What Is The Proper Procedure For Using Hand-Held Visual Distress Signal Flares?

Visual distress signals are those that can be seen by nearby boats, planes, or people. Unlike parachute flares fired into the air, hand-held distress flares are kept in a person’s hand while signaling for emergency assistance.

Flares are to be ignited (according to accompanying instructions) facing away from face, body, and boat. Held downwind with arm(s) outstretched and in a steady but noticeable waving motion.

The use of pyrotechnic devices needs to be handled with care. I will guide you through not only how to use them but also the safety requirements, visibility, storage of flares, and expiration considerations

The Proper Use Of A Hand-Held Visual Distress Flare

Each flare type will have specific instructions provided by the manufacturer. The majority of hand-held flares are used in this way:

1️⃣ Remove the plastic lid from the flare but keep the cap as it has a “scratch” surface for igniting

2️⃣ Remove the cap to expose the flare igniter button (black in color)

3️⃣ Strike the cap scratch surface against the black igniter button while pointing away from your body

4️⃣ Hold the flare in the appropriate position and signal for help

These flares are explicitly for use in emergency situations that are dangerous, life-threatening, and time-sensitive. Using visual distress signal flares for anything else is illegal and punishable.

Like anything safety-related in the marine world, adequate emergency procedures must be respected and adhered to. Where flares are considered, it might be understandable how a person might go wrong and unknowingly stray from protocol.

This could be because there is no training or practice involving flares. Igniting flares for a training or safety demonstration’s sole purpose is illegal.

BoatUS Foundation has several comprehensive articles on pyrotechnics and distress signals, which help you better understand how to use hand-held flares.

Are Hand-Held Flares Visible During the Day?

Hand-held flares are ineffective for distress situations that occur during daylight as they aren’t easily noticed. These flares would be more useful on days shrouded by heavy fog.

No law states that they may not be used during the day, but they aren’t as visible. Smoke flares are more commonly used as daytime visual distress signals.

Can Hand-held Flares Explode?

Handheld flares were designed with safety as a priority, so it shouldn’t surprise you that the likelihood of them exploding is slim to none.

The chemical composition ensures that the flare has a slow, steady burn that is not prone to explosive behavior.

For additional requirements regarding marine flares, as stipulated by SOLAS (Safety of Life At Sea) and USCG approved, download the PDF and read about everything related to the safety of hand-held flares.

How Long Do Hand-held Flares Last?

Once the flare has been lit, it can burn for up to 3 minutes. That is why it is also essential not to use them preemptively.

The shelf life of flares ranges from three to four years after the date of manufacture (up to 48 months). However, marine flare disposal isn’t yet a straightforward task.

How Far Away Can Hand-held Flares Be Seen?

Hand-held visual distress signal flares burn half as bright as the flares fired into the air. They can be seen from up to three miles away. That is why it is crucial to be sure that potential vessels in the area can see your signal before you light it.

The light intensity emitted from a flare is measured in either lumens or candela. For example, A parachute Red Rocket MK3 flare is 30,000 (cd). While a red handheld flare should burn at no less than 15,000 (cd).

To understand the math and ratio behind the candelas or lumens, look at the lumens calculator and the accompanying article by Adena Benn on omnicalculator.com.

How Should Hand-Held Flares Be Stored?

To ensure the shelf life of the flare isn’t shortened, they should be stored in an environment that is both cool and dry, as well as away from any heat or heat source.

But they should also be stored in an area that is quickly and readily accessible.

Many sources say the flares should be in a plastic airtight container, preferably stored below deck.

However, these might not be the best place in terms of accessibility. If your boat has some kind of locker on deck, that would be an ideal storage location as long as everyone on board knows where they are.

Closing Remarks

Be sure to familiarize yourself with the type of flares on board your boat and your flare-carrying requirements. When it comes time to use one of them (and I do hope that doesn’t happen), it’s easy to forget yourself and misuse them.

But unlike other visual distress signals, hand-held flares do not burn for very long. The window of opportunity is small but distinct.

Beyond this, misusing them could result in you injuring yourself or other people in close proximity. There’s no reason to make a “distress” situation even more distressing.

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.