Only once in my career as a USCG helicopter rescue swimmer did I ever launch on a flare sighting that turned into an actual rescue. Three commercial fishermen were at anchor, sleeping, when their shrimp boat caught fire. By the time they got on deck, the wheelhouse was ablaze, and the only thing on the boat not on fire was these three guys, the Type 2 PFDs they were wearing and the one flare they grabbed out of the flare locker. Let’s face it: if you ever find yourself lighting off a flare to signal distress, things have gone very, very, wrong for you. But you have to have them, and given that they are tools for very desperate times, you should know a little about them before then. Here are five things you may not have considered (but should) about the flares you are required to carry.
1. Flares never really expire:
Federal regulations require that all pyrotechnic devices must be labeled and marked. One stipulation involves the expiration date. Specifically, it states, “The expiration date must be not more than 42 months from the date of manufacture.” This rule exists to make it harder for you to have bad flares aboard — not because they can’t last more than 42 months, but because the Coast Guard knows many boaters can’t be trusted to inspect them regularly. They can go bad, they can rust or be damaged, but they don’t really expire. (Highway flares — made of the same stuff as signal flares — have no expiration date.) From experience, I can tell you that flares that expired a decade ago have a very high probability of going off. If the casing is cracked or deteriorated in any way, the flares are bad. But all things being equal, flares far outlive their expiration date. That doesn’t mean you can count them as your required flares aboard (rules are rules) but nothing says you can’t keep them for use in an emergency. If you have space, keep undamaged expired flares in a box marked “expired flares.” If your three handheld day/night flares don’t get you rescued, you’ll have backup options for years to come.
2. The day end can be better at night than the night end:
If you’ve burned through the night ends of your day/night flares, don’t give up. The “day” end works great at night. That’s because the “day” flare does not just put out orange smoke; it puts out very, very hot orange smoke. Search aircraft have FLIR (Forward Looking Infrared — a misnomer because most lenses now pan 360 degrees) and crews flying at night are equipped with NVGs (Night Vision Goggles). The long trail of hot smoke will create an ever-widening wedge that points directly to you and is one of the largest, most visible signals to search aircraft. Compared to the bright 20 to 30-second “night” flare, the “daytime use” orange smoke is arguably more effective. When signaling any search aircraft (or vessel), remember that the end of the flare stays very hot — long after the thing has gone out. On FLIR, this paints a very bright light so continue waving extinguished flares if you think those on the aircraft may be looking your way.
3. Flares can deflate life rafts:
Pyrotechnic flares can drip. Flares are a form of phosphorous, on fire, and can produce a liquid-hot drip of molten pain when misused. If you let that stuff fall onto your liferaft, you’ve got yourself a hole and rapidly escaping air. So, if you find yourself using a handheld flare, try your best to point the thing downwind and hang it out over the side of life rafts and inflatable craft as far as possible.
4. Storage matters:
Boats are terrible places to keep things, especially things affected by temperature and humidity (like flares). I often see flares stored in Ziploc bags. Personally, I dislike that method. Though it offers some protection from moisture, it does nothing to reduce impact damage if they get knocked around in a drawer or on the shelf behind the navigation table. What do the pros do? They keep flares in a plastic box. Watertight storage is great, but I go a little further and drop in a desiccant packet to make sure that the flares (and any strikers) stay very dry.
5. If you don’t practice, then you don’t know what you are doing:
Remember: by the time you need to light these things off, things have gone very wrong. It will not be the best time to read instructions. If you have never lit off the type of flare you have, you are not ready. Practicing legally and safely is not hard at all; you just need to inform your local Coast Guard district where you intend to light off some practice flares. They will add your drills to their LMS (Local Notice to Mariners) and you will be free to fire away. This keeps them from launching a rescue when someone reports seeing your flares (and they will). Ideally, you should do this offshore; I suggest a solid half-mile (or downwind) from other vessel traffic. The smoke and fumes from flares are hazardous. Use your expired flares to practice, but make sure they are the same make and model as the ones you have aboard. If you don’t have any expired flares, buy a fresh set just to burn. It’s worth it. Read the directions and do everything the manufacturer suggests; you’ll be fine. And you will leave that exercise with the confidence and ability to use the devices we all never hope you will need in an emergency.
Use the flares that are just about to expire to practice, but make sure they are the same make and model as the ones you are replacing them with. Some manufacturers suggest disposing of the expired flares by lighting them off. Ideally, you should simply buy a fresh set just to burn. It’s worth it. Read the directions and do everything the manufacturer suggests. You will leave that exercise with the confidence and ability to use the devices we all never hope you will need in an emergency.