inform you about a particular kind of visual distress signal.  As you read this article, always keep in mind that none of these products and pieces of equipment will keep you safe, but rather it is the use of good judgment and skills that will prevent you from getting into trouble in the first place.  Hopefully you will never have to resort to using any of your signaling devices to get help in an emergency.

The minimum requirements for sea kayakers paddling on US Coast Guard patrolled waters is  to carry 3 “night” signals when operating   between sunset and sunrise.  No visual distress signals are “required” for daytime operation.  Coast Guard patrolled waters includes the Great Lakes, the Mississippi River, large navigable coastal estuaries and some sections of rivers that drain into the Great Lakes.  A local example would be the Milwaukee River from Lake Michigan up to the location where the old North Avenue dam was removed.  Obviously you may choose to carry more than the minimum or you may choose to carry some signals that are not Coast Guard approved in addition to the USCG minimums that make you “legal”.

When choosing which visual distress signals to carry to meet your legal requirements, you do need to remember that not all signals work at night.  Smoke flares and dye markers are not visible at night, so they do not meet the Coast Guard requirements, but they can both be very useful when you are attempting to be seen from the air during the day.  You also need to think about whose attention you will be trying to gain with your signals if you run into trouble.  Will you be trying to alert people on shore, other boaters, or planes flying overhead?  Are you in an area with a lot of people on shore and/or boat traffic or are you in a very remote area with no one likely to be found for miles around?  How much money can you afford to spend?  Where will you carry your signaling devices?

There is an amazing array of visual distress signals from which to choose.  In this post I’m going to talk about the pyrotechnic devices that you can use to get the attention of other people to signal you are in distress and the ones that can be used to assist the emergency responders in locating you when they come looking.  Some of these devices are “hand held” meaning that you will be holding a burning/smoking stick in your hands.  The aerial devices involve launching a flare into the air.  Some aerial flares have a self-contained launcher built into the flare while others require a separate gun or launcher to propel the flare into the air.  Flares vary widely in size, burn time, heights that they can reach, and price.  All flares have expiration dates and need to be replaced approximately every 3 years.  Expired flares do not meet your legal requirements, but you may want to continue to carry them in addition to your fresh flares for additional safety backup.  Remember that whatever distress signals you choose to carry, you will need to be able to deploy them most likely while being thrown around in wind and waves with gloved hands or fingers that are becoming cold incapacitated.  Devices requiring precise hand-eye coordination and manual dexterity probably are not a good choice.

Hand-held flares are sort of like sparklers on steroids. After igniting the flare, it will burn for around 1-3 minutes.  You need to be careful not to burn yourself with the sparks and chemicals that shoot and drip off the flare while it is burning.  For signaling distress, you should have red flares.  While these flares are very bright, they may not be seen from very far away when you are in a kayak since you are floating very close to the surface of the water and may even be hidden by large waves at times.  They are, however, quite visible to search aircraft flying overhead.  White flares are used to illuminate an area and direct boats, helicopters, searchers, etc. and may not be perceived as an emergency signal by a distant observer.  Hand-held smoke flares can be useful items to carry to help emergency personnel find you during a daytime search, but they do not meet the requirements for your 3 “night” signals.

Aerial flares are generally the flares of choice for kayakers.  The most popular model is probably the “Orion Skyblazer” because it is relatively compact, self-contained, waterproof, and floatable.  Unfortunately, they are not cheap, so you will be spending about $50 to replace them every 3 years.  While they do claim to be waterproof, I would recommend treating them as though they are not.  I had some less than satisfactory results from Skyblazers about 10 years ago at a flare-shoot event.  All 6 of my expired Skyblazers failed to fire.  While I had carried them in a zip-lock plastic bag, I can only assume that moisture was the reason for the failures.  Newer versions of the Skyblazers claim to be improved, so hopefully my experience would not be repeated, but I still suggest that you find a small drybag and carry your flares inside anyway.  Better safe then sorry.  Since it is possible that you could get separated from your kayak in an emergency, it is best to carry at least some of your flares on your person.  The Skyblazer is launched by pulling on a small chain while pointing the flare away from you into the air.  It can reach a height of about 450 feet and has a burn time just under 7 seconds.  Another compact choice is the Pen Flare Miniflare 3. I have not used these flares personally, but they seem to have many of the same advantages as the Skyblazers in terms of small size.  From what I could see in doing my research, the disadvantages of this system would be that they are not as readily available in our local stores as the Skyblazers, and you have to make sure you do not lose the pen launcher.  Since the Skyblazers are self-contained, you do not have to worry about using a separate launching device.  The pen flares seem to have very good brightness, although they only shoot about half as high into the air as the Skyblazers.  Prices seemed slightly less than that of the Skyblazers, but again, that assumes you can find the cartridges in 3 years when your old ones have expired.  I’m not sure that all of the pen flares meet USCG requirements, but one of the kits I saw included a couple of “bear banger” shells.  This might be a good choice for the paddler heading to a remote, inland site where Coast Guard requirements aren’t a concern, but bears are.  The “Orion Pocket Rocket” also seems like it would be a good choice for a compact, waterproof flare kit.  The price seemed to be pretty reasonable.  Once again, the problem seems to be in local availability.  Many online distributors either will not ship flares at all, or it is very expensive to have them shipped because they are subject to HAZMAT shipping regulations.  Therefore, your decision on what flares to carry may be determined by what you can find in your local stores.  Don’t be afraid to ask your local retailer about special ordering, especially if they are carrying other products from the same manufacturer that you are looking for.  My local West Marine store doesn’t always have what I want, but if I don’t need it immediately, they can often order it from their extensive catalog and have it shipped to the store.

Another popular choice for aerial flares are the pistol-launched flares. The most common is the 12-gauge pistol.  While the height and burn times for the 12-gauge is only slightly better than that of the Skyblazers, the brightness and visibility of the 12-gauge flare is MUCH better.  It only costs about $25 to replace your 12-gauge flares every 3 years which is also an advantage over the Skyblazers, and the pistol launcher is fairly inexpensive especially when purchased as part of a set.  Once you have the pistol, you will only need to replace the cartridges as they expire.  The 25mm pistol is a little more expensive and not quite as easy to find for sale.  Burn time for 25mm shells is comparable to the Skyblazers and 12-gauge shells, but the brightness is about twice that of the 12-gauge pistol cartridges.  Do be aware that pistol-launched flare guns may be considered a firearm in certain areas and may be subject to laws and restrictions relating to firearms.

The absolute king of visibility in aerial flares are the self-contained parachute aerial flares. These flares soar to heights near 1000 feet in the air and burn for up to 40 seconds.  The problem is that they are much bulkier than other aerial flares and very expensive usually costing about $40 or more per flare.   These flares are not always easy to find locally, and the cost to ship one is often more expensive than the flare itself.

Personally, I currently carry a 12-gauge pistol launcher along with an assortment of other non-pyrotechnic signaling devices which I will talk about in a future post.  I have been trying to cut back on the number of flares that I carry.  Besides the significant cost, a big problem with flares is what to do with them after they expire.  It’s OK to carry a few extra expired flares as added insurance, but after 20 years of kayaking, these old flares really start to pile up and they can’t just be tossed in the trash.  The best option for disposal is to look for a sanctioned “flare-shoot” event where you can practice shooting off your old expired flares.  It’s always good to know how to use your flares before you find yourself in a situation where someone’s life depends on you getting it right.  Do be aware that you should never just go ahead and shoot off any flares on or near the water unless you are really in distress.  Being charged with sending a false distress call is a felony and can incur very serious penalties.  If you are still looking for ways to dispose of your old flares, you may need to contact your local fire or police department or Coast Guard station for suggestions.  I tried that and haven’t gotten very far.  At this point, I’m waiting for return calls.  In doing some internet research, it doesn’t seem that there is any uniform recommendation on what to do with these things after they are about 6 years old.  In some parts of the country there are some flare collection programs that have been set up, but  until you do find a way to safely dispose of them, make sure that you store them carefully as you would any firearms.  People (especially kids) can get seriously hurt if they stumble across some old flares and start playing around with them.  If anyone out there has official information from a government organization on what to do with old flares, I’d love to hear from you.

Til next time,


5 Responses to Visual Distress Signals 101

  1. Silbs

    Nice article. You really covered it. I wonder if the new laser flares will take their place as the most usuable devise and the most effective in all conditions. I am not aware of how much they cost.

  2. Sherri

    The laser flares aren’t cheap. They run around $80-$100. However, they don’t have any expiration dates. Mine uses a lithium battery that has about a 10-year life and is waterproof. It is small and fits easily into the pocket of my PFD. They’re much easier to use than a signal mirror and work even when there is no sun. I’ll be talking about the laser flares, along with several other signaling devices in my post today. Thanks for the comment.

  3. Dave

    Good article. I too use orion skyblazers and am quite concerned about their high failure rate. A few years ago at DCSKS all of my expired flares failed, while most, if not all, of the 25-mm flares that others shot off just fine. I’ve been considering carrying these flares. But how do you carry them on your person? How about in a fanny pack under your spray deck? Or do you just carry skyblazers in the pfd and keep the 25-mm/pistol in the day hatch?

  4. Sherri

    Right now I have a small dry bag that can be carried around my waist. It’s the kind used for carrying your keys and wallet while at the beach swimming or snorkeling. I can fit my 12-gauge pistol and flares in the waist pack. I often will strap the dry bag to the deck rigging right in front of the cockpit so that I can easily reach it. I could also choose to strap it to my person. I do have some Skyblazers in my PFD at all times. The 25mm pistols are slightly larger than the 12-gauge, but I think it would still fit in the dry bag I am using.

  5. Ranger Steve

    For the folks that want to look into the visibility issues, Boat US Foundation for Boating Safety did a full review on signaling devices and claimed vs actual visibility.

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