Distress signals: There are options other than flares on boats

Time flies when you are having fun. It seems to fly even faster when it comes to keeping the U.S. Coast Guard required night visual distress signals on my boat up to date. Though the hand held flares or meteor rockets have a four-year expiration date stamped on them, it seems every time I check mine they are either expired or soon due to expire.

So I trot off to my closest chandlery or Amazon to pick up or pick out some new ones to remain in compliance. Sometimes I can find simple replacement parts, duly stamped with a long-in-the future expiration date and swap out the expired ones.

Sometimes I have to purchase a whole new kit complete with whistles, flags and a handy carrying case to contain it all. The replacement parts are expensive – $35 or so. The kits will set you back two, three or more times that dollar figure.

Then I have to figure how to dispose of the old ones.

Just keep them for spares? Great thought, but illegal.

Though I’ve never heard of anyone being ticketed for having spare, expired distress signals on board, Coast Guard regulations don’t allow it.

Luckily, I’ve never had to shoot one of those meteors or light a flare to send a distress  alert, but should I need to, I’m not all that comfortable having just a set of three, each with a “burn” time from less than six seconds to only three minutes and hope someone sees them in that small amount of time? Do you shoot or burn them all? Save one or two for later?

I’m also not overly comfortable with these fireworks on board. These signaling devices are called pyrotechnics. Pyro means fire. They rely on real fire to produce the light signaling for help. This is technology not much removed from what was available in Paul Revere’s time. Remember “one if by land, two if by sea”? Do you want only a few skyrockets between you and rescue when the chips are down or the waves are up?

There’s an option. Coast Guard regulations allow an electronic nighttime visual distress signal instead of the pyros. There are general performance requirements set by regulation so not just any flashlight complies. Those requirements include:  The light must float, emit an intense white light and automatically blink S.O.S in Morse code.

The one I have retails for under $100, is powered by three C-cells and will flash for 60 hours with a fresh set of batteries. It’s packaged with a daytime distress signal flag.

Having both the light and flag on board puts me in compliance with all USCG federal requirements for day and night use, in lieu of traditional flares.

Categories: Michigan – Mike Schoonveld

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