Pyrotechnics or Electronics for Emergency / Distress Signalling?

I originally wrote a much shorter version of this on a Facebook group but it could be of interest here. Some updates in early 2024 as my piece on First Aid Kits, the Grab Bag & Life Jackets was expanded and updated.

Clearly their carriage, or not, has to be a personal decision so this is a personal view not a recommendation, also if coastal or offshore racing, taking part in many events (but not a Jester Challenge👍), or if there is any commercial implication such as sail training or payment for carriage, pyrotechnic flares must be carried to the published scale.

I am not replacing pyrotechnic flares, except those in the life raft when that is serviced. I had thought of keeping a couple of in-date smokes but rescue helicopters carry their own (but would rarely need them at sea) and although they make a good daylight marker 2 or 3 of those cost as much as a spare LED flare so decided not to. 

The RYA is trying to get the mandatory carriage of pyrotechnic flares on larger boats removed, so you can see where they are coming from.

The disadvantage of flares is generally considered to be:

  • Cost, an offshore pack is between £200 and £250 depending on make and only contains 4 parachute flares, 4 hand flares and a couple of smoke floats.
  • They officially have a shelf life of just 3 years.
  • Difficulty and cost of disposal.
  • Danger of having pyrotechnics on board and risk when used.
  • The biggest in my view is the short time of active use.
£220 worth of flares by Pains Wessex.
Typically a pack like this gives a total
of c 6 mins  40 secs burn time for the
flares and 5 minutes for the smoke.
 They burn for:
  • Parachute Flare: 40 seconds, in good visibility with no low cloud they can be seen from an aircraft for up to 30 miles.
  • 2 Star Red Aerial Distress Flare: visibility up to 6 or 7 miles, burns for 5.5 seconds.
  • Hand Flare: Line of sight, burns for 1 minute. 
  • Hand Smoke: Burns for 1 minute.
  • Smoke Float: Burns for 2-3 minutes depending on make.
And it is usually recommended that parachute or other high level flares should be used in pairs, the first to get attention and the second for the observer to get a bearing and / or to confirm what they saw, on that basis a £200+ pack gives you two shots with parachute flares.

Many people keep old flares past their expiry date when buying replacements which seems eminently sensible as they will almost certainly last for many years if kept dry. Having finally got rid of some very old flares I still have an expired coastal pack (2 x parachute, 2 x hand flares & 2 hand smokes), two additional parachute flares and some white "see me" flares that I'll probably keep on board for a year or three but they do not count if there is a requirement to carry flares and if you go into French waters and they are found during an inspection (which happens fairly frequently) there is a substantial fine for any out of date safety equipment, even if you are not required to carry the item and also have in date ones. Daft!

If flares could be phased out it would also save a lot of false alarms, the lifeboats on the south coast are frequently called out to false alarms. A couple of years ago I got involved in one in the middle of Lyme Bay, I'm fairly sure that was a low flying Helicopter I had seen through the fog banks but many false alarms are difficult to explain and may be people letting off expired flares or deliberate false alarms that also occur by radio 🤬

Compare the performance of flares to these :

My McMurdo GPS PLB, not the smallest now
available, but small enough to carry in a pocket, on
a lanyard round the neck or attached to a harness.
A PLB transmits via satellite to multiple emergency centres including MRCC Falmouth [Coastguard]  plus a broadcast VHF homing signal with a range of several miles. DF homing systems are carried by lifeboats and rescue helicopters, also aircraft crew can hear the SOS (in Morse code) as it uses the aviation emergency frequency of 121.5 MHz. 

PLBs run for > 35 hours and cost around £300 (2024).

Reasonably modern ones like mine sends a GPS position and the very latest get you an acknowledgement of receipt so you know someone is doing something. Old ones rely on triangulation from the satellites (that still works with modern PLB's in the absence a GPS position) so are no where near as accurate and it will take a while to get a fix. Units may include a strobe.

The battery shelf life is >= 6 years, my replacement battery, admittedly not cheap @ £136 fitted and tested as working and waterproof by an authorised repairer, had an 8 year life.

If I were to be coastal sailing with only one emergency beacon it would be a PLB with GPS or one combined with AIS (see below).

My Ocean Signal RescueMe EPIRB1 (yellow)
in its at sea storage
An EPIRB is similar to the PLB but has a lot of more buoyancy (PLB's may need a neoprene cover to float) and is bulky, runs for at least 48 hours at -20 degrees C and more typically for up to 95 hours. 

They can, at a price, be set up in a deck mounting with hydrostatic automatic release, this is required for some commercial operations but I suspect few leisure sailors do that and those that do probably carry a second device in the grab bag in case the automatic one gets trapped in an inverted or capsized boat or gets carried away. The replaceable battery has a shelf life of 10 years. 

An EPIRB with GPS can be had for c £450 increasing to c £1k for a premium unit with hydrostatic release and a built in AIS alert transmitter. 

A PLB should be adequate for most coastal sailors who should be rescued or at least located well before the battery runs out. I started off with a PLB but added the EPIRB when I decided to do the subsequently cancelled 2020 Jester Azores Challenge which is why I have both, but it gives good backup and I spent the dosh to extend the life of my PLB. 

You wouldn't know it but my AIS SART is inside the
life jacket and activates automatically on inflation,
a DSC alert can be activated manually. Attached
is my PLB (yellow pouch) plus a strobe (left).
My Ocean Signal MOB1 AIS SART broadcasts AIS and DSC emergency signals with GPS position for >= 24 hours, some units don't do the DSC. Range depends on several factors but will typically be a few miles depending on sea conditions and the height of the aerial of the receiving station. 

The replaceable battery shelf life is 7 years on mine. Units cost between £275 and £300 (2023) or £520 as a combined unit with a PLB, many units include a strobe.

The AIS SART can be used as a man overboard warning system for everyone on board, or for some handing units from person to person so that those on deck have one, but except for very short handed boats both options can get very expensive, alternative MOB alert systems can use a mobile phone and "tags" at about £50 each or more complex systems with a hub and tags (not researched).

To use AIS SART as an Man over Board alarm, the boat will need an AIS receiver and if that or the plotter does not sound an alarm (most do) a separate module at c £200 will need to be added.

The Ocean Signal EDF1 LED flare is waterproof to 10 metres, is visible for up to 7 miles and one battery (replaceable @ £27 each with a 10 year shelf life) will keep it flashing for at least 6 hours.

One of my "Grab bags", the other really is a bag that can have
items such as the EPIRB.  A couple of legacy expired parachute
flares are on the right with an Ocean Signal LED "Flare" (yellow)
and a strobe (orange), for more on the Grab Bag see my page
First Aid Kits, the Grab Bag & Life Jackets.
Doubts have been raised on-line about people recognising an LED flare as an indicator of distress, the Ocean Signal device at least, can be set to flash SOS in Morse code ( . . . _ _ _ . . . ) that should get any seafarers attention, and that of many other people.

Other methods of calling for help.

The IridiumGo activated on longer trips gives an emergency signal with position to a third party emergency centre and supports email, SMS and voice in conjunction with an iPad, smart phone or PC.

There is also the mobile phone in a water proof case and an iPad with GSM on a different provider if one of them has a signal.

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