Boat Flare Requirements | Everything You Need To Know

It surprises some boaters to discover that strict regulations apply, particularly regarding the safety equipment they carry on board.

All requirements are very reasonable and will be appreciated in an emergency situation where help is needed.

In this article, we discuss the legislative requirements for carrying distress flares. We also describe each of the categories of flares as defined in the legislation.

A few exceptions include vessels used in inland waters, less than 1 mile from the shore, and boats used in organized events.

Before we begin, it’s worth noting that all powerboats over 16 feet and sailboats over 20 feet are required to carry visual distress signals.

Are Flares Required To Be Carried By All Vessels?

Several regulatory bodies ensure boating safety standards.

The COLREGs (the 1972 Convention On The International Regulations For Preventing Collisions At Sea) and SOLAS (The International Safety Of Life At Sea) – cover sailing in international waters.

The U.S. government and states enact laws and regulations to enforce safety standards, and the United States Coast Guard is responsible for enforcing compliance.

The regulations require different quantities of flares to be carried according to the size of the boat.

CategoryLengthRequired Distress Signal DevicesAdditional Requirements
Pleasure Craft (Powered by Motor)Under 19.7 Feet3 x Type A, B, C, or D devices (Not exceeding one type D)Alternatively, a watertight flashlight
Sailing Boats/Engine Powered Boats19.7 Feet – 29.5 Feet6 x Type A, B, C, or D devices (No more than 2 of type D)Must have a watertight flashlight
Sailing Boats/Engine Powered Boats29.5 Feet – 39.4 Feet12 x Type A, B, C, or D devices (No more than 6 of type D)Must have a watertight flashlight
Sailing Boats/Engine Powered Boats39.4 Feet – 78.7 FeetCombination of 12 type A, B, C, or D flares (No more than 6 of type D)Must have a watertight flashlig

Pleasure vessels are not required to comply with these requirements under the following circumstances,

1️⃣ The boat is not operated more than 1 nautical mile (1.852 km) from the shore when the boating is on a river, canal, or lake.

2️⃣ The boat has no accommodation designed to be slept in whilst participating in or preparing for an official competition.

3️⃣ If the pleasure craft is less than 20 feet long (6 meters) and is equipped with two-way radio communication, a personal locator beacon, or an Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon transmitting on 406 MHz, the number of flares can be reduced by ½. Remember that the number of Class D flares can never be more than 50% of the total.

4️⃣ Manually propelled boats are not required to carry any flares.

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Acceptable Signaling Equipment

There are two types of signaling equipment authorized under regulations.

  • Pyrotechnic Distress signals (flares).
  • Non-Pyrotechnic Distress Signals.

Pyrotechnic Signals (Flares)

Pyrotechnic Signals are required to comply with the minimum SOLAS Pyrotechnic Signals performance standards. The most important of these are detailed below, under the description of each type of device.

Triggering these devices initiates an exothermic (heat) chemical reaction, which releases energy into the surrounding environment in one of the following (or a combination of) forms.

  • Heat
  • Light
  • Gas
  • Smoke
  • Sound

Pyrotechnic Distress Signals include the following four categories.

Device TypeDescription
Type ARocket parachute or gun-style parachute flares
Type BMulti-star flares
Type CHandheld flares
Type DSmoke signals

Type A Devices Rocket Parachute Flares

These aerial flares create a bright red light that must reach a minimum height of 1,000 feet (300m) above the vessel.

The device is activated by the user pointing it to the sky (outside the cabin) and removing the safety cap at the bottom of the device.

This reveals the trigger (normally a piece of string). The string is pulled, which causes the rocket “motor” to fire. The rocket exits the container and shoots skywards.

A parachute deploys at the apogee (the highest point of its travel), which slows the rocket’s descent (SOLAS regulations stipulate that the descent rate must be less than 5.1 m/s), providing the red distress flare above the vessel.

They usually burn for 60 seconds (SOLAS regulations stipulate a 40-second burn time) and, depending on conditions, are visible up to 10 miles during the day and 40 miles at night.

Gun Style Parachute Flares

The only difference between the gun and rocket-style flares is in the method of launching. The gun (pistol) style launchers are made from plastic.

When the flare is fired from the gun, it only ignites at the apogee while simultaneously deploying the parachute.

Type B Devices: Multi-Star Flares

The multi-start flares fire two projectiles into the air to a height (product brand dependent) of between 100 to 320 feet.

They burn for approximately 5 seconds. These create two bright lights in the sky.

Type C Devices: Hand-Held Flares

Handheld flares are similar to the fireworks called Roman candles. The difference is that they are safe to hold, and the ignition is caused by an exothermic chemical reaction.

Type C devices produce a bright red flame (SOLAS regulations stipulate a minimum luminous intensity of not less than 15,000 cd), which, although they cannot be seen from far away, is an excellent aid to help searchers locate the user.

SOLAS requires flares to burn for at least 60 seconds and must continue burning even if they are immersed for 10s underwater to a depth of 100 mm.

Red flares can be seen at night.

Type D Devices: Smoke Signals

Smoke signals are typically handheld but also called orange smoke distress signals when they are buoyant.

Type D devices produce a bright orange smoke plume which, amongst other uses, can be used to show the wind direction to rescuers.

The devices are manufactured as handheld units (similar to the handheld flares), and floatable smoke dispensers launched onto the water.

SOLAS requires they must continue to operate even if they are immersed for 10s underwater to a depth of 100 mm.

There are two categories of smoke signals regulated by SOLAS.

1️⃣ Buoyant (3-min) smoke signals are required to produce smoke for 3 minutes.

2️⃣ Self-Activating Smoke Signals, which must continue to generate a “highly visible color” smoke plume for up to 15 minutes.

Non-Pyrotechnic Signals

As the name implies, Non-Pyrotechnic Signals are passive devices that produce no chemical reaction.

There are many types of marine emergency beacons that include but are not limited to the following:

  • Orange distress flags have a black square and a circle, or any other object that resembles a circle, positioned above it.
  • Marker dyes placed on the water.
  • SOS signals sent on the vessel’s radio or by activating the horn.
  • Radio signals on the following frequencies (12577 kHz, 2187.5 kHz, 6312 kHz, 8414.5 kHz, 4207.5 kHz, and 16804.5 kHz) indicate distress.
  • Ship-to-shore distress alerts using the vessel’s satellite communication system.
  • The communication flags “N” and “C” placed next to each other are designated by the International Code of Signals to indicate “I am in distress and require immediate assistance (Distress signal).”
  • Using hand signals.
  • Search and Rescue Radar Transponders (SART).
  • A national flag held upside down indicates that help is needed.
  • Dan Buoy thrown in the water indicates distress.

Flare Color Meanings

TypeColorPurposeEffective During DayEffective During Night
Type ARed 🔴Communicate DistressDifficultYes
Type BTwo Red Stars 🔴🔴Communicate DistressDifficultYes
Type CRed 🔴Communicate DistressYesYes
Type DOrange 🟠Communicate DistressYesDifficult

General Color Meanings

ColorDescription
🔴 RedUsed in marine context to signal distress.
🟠 OrangeUsed in marine context to signal distress.
⚪ WhiteUsed to signal a warning or other “non” distress event (e.g., potential collision, start of a race).
🟢 GreenIn non-marine (possibly military) environments, indicates it is safe to proceed (e.g., for a rescue helicopter landing at night).

Size of Boats Requiring a Flare Guns

All boats over 16 feet long must carry flares. The number of projectile flares (such as those fired by a flare gun) must never exceed 50% of the total number of flares carried on the vessel.

The number of flares can be reduced to 50% of the requirements if it is less than 20 feet long and has a two-way radio communication, a personal locator beacon transmitting on 406 MHz, or an emergency position-indicating radio beacon transmitting on 406 MHz.

No flares need to be carried if the boat is operated within 1 nautical mile (1.852 km) from the shore of a river, canal, or lake.

Boats participating in organized marine events (races, regattas, or marine parades) are not required to carry flares.

Age Limit for Flares on a Boat

Marine flares expire after 42 months from the date of manufacture, after which they are legally considered hazardous waste. Don’t be tempted to carry expired flares.

When the flares have expired, they must be safely disposed of at the following places.

  • The local marine equipment supplier
  • The local police station
  • The United States Coastguard
  • Marinas
  • Life raft service stations
  • Fire stations
  • Lifeguard stations
  • Chandleries
  • Fireworks contractors

Closing Remarks on Boat Flare Requirements

Legislation requires all power boats over 16 feet in length and sailing boats over 20 feet to carry a specific number of distress flares.

There are exceptions to these rules, which include manually powered boats and vessels under 20 feet long being used in inland waters and are less than 1 mile from the shore. Boats used to participate in organized events are also not required to carry flares.

If you have realized the need to carry flares in your boat, it is strongly recommended that you work out what flares are required.

Once you have worked out your requirements, buy and then store your distress flares in an easily accessible position.

Frequently Asked

Flares should be stored in a dry, cool place, away from direct sunlight and heat sources. They should be easily accessible in case of an emergency but secured to prevent accidental activation. Regularly check the expiration dates and inspect flares for any signs of damage or corrosion. Replace expired or damaged flares promptly.

Effective training in distress flare usage is essential, encompassing understanding flare types and their uses, safe activation, and adherence to legal and safety guidelines. Always follow the manufacturer’s instructions and ensure safety by wearing protective gear and avoiding pointing flares at people.

Yes, there are non-pyrotechnic alternatives to traditional flares. Visual signaling devices like distress flags or SOS lights can be used as supplementary distress signals. These alternatives are often safer and environmentally friendly compared to traditional pyrotechnic flares.

The classification of pyrotechnic flare guns is class 1.4 explosive and not as a firearm.

Generally, there is no requirement for a pyrotechnic flare gun owner to have a firearm license covering its use.

Despite this, some jurisdictions make very little differentiation between guns and flare guns and require the same level of background checks to be conducted. The jurisdictions which consider flare guns in this manner are Washington, Connecticut, and New York.

Having said that, if the flare gun is misused, it is defined as a Class D felony under Title 14, U.S. Code, Section 858. The consequences of this action could be large fines. In some instances, this may even involve jail time, depending on the state in which the offense was committed.

I’m the founder and chief editor here at Sailing Savvy. I spent a decade working as a professional mariner and currently, I mix those experiences with digital publishing. Welcome, and I hope that we can be the hub you need for safe passage.