Distress Flares: The Low-Tech, Last-Ditch Option That Might Just Save You

badge-and-mottoWith the arsenal of distress signaling options available to mariners now, there are a lot of things that have to malfunction before you’ll find yourself rummaging for flares in your emergency kit.

But should the unfortunate situation arise where flares are all you’ve got, here are a few important things to keep in mind.

All distress signaling devices have pros and cons.

Flares may be a ‘last-ditch’ choice, but if used correctly, parachute flares can be seen upwards of 40 miles away in ideal conditions and can last up to a minute (in daylight conditions, this range is reduced to about 10 miles). They also have the advantage of being technology and electricity-free and relatively user-friendly.

There are four main types of flares recognized as distress signals: parachute rocket, multi-star, hand-held and smoke. Parachute flares, multi-star flares and handheld flares will all be visible day and night (although the visibility range is significantly reduced in daylight). Smoke signal flares operate based on a chemical reaction, so are visible during daylight only.

If you have multiple flares, fire one of them as soon as you realize you’re in a distress situation and then save the rest for when the best odds are that someone’s looking. This will depend a great deal on where you are and what kind of traffic is in the area. Are you close to a populated shore? Did you recently pass another vessel? Is it foggy? Asking yourself these types of questions can help you decide when to use your flares to maximize your chances of it being seen.

Like all safety equipment, flares need to be checked on a regular basis, especially before leaving port. Check the date of manufacture — if it’s more than four years old, it is considered to be expired and should be replaced.

Flares of all kinds should be kept in a watertight container and the instruction labels should be checked to ensure they’re still legible. Also give some thought to where you store them. It should be in a place that’s easily accessible. Every vessel is different, consider what route you would likely take if you’re abandoning ship and stash the kit somewhere within easy reach of that path.

Keep in mind, especially when launching flares from a liferaft, that flares and their embers can burn holes through rubber in no time and be aware of other potential hazards, as well — especially fuel in the boat or in the water. Always hold or launch them over the leeward side and slightly downwind — not straight up.


Distress flares are a universally recognized signal that you are in imminent danger. Never use flares as fireworks, or fire them off for any reason other than a real distress situation.

The use of red flares for training is illegal. When conducting training or exercising you must use white training flares. However, when carrying out training using white flares, it is critical you notify the Joint Rescue Coordination Centre in advance to ensure that there is no false activation of the SAR System (1-800-563-2444).

Flare sightings are taken very seriously and can unnecessarily launch SAR resources, taking time and attention away from real cases.

Finally, make sure you contact your local police, fire department or the place you purchased them originally — to properly dispose of expired or damaged flares.

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