Flares: Aerial or Handheld?

By Don Casey

Revised by BoatUS editors in April 2012


Are aerial flares better than handheld? Not necessarily. A 12-gauge aerial flare reaches an altitude of around 250', making it visible over a much longer distance than a handheld flare only a few feet above the water. But the meteor burns out in just six seconds while some handhelds burn for three minutes.

The best choice for you depends on where you do your boating. If you are almost always in sight of shore or other boats, hand-held flares have a better chance of drawing attention because of their longer burn time. If you boat well offshore, aerial flares can signal your distress over greater distances. Safety-conscious skippers carry both, plus smoke flares for daylight signaling.

Parachute flares combine high altitude with long burn times, making them the most effective nighttime distress signal.

Don Casey has been one of the most consulted experts on boat care and upgrades for 30 years, and is one of the BoatUS Magazine's panel of experts. He and his wife cruise aboard their 30-footer part of the year in the eastern Caribbean. His books include Don Casey's Complete Illustrated Sailboat Maintenance Manual, and the recently updated This Old Boat, the bible for do-it-yourself boaters.


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