Distress flare lights are part of the safety equipment you are required to have on board. We always hope we never come into a situation where we need to use it, but flares can save our lives when we are in danger. Flare lights allow us to be seen by other boaters and potential rescuers and they alert others around you that you are in distress.
Different types of signaling lights are available – traditional pyrotechnical flares but also flare lights that use batteries. Our product choice features both types. You can compare them right away and decide which are the best marine safety flares you should acquire for your boat.
How To Choose A Distress Flare Light – Buying Guide
Light Range / Visibility Range
A product is considered good if it can be visible from at least 1 nautical mile when activated (USCG requirement). Luckily, many flares exceed this by a wide margin. Since outside conditions influence visibility, there are regulations on which flares should be used by day (orange smoke) and which ones are better at night (bright red).
According to SOLAS (Safety of Life at Sea), handheld flares should emit at least 15000cd (candela) of light for 1 minute, while parachute flares should emit 30000cd for at least 40 seconds. This is an international standard requirement for your safety.
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The most common type people use is the pyrotechnic flare light. It operates thanks to the combustion of materials inside, creating a bright light (and high temperatures). These SOS flares come in different shapes – handheld, meteor, parachute, and pistol.
Parachute and pistol flares can be seen from large distances and even over the horizon curve if they rise high enough. They aren’t very good for precise locating however, they only point in a general direction. On the other side, handheld flare lights are great to use when you know help is on its way because it’s easier to pinpoint the location. If you plan to do international travel, the pistol flare type should be avoided as it is considered a “firearm” in various countries and will be confiscated by the police upon arrival.
Another option is the LED distress light. The design is becoming better and many of these products have been approved by the US Coast Guard. Electric distress lights work on batteries and emit light for a much longer period. They also don’t produce high temperatures which are dangerous when using regular flares.
The third option is distress lasers made for this purpose. While they can be visible from great distances (over 30 miles in good conditions), these have their downsides. Light is too concentrated in one direction – you aren’t very visible from the sides. For this reason, lasers shouldn’t be your main distress lights, but it couldn’t hurt to have them as a backup.
You need to know how to properly use the flares when the time comes. Familiarize yourself with the instructions – many will have these written right on them. Pyrotechnics can be very dangerous – heat can cause injury to you or set your vessel on fire. When using a handheld flare, point it downwind, and also downward. Embers can be falling out and you want to minimize the chance of an accident.
LEDs are much better in this sense. They are safer to keep on board because they are not flammable. Usually, you just twist them to turn them on, and many can be easily attached to your life jacket. Be careful to use distress signals only when you are in imminent danger. Rescue services take these calls very seriously, and it is punishable by law to make false calls.
When ignited, a flare light can last for a couple of minutes, depending on the particular product. This is why evaluating the right moment to activate them can make a huge difference. On the other hand, LEDs can last for many hours thanks to the batteries inside. This drastically increases your chances to be seen by someone in a boat or plane. Another advantage is that they can be used again, by simply replacing the batteries.
Coast Guard Approval
There are rules and regulations about distress flare lights you must have on your boat. This is to ensure you have a reliable product if you come to need it. Equipment is tested and then put on their list. Many LED laser torches are now whitelisted.
According to their regulations, you need to have 3 flares you can use by day, and 3 you can use at night. Most products can be used in both periods, so you need a minimum of 3 on the boat. However, some are only certified for day/night use, so pay attention when buying.
Q: Why Do We Carry Pyrotechnic Flares On Board?
These are a part of your standard safety equipment. You need them to notify passers-by and potential rescuers when your life is in danger. You can get into very risky situations while on your boat, with no help nearby.
Even though nowadays you are recommended to call for help using VHF radio onboard (if it’s reachable and in function), emergency flares can still be useful because you can light them up and allow rescuers to locate you quickly when they are near.
Q: What Are Distress Lights?
These are strong lights that can be seen and recognized as a call for help from a great distance. It can be seen from another boat, an airplane, and sometimes even from land. The color choice is determined by which color is best seen when contrasted to the surroundings, but they are usually red.
Q: Can Distress Lights Expire?
Yes, and it’s usually 42 months from the date of manufacturing. This means you need to replace this kit every three years. This is a safety measure because many people forget to check the state of their distress lights regularly. However, flares can usually be operable for much longer periods, so keep your expired flares because you will never wish you “didn’t have more flares”. For safety and legal reasons though, maintain a set of “current” flares that are not expired on board.
Nothing prohibits you to have the expired flares on board as a backup to your new ones – they may even come in handy. LED distress lights don’t have an expiry date, but they do have batteries that should be changed from time to time.
Q: Where Should I Store The Distress Lights On My Boat?
For them to last and function when needed, distress lights must be kept away from any moisture. A waterproof plastic container is not a bad idea. They shouldn’t get thrown around too much, to avoid physical damage.
Keep them away from heat sources, especially the pyrotechnic ones. They can catch fire and cause serious damage. When your flares have expired, don’t just throw them in the trash, they can present a hazard. Be sure to contact your marine authorities to learn where and how you should do this.
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Since you must have this safety equipment, it’s a good idea to choose a product which can save you. The best distress flare light will comply with USCG regulations and be efficient when you light it up. Always keep in mind your safety on the boat, and hope it won’t come at a time when you’re required to use it.