Flares are an essential piece of safety equipment when travelling on the water, and you are required by law to have them on board charter vessels. They should be stored in a watertight container, as they will stop working if got wet, and care should be taken to renew them before their best before date.

Flares come in three forms:

  • Handheld Flares
    Handheld flares are for use at close range, but can be seen up to 10 km away on a clear night. They last for about three minutes.
    Appearance : Handhelds come in a thin metal tube and look a little bit like an oversized indelible marker pen. The flare burns with an intense light.
    Safety : You should only hold onto the plastic part of the flare, as the metal tube will become white hot as the flare burns down. Do not look at the flare once lit, as it will hurt your eyes.
    Operation : Hold onto the plastic base. Pull it downwards and twist clockwise, then holding it downwind, push back up into the slot with the base of your palm.
  • Rocket/Parachute Flares
    Rocket flares are used to signal to ships just over the horizon, or to approaching aircraft as a position locater. They do not last for much more than a minute, but can be seen for up to 40km at night.
    Appearance : Rocket flares come in a long cylindrical tube, rather like a Pringles packet, with a plastic cap at both ends. The top and bottom will be clearly marked with embossed letters, for ease of recognition in the dark. This is basically a rocket in a box! Once activated, the rocket propels the flare into the air and the parachute attached to the flare opens and keeps the flare roughly over the target.
    Safety : Rocket flares should be set off upwind, and real care should be taken to ensure the flare is pointing the right way up! (Though this is pretty difficult to get wrong) The rocket makes a very loud whoosh as it goes off, and it is a good idea to try and protect you or your crews ears. If at sea, with no clear evidence of vessels on the horizon, rocket flares should be set off in pairs, a couple of minutes apart. A ship may not be sure if they have seen the signal or not, and sending a second flare up will confirm that they have sighted something.
    Operation : Take off the two plastic caps, ensuring the flare is the right way up. Point the flare either stright upwards or upwind, pull out the safety pin and push the plastic trigger upwards, flat against the side on the container.
  • Smoke Flare
    The smoke flare is for making yourself a conspicuous target when being searched for by rescue craft, be they aircraft or lifeboats. They are only for use in the daytime, as the smoke would be invisible at night. They are visible up to 4km away.
    Appearance : The smoke flare either looks like a handheld, or a squat cylinder. Once operational, the flare billows out a cloud of choking orange smoke.
    Safety : The smoke is pretty unpleasant, so care should be taken that the flare is operated downwind.
    Operation : Handhelds work exactly the same as handheld light flares above. For cannister smoke flares, remove the plastic cap on the base and either pull the pin and throw downwind into the sea, or just throw downwind into the sea. Some flares are activated by the seawater, others need the manual activation. Read the instructions to be sure which type you have!

Flares also come in two colours, apart from the smoke flare, which is always orange. Red flares mean Distress, and should be used if you are in a Mayday situation. White flares are used to signal your position to other vessels in the event of being run down. The white rocket flares can also be used at night to light up the area if you have lost someone overboard.

All flares come with operating instructions printed on the side. Familiarise yourself with their operation if you are often on the water, as they may save your life in an emergency. Always report to the coastguard if you are going to use flares on manoevures, and let the coastguard know when you have finished, just in case there is a real emergency.

Sources: Royal Yachting Association saftey procedures, personnal experience!