Boat Flare Requirements | Everything You Need To Know

This article studies the requirements and description of flares and when they must be carried in boats. All powerboats over 16 feet and sailboats over 20 feet are required to carry visual distress signals.

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

It surprises some boaters to find out the very strict regulations that apply to boats, particularly regarding the safety equipment they carry. 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.

πŸŽ‡ Are Flares Required To Be Carried By All Vessels?

Several regulatory bodies ensure boating safety standards.

1️⃣ The COLREGs (the 1972 Convention On The International Regulations For Preventing Collisions At Sea) – cover sailing in international waters.

2️⃣ SOLAS (The International Safety Of Life At Sea).

3️⃣ The U.S. government and states enact laws and regulations to enforce safety standards.

4️⃣ The United States Coastguard is responsible for enforcing compliance.

5️⃣ The federal small vessel regulations.

The type of pyrotechnic devices required by the regulations is as follows.

  • Type A devices – rocket parachute flares.
  • Type A devices – gun Style Parachute Flares
  • Type B devices are multi-star flares.
  • Type C devices are Handheld flares.
  • Type D devices are Smoke signals.

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

Pleasure Craft: Under 19.7 Feet Powered By A Motor

Vessels that fall under this category must carry the following distress signal devices.

  • 3 X Type A, B, C, or D devices (Not exceeding one type D.)
  • Or alternatively, they must carry a watertight flashlight.

Sailing Boats/Engine Powered Boats: 19.7 Feet – 29.5 Feet

Sailing and engine-powered boats between 19.7 feet to 29.5 feet long (6 meters and up to 9 meters) are required to carry the following distress signal devices.

  • 6 X Type A, B, C, or D devices (no more than 2 of type D.)
  • The vessel must also have a watertight flashlight.

Sailing Boats/Engine Powered Boats: 29.5 Feet – 39.4 Feet

sailing boats and engine-powered boats between 29.5 feet to 39.4 feet (9 meters and up to 12 meters) long are required to carry the following distress signal devices.

  • 12 X Type A, B, C, or D devices (no more than 6 of type D.)
  • And a watertight flashlight.

Sailing Boats/Engine Powered Boats: 39.4 Feet – 78.7 Feet

Sailing boats and engine-powered boats between 39.4 feet and 78.7 feet (12 meters and up to 24 meters) long are required to carry the following distress signal devices.

  • The regulations require a combination of 12 type A and/or B and/or C and/or D flares (no more than 6 of type D.)
  • A watertight flashlight.

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, 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 transmitting on 406 MHz, or an emergency position-indicating radio beacon transmitting on 406 MHz, the number of flares can be reduced by Β½. 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.

βœ”οΈ What Signaling Equipment Is Acceptable?

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 under the description of each type of device below.

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 of approved pyrotechnic signaling devices.

  • Type A devices – rocket parachute flares.
  • Type A devices – gun Style Parachute Flares
  • Type B devices are multi-star flares.
  • Type C devices are Handheld flares.
  • Type D devices are Smoke 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.

Type A Devices: 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 – 15 Minutes which must continue to generate a “highly visible color” smoke plumes for up to 15 minutes.

Non-Pyrotechnic Signals

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

  • 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 are 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 β€œN” and β€œC” placed next to each other are designated by the International Code of Signals to indicate β€œI am in distress and require immediate assistance (Distress signal).”
  • Using hand signals.
  • Search and Rescue Radar Transponder (SART).
  • A national flag held upside down indicates that help is needed.
  • Dan Buoy thrown in the water indicates distress.
 TypeColorPurposeUsed during DayUsed During Night
Type A Devices – Rocket Parachute FlaresRedCommunicate DistressDifficult to see in daylightYes
Type B Devices –  Multi-Star FlaresTwo Red starsCommunicate DistressDifficult to see in daylightYes
Type C Devices -Handheld FlaresRedCommunicate DistressYesYes
Type D Devices – Smoke SignalsOrangeCommunicate DistressYesDifficult to see at night

🎨 What Do The Different Flare Colors Mean?

There are four colors of flares that are most commonly used. In the marine environment, these are restricted to three.

The four colors are:

πŸ”΄ Red

🟠 Orange

βšͺ White

🟒 Green

Red And Orange Signal Flares

In the marine context, red and orange are used to signal distress.

White Signal Flares

White is used to signal a warning or other “non” distress event, such as to warn another boat of a potential collision or even to signal the start of a race.

Green Signal Flares

In a non-marine (possibly military) environment, a green flare indicates that it is safe to proceed – this would apply particularly to a rescue helicopter landing at night.

πŸŽ‡ What Size Boat Requires A Flare Gun?

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.

πŸ‘΄ How Old Can Flares Be 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

πŸ”« Is A Marine Flare Gun Considered A Firearm?

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.

πŸ—οΈ Key Takeaways: 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, obtain them and pack them into an easily accessible position.

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I’m the founder and chief editor here at Sailing Savvy. I’m a lover of being out on the water and sampling Caribbean rum! Currently, I run an SEO consultancy in addition to this little corner of the interwebs. Welcome, and I hope that we can provide the portal you need to dive into your next aquatic adventure.