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March 1, 2021 8:51 pm

All about distress flares

If you ever get into trouble on the water, flares are an effective device for signalling distress and showing your position. Here’s what we reckon you need to know to make sure you take the right type with you, know how to use them, and how to dispose of them when they expire.

Types of flare

There are several types of flare, with each having benefits:

  • Orange smoke – when triggered, this lets off a cloud of orange smoke, which can’t be extinguished due to heavy rain or howling wind.
    • These are good as a line-of-sight distress signal, but because there’s nothing burning (and so nothing glowing) they’re suited for daytime use only.
  • Red handheld – effective as a line-of-sight distress signal by day and night, handheld flares are very bright with a good visibility range.
    • They are very visible from an aircraft and will usually burn for up to 60 seconds.
  • Red parachute or rocket – capable of attracting attention in daylight for up to 10 miles depending on conditions and up to 40 miles at night.
    • The rocket launches the flare up to a height of about 300 meters and the flare burns for 40-60 seconds as it slowly descends.
    • For obvious reasons, don’t use this type of flare when there is a helicopter or aircraft overhead.

Being flare ready

Read and understand the firing instruction(s) for your flares before you need to use them.

  • Firing mechanisms vary so make sure that you read the instructions printed on the sides. It’s not the right time to learn how to use a flare when you’re in trouble on the water!
  • Always store flares in a waterproof container or in a dry designated area below deck. Make sure that your passengers and crew know where they are and how to use them.
  • Before each boating season begins, check the expiry date of the flares and replace them as necessary. Old flares become unstable and can be unreliable – see below.

Never set flares off unless you are in distress or are attending a properly organised flare demonstration.

Disposing of old flares

Coastguard doesn’t recommend keeping old flares as “spares”, because the propellant degrades over time. While an expired flare may still fire, there’s no guarantee – and do you want a flare to fail when you really need it?

Every flare should have a date of manufacture and an expiry date (usually 3-6 years after manufacture).
Expiry date on flare

  • Hand unwanted or expired flares into either your local police station, the Auckland Marine Rescue Centre or your marine retailer that collects expired flares (like Burnsco).
  • Never leave them outside for someone to collect, or put them in the rubbish.
  • Never incinerate or let off expired flares. They’re not fireworks!
  • Expired or very old flares should be treated like explosives, so handle old ones with care.

Find out more about other boating safety equipment you should bring with you at www.boatiesbestmate.nz.

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Coastguard New Zealand

Coastguard New Zealand

Coastguard New Zealand is the charity saving lives at sea.

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