USCG vs SOLAS Flares for Offshore Sailing

Still working on our safety gear list, I have been turning my attention to flares and signalling devices, and in about five minutes, I was confused.

The United States Coast Guard (USCG) sets rules on what signalling devices and flares you need to carry.

USCG-VDS

“All vessels 16 feet and over, operating on the high seas and the coastal waters of the U.S., as defined by Federal regulations, must be equipped with Coast Guard approved visual distress signals. Between the hours of sunset and sunrise ALL boats, on both International and Inland Waters, must carry on board a means of distress signaling suitable for night use”

So what this means, to avoid trouble when the coast guard board you, you need, at minimum, three day/night flares. Interesting fact, the USCG is the only enforcement entity that can enter your “home” and search for any reason. You have no rights to privacy or due process.

OK, so to meet minimum regulations (I think), you can grab three Orion Handheld Red Flares for $27 and you are good to go.

Or are you?

This is where I started getting confused. Further research at the West Marine Advisor – Selecting Visual Distress Signals introduces the idea that there are two levels of Visual Distress Signals; USCG approved, and the bigger, better and sexier Safety Of Life At Sea (SOLAS) approved. This is a “standard set by the International Maritime Organization for offshore boating safety equipment.” SOLAS approved gear is a higher standard so is also USCG approved.

For each of the visual distress signals in the USCG chart, there is a USCG approved and a SOLAS approved version. To give a sense of the difference, an Orion red aerial signal (aka flare gun) goes up 500′ for 7 seconds and burns at 16,000 candela. Cost ~$12 per flare.  The Orion SOLAS red parachute rocket goes up 1000′ for 40 seconds and burns at 30,000 candela. Cost ~$50 per flare. About twice the performance for four times the price.

The Boat US Foundation did a great comparison of all these visual distress signals:

BoatUS_VDScomparison

Clearly the SOLAS grade flares were better.

OK, so let’s go with the three SOLAS red parachute flares for $150, good to go.

Or are you?

The next wrinkle is not just the fact that SOLAS visual distress signals are better, the International Sailing Federation (ISAF) actually recommends WAY more distress signals than the coast guard.

Race Category: Red Parachute Red Handheld Orange Smoke
0 Trans-oceanic or 1 Long distance / well offshore 6 4 2
2 Shorelines / lg. unprotected bays/ lakes or 3 Relatively protected / close to shorelines 4 4 2
4 Monohull / Close to shore / relatively warm or protected waters 0 4 2

So just for laughs let’s do this table again with the costs (Using Landfall Navigation):

Race Category: Red Parachute Red Handheld Orange Smoke Total
0 Trans-oceanic or 1 Long distance / well offshore $240 $80 $80 $400
2 Shorelines / lg. unprotected bays/ lakes or 3 Relatively protected / close to shorelines $160 $80 $80 $320
4 Monohull / Close to shore / relatively warm or protected waters 0 $80 $80 $160

Now at this point, I do need to be USCG compliant, but won’t be entering any ISAF races, so can look at this list as guidance. Many marine stores sell kits. I’d be looking for at least three red parachute flares, three handheld red flares and a couple of orange smokes. A few options might be:

landfallnav_2270_188933696Landfall Navigation Passagemaker Kit ($229)

  • 3 red parachute flares
  • 3 red hand-held flares
  • 2 orange hand-held smoke flares
  • 1 dye marker
  • Waterproof storage container

OrionCommercialSignalKitHamilton Marine Orion 820  Commercial Distress Signal Kit ($199)

  • 3 red parachute flares
  • 6 red hand-held flares (non-SOLAS)
  • 3 orange hand-held smoke flares  (non-SOLAS)

Basically, there difference between these two kits is the Passagemaker one has all SOLAS, the 3-50 Mile Distress kit only has SOLAS for the (arguably most) important parachute flares.

So let’s get the Passagemaker Kit and we are good to go.

Or are we?

The last wrinkle here is do we even need any of these signalling devices. There has been a strong argument made that with modern tools such as EPRIB’s, AIS and PLB’s, signal flares hardly get used:

“The Royal Yachting Association of Britain is pressing for their removal as a requirement for seafarers. They are insisting that no persuasive evidence that flares have search and rescue benefits that cannot be provided by modern technology. In today’s modern age there is no compelling case to support the mandatory requirement of flares as a practical and useful method of initiating a distress alert and location.”

I am definitely swayed by this line of reasoning. When you fire a flare, you are perhaps relying on the watch in the bridge of a tanker two miles away to look up from his coffee in just the right direction at just the right moment. Not sure that’s very effective.

I think I will meet my USCG requirements with my own version:

Sailing With Kids Hi-Tech Minimalist Signal Kit

Now at this point, I am at $113, perhaps its worth getting the other two parachute flares and getting the 3-50 Mile Commercial Kit from Hamilton Marine for $199. Decisions decisions.

In the comments below, please share what visual distress signals you carry.

Comments

  1. Another option, alongside traditional flares, is lasers. Having the ability to be found is about as important as anything else you need while thinking about sailing safety. The more options the better..