Visual Distress Signals: Please Say You See Me!

By Chris Edmonston

There's a big difference between complying with USCG regs and being found in the dark. Here's a rundown of options in visual distress signals.

Holding a burning flarePhoto: Mark Corke

For many boaters, buying flares is an expense and an exercise we endure every three years or so without much thought. We know we need to carry visual distress signals, and we might even remember that there are both daytime and nighttime signals, but after that, it's hard to parse the differences. And while the need is unavoidable, your choices have expanded recently. So it's worth taking a moment to consider the type of boating you do and if there are better options than adding to your growing collection of expired flares — or, alternatively, if the minimum requirement of three flares, and the few minutes of signal time they represent, will serve you well in an emergency. Maybe you'd prefer additional signaling power. With new alternatives to flares coming to market, the BoatUS Foundation for Boating Safety and Clean Water decided to conduct tests by looking at what's currently on the market and compare the new signaling devices to the old standbys.

Distress-Signals Test

For our recent test, we took a look at both USCG-approved and SOLAS (Safety of Life at Sea) internationally approved pyrotechnic flares and a variety of electronic devices ranging from lasers to an assortment of LED devices. Only one of the lights tested meets carriage requirements, meaning it's an adequate substitute for flares during a safety inspection when combined with an orange distress flag for daytime use. To be clear, this means the others would be carried aboard strictly because you felt they upped your chances of being rescued, rather than to meet the standards of the law. Remember, the law sets a minimum standard; whether or not that's adequate for you really depends on your boating habits.

We stationed our team of observers on a beach, and our test-boat captain positioned the boat at one-, three-, and five-mile distances from the beach. The night for our test was clear, with a full moon, and there were onshore lights in the background, behind the test boat — the most challenging setup for detecting distress signals in calm conditions. The distress signals were then activated in a random sequence, and our observers were asked to rate them on relative visibility, ability to attract attention, and confidence that what was observed was a call for help. The devices fell into three categories: flares, LEDs, and lasers. As expected, flares as a category dominated the tests, ranking consistently higher than other categories by our viewers. But the green Greatland Laser also performed nearly as well. The LED devices didn't fare well, lacking the intensity to stand out on a full-moon night against the backscatter of a distant shore.

The effectiveness of a distress signal comes down to whether or not an observer — who may be tired, careless, or untrained — can see and understand that the light is a signal. A distress signal must be big enough and bright enough for someone who may be miles away to positively identify and locate the source. So it's no surprise that the brightest and most intense flares, the SOLAS-approved or their equivalents, did so well. They're around 30 times brighter than a standard Coast Guard-approved flare. If this was simply a question of the best flares money could buy, it'd be simple. But what if you don't need that level of performance? Or what if the brief duration (most flares last less than 120 seconds) gives you pause? There are pros and cons in each category.

Pyrotechnic Devices

Flares have been around for more than 100 years, largely because they just plain work as a distress signal. Observers commented that they subconsciously recognized fire as a danger, especially when it appears where we know it isn't supposed to be. We know there's a problem when we see fire on the water.

Pros

  • Easy to recognize as a distress signal.
  • Easy to use.
  • Very bright, SOLAS flares and their equivalents ranked in the top three spots at each distance tested.

Cons

  • All the flares emitted sparks, which can damage your boat or burn you. Our testers used welding gloves to hold the flares, and even with that, the heat from the flares made them almost too hot to hold.
  • Flares expire 42 months after manufacture, for good reason; flares become unstable over time and aren't as reliable.
  • The legal requirement calls for three flares, totaling no more than a few minutes of signaling (60 seconds minimum per flare, though some burn for two minutes or so)
  • The chemicals in flares are hazardous waste.

LED Devices

Light Emitting Diode devices are relatively new to the scene, and as the technology continues to evolve, prices are dropping rapidly. LEDs are durable and long-lasting, so more devices are expected to come on the market in the next few years.

Pros

  • Highest effective intensity of any electronic light available.
  • Easy to set a particular color, length of flash, or flash pattern.
  • With appropriate power, can work for days, rather than minutes.
  • Far safer to handle than pyrotechnic flares.

Cons

  • Can be hard to distinguish from background lights.
  • Not as bright as pyrotechnic flares. The best-performing light consistently ranked as less visible than the control, a USCG-approved, red Orion handheld flare.
  • With no expiration date, batteries need to be checked regularly.
  • People might not know a signal from an LED device is a call for help.
  • Doesn't have the range of visibility that pyrotechnic devices have. At five miles, the performance dropped off considerably.

Lasers

Lasers have been on the scene longer than LED lights but haven't caught on as an alternative to flares. These devices are not like "light sabers" you'd see in the movies. Although under the right conditions, you can see the beam of light, especially with a green laser. The green Greatland flare was very popular with observers, especially at longer distances. Unlike laser pointers, which should never be aimed at aircraft (or other boats, for that matter) as they temporarily blind the operator, the flares tested emit light in a fan pattern, so the greater the distance from the viewer, the wider the fan. This pattern also protects the eyes of your potential rescuer, as the light isn't a focused beam that could burn your retina. The observer simply sees a green flashing light.

Pros

  • Green laser is very visible at night, and the farther away it is, the wider its beam becomes. Always ranked in the top three by our observers, it led the field at three miles and practically tied for the top spot at five miles.
  • Far safer than pyrotechnic flares.
  • Compact, and designed to last for five hours of continuous use.

Cons

  • Lasers are directional, so you must aim them at a potential rescuer, which means you need some idea where help might be coming from before they can be of much use.
  • The green color is more expensive than the red, but it was also easier to see. The red version ranked just under the USCG-approved red Orion handheld in all tests.
  • While legal for use in rescue situations and deemed "eye safe," pilots are taught to fly away from lasers.

Visual distress test performance

Fire Or Light?

So where does that leave the boater who needs to make a decision? If performance is secondary to staying in the good graces of your local boating safety patrol, the Sirius Signal SOS light and a distress flag will cover the basics. If you're headed offshore, certainly add more and better flares to your list, and maybe a laser or automatic SOS light for good measure. And if you're somewhere in the middle, sticking with the tried-and-true might work for you. None of the options is perfect and it's important to have other means of signaling aboard, be it a VHF, cellphone, or satellite-based device, depending on your needs. No matter which you choose, make sure you keep them up-to-date, easily accessible aboard, and know how to use them. 

Chris Edmonston is president of the BoatUS Foundation, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization dedicated to keeping boating safe and clean, independently funded by donations from BoatUS members and grants.

— Published: June/July 2016


Electric VDS Standard Coming

When you multiply three flares per boat times the millions of boats required to carry visual distress signals, that's a huge pile of expired hazardous materials. Even the Coast Guard thinks it's a problem. Starting in 2011, the Coast Guard decided to examine what might work as a replacement for traditional flares. The result was a proposed standard for Electronic Visual Distress Signals, based on its tests to determine the optimal characteristics for a good visual distress signal, published in March 2015. Those characteristics include:

  • Flashing at a rate of four times a second (4HZ)
  • An alternating color pattern of cyan (greenish-blue) and red-orange
  • Different flash patterns
  • A minimum average intensity of 130 candela
  • A hemispheric pattern that allowed all-around visibility

At press time, none of the lights tested would meet these requirements, nor would the lasers. It will likely be a number of years before the standard is finalized and new products that meet the standard come to market.

 

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