Types Of Flares: Understanding Distress Pyrotechnics

If you’re a boat owner or enthusiast, understanding the different types of marine flares and their uses is crucial for your safety at sea.

We know that navigating the world of marine flares can be confusing, with many types to choose from and regulations to consider.

With years of experience in marine safety and a deep understanding of maritime regulations, we’ve gathered all the essential information about marine flares, backed by data from the United States Coast Guard and the International Maritime Organization.

Whether you’re a seasoned sailor or new to the boating world, this guide will explain everything in clear, easy-to-understand language, so you can confidently make informed decisions.

As fellow boating enthusiasts, we understand the importance of safety at sea. Here’s a snapshot of the article:

At a Glance:
1️⃣ There are three major types of marine flares: handheld flares, aerial flares, and smoke signals.

2️⃣ Regulations include the types of flares required for different vessels, the number of flares needed, and the replacement and disposal of old flares.

3️⃣ There are alternatives to traditional marine flares, such as the SOS Distress Light.

🚀 Different Types Of Marine Flares

Marine flares can be broken into three categories: handheld, aerial, and smokers. 

Marine flares expire after a few years, so you should replace them systematically. Expired flares can be extremely dangerous, especially if you try to activate them. So it’s important to know what steps to take before you do.

Handheld Flares

As their name suggests, handheld flares are designed to be activated and held in your hand as they burn.   

Typically, these flares have a section of the housing that extends away from the burning tip, which is safe to hold as the flare burns.

Once the housing is opened, a safety cap is removed, and you then pull on the pull string to activate the flare.  

Handheld flares use a pyrotechnic compound in a steel tube that burns at least 15 000 candelas for around a minute. 

This means they are great to be spotted from far off but can give a nasty case of arc eyes if you stare directly at them.  

Aerial Flares

A few different types of aerial flares available on the market can be used during the day or at night.  

Rocket flares, also called parachute flares or 1000-foot flares, are probably the most common type of aerial flare.

When activated, a rocket flare fires a bright red projectile to a height of 300 meters, or around 984 – 1000 feet.  

The projectile is attached to a parachute, allowing the burning flare to “hang” in the air and burn for at least 40 seconds.

Because of the height it reaches and the duration of the burn, it is the flare that can be seen from the furthest distance. 

Multi-star flares are fired from a tubular device resembling a rocket flare or a flare pistol.

Unlike a rocket flare, the multi-star fires at least two bright red projectiles that aren’t attached to a parachute. These can reach a height of around 330 feet. 

Multi-star flares also don’t last for long, lasting only 4 to 5 seconds.

This means that they shouldn’t be used if you can’t see the vessel or aircraft that you are trying to signal. 

Finally, pencil flares are probably the least common and helpful type of aerial flare. They fire a small burning projectile from a spring-loaded, firing-pin device.

They only reach around 150 feet, burn for 6 seconds, and aren’t as bright as the other options.  In fact, they can typically only be spotted from about one mile away.

However, they are very compact and can easily be carried on your person as a last resort. But, it is worth noting that they are not included in the US Coast Guard’s list of approved distress flares. 

Orange Smoke Signals

Orange smoke signals, or smokers, come in two varieties: handheld and floating. 

Smokers don’t draw attention by burning bright light, unlike other distress flares.

Instead, they burn slowly and release a large, thick plume of smoke to mark your location.  

Handheld smokers work very similarly to handheld flares, meaning they are deployed while you hold them as they burn down.  

Floating smokers are typically in the form of an orange tin with a pop cap. Once you remove the pop cap, you pull the ignitor pin or string, at which point the smoker will release the smoke inside.  

Floating smokers aren’t made to be held while they burn.  Instead, they are tossed overboard into the water, which makes your location much easier to see from the air.  

🎆 Handheld Versus Aerial Flares

You may think that aerial flares are better than handheld flares because they are visible from further away.

But therein lies the catch. All of them are important because all of them have specific use cases. 

Rocket flares, for example, have a visibility range advantage over handheld flares.

Because they reach such a high height, they can be seen from anywhere from 10 miles during the day and up to 40 miles at night in clear conditions.  

This visibility makes them perfect for attracting other vessels’ attention outside your horizon.  Or ships that you can’t see. However, they aren’t perfect for all conditions.

Firstly, if there is a strong wind, the flare will blow downwind, which could give an inaccurate assessment of your location.  

This is less of a problem during the day when the rocket’s trail can still be seen. But at night, responders will naturally respond to where the flare is visible, which may not be where you are.  

Secondly, rocket flares are dangerous during helicopter or aerial operations. This is because they reach a height that could cause endanger the aircraft. 

On the other hand, handheld flares burn for up to 60 seconds and can be seen from around 5 to 10 miles at night.

This means that they are designed to attract the attention of vessels within your horizon of view.  

Also, because they aren’t flying up into the air, they are perfect for aerial rescue operations.  

🤲 Red Handheld Flares Versus Orange Smokers

Another question boaters often ask is why they may need both handheld and orange smoke flares on board their vessel. And here again, the answer is that each has specific uses.  

Orange Smoke Flares

If you have ever stared at a campfire or a large wildland fire at night, you may have noticed something interesting: you can’t see the smoke.

But during the day, you can see the smoke for miles depending on the wind. The same basic principle applies here. 

Smoke flares are excellent daytime distress signals. Their orange color contrasts them against any clouds in the background, which makes them visible for a few miles, depending on the weather conditions.  

But their true benefit comes into action when an aerial search is involved.

When looking from above, it can be extremely hard to distinguish a small white sailboat from the rest of the ocean. This is especially true if there are white horses on the surface.   

The dense orange smoke creates a clear distinction and also turns you into a much larger target that can be seen from the sky. 

Remember that the smoke will dissipate quickly after the smoker is depleted, so you need to deploy it at the right time.  If you can hear or see an aircraft, that would be a great time. 

Red Handheld Flares

Red handheld flares are perhaps a little more versatile than smokers because they can be used both during the day and at night. 

Their light is bright enough to be spotted during the day, but the visibility range will be shorter. 

Handheld flares can also be used for aerial searches, but they don’t increase the visible footprint of your vessel.

That being said, if the wind is extreme, orange smoke may be blown away, and in this case, you may be better off using a red flare.

Another shortcoming of the handheld flare, compared to a smoker, is its relatively short burning time of at least 50 seconds.

On the other hand, a smoker can last between 3 and 15 minutes, depending on the type. 

📜 Marine Flares Regulations And Guidelines

Regarding the regulations and guidelines around flares, two bodies of authority are at play. 

The first is the International Maritime Organization which captured multiple safety and emergency standards in the “Safety of Life at Sea,” or “SOLAS” standards. 

The second is the United States Coast Guard, which sets the standard for vessels operating both in-land and at sea in US territory.

Generally speaking, the USCG flare standards are slightly more lenient than SOLAS because they only apply to US waters.

In other words, if you purchase flares to the SOLAS standards, the USCG will also be happy.  

It’s important to note these regulations aren’t merely bureaucratic enforcement. They are in place, so you don’t buy bad flares or flares that dimmish your odds of survival. 

These regulations have come about because of many years of testing, rescues, and experience.

How Many Flares Do You Need?

The USCG regulates specific boat flare requirements, including which vessels should carry flares, what type they need, and when to replace and dispose of old flares.

Motorized vessels that are over 16 feet in length, operating in coastal waters, must have at least three day and nighttime flares. This means, ideally, you should carry three flares and three smokers.  

However, you can carry some combination of these. But you must have three flares that can be used during the day and three at night.

For example, red handheld flares work both day and night, so having three is sufficient. 

Vessels under 16 feet only need to carry nighttime flares if they are actually going out to sea after sunset or before sunrise.

And the same applies to open sailboats under 26 feet that don’t have any engines.  

When Should Your Flares Be Replaced?

According to the USCG, you must replace your flares every 42 months. But, again, this is not just some silly rule. 

Flares that expire are potentially dangerous to use and often don’t function as they should.  

Smoke signals can lose their intensity, handheld flares can fail to ignite, and rocket flares can turn into aerobatic stunt planes, whizzing around in all directions.

So, it’s best to have working ones with you because your life may depend on your flares. 

Once your flares have expired, you need to get rid of them, which is not as easy as simply tossing them in the trash. It’s important to know how to properly dispose of them.

Flares are considered hazardous and explosive waste in the USA, so disposing of them requires special permits, permissions, and methods.  

You may be tempted to shoot your old ones out at sea, but that would be a grave mistake.

Not only are they potentially dangerous, but it is illegal to fire a distress flare if it is not an emergency.  

Your best bet is to phone your local fire department and ask where you can take the flares for proper disposal.  

How Should You Store Your Flares?

When picking a storage spot for your flares, you need to consider three elements.  

Firstly, you don’t want to store your flare in a very hot area (higher than 167 degrees).

It should go without saying that exposing a flare to too much heat could result in a bad day at sea.  Marine flares are typically highly stable, but you should keep them in a cooler area.  

Secondly, you don’t want to store them in a wet area. Corrosion eventually affects everything, even flares.

For example, the pull cords will ultimately become brittle and may break when you need them to work.  

Finally, they need to be kept in an area where they are easily accessible should you need them.  Remember that this could be in the event of a capsize, which causes a lot of chaos, so pick this area carefully. 

🔄 Marine Flare Alternatives

If you are not too keen on having flares on board your boat or are frustrated with the constant need to replace and dispose of your old flares, then you’re possibly in luck.  

A reasonably new addition to your options is the SOS Distress Light. This is an electronic distress signal approved by the USCG to be used as an alternative to a nighttime flare.

The obvious benefit is that they are safer to use, and they don’t expire. They are also typically seen from 10 miles away, which is quite powerful.   

However, remember that they are not aerial, so you won’t be spotted over the horizon.  They also won’t be as effective as smokers for daytime aerial searches. 

🔑 Key Takeaways

1️⃣ There are three major types of flares: handheld flares, aerial flares, and smokers. Each type has its own common features.

2️⃣ Handheld and aerial flares can be used during the day and at night.

3️⃣ Smoke signals can only be used during the day and are highly effective for aerial searches.

4️⃣ Motorized vessels over 16 feet long are required to carry at least 3 day and nighttime distress flares.

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.