Using Flares at Sea – An All You Need to Know with...

Using Flares at Sea – An All You Need to Know with Chris Feibusch

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Flares are still the most recognised visual signal of distress at sea. Here, we reveal all you need to know about using flares at sea correctly, the different types you need and more…

Chris Feibusch
©Drew Marine Signal and Safety

Pyrotechnic flares have been helping to save lives for more than 100 years and are an onboard essential. So we asked Chris Feibusch, Head of Global Marketing at Drew Marine Signal and Safety, the manufacturer of Comet and Pains Wessex products, to answer your most common questions to help you stay safe at sea.

MarinaWhy do I need marine pyrotechnics?

CF“Should any vessel get into a marine emergency, distress signals are a vital element of safety equipment, raising help and pinpointing your position. All boat owners should have marine flares on board, which are in good condition and, crucially, in date – as you never know when you might need to use them. Marine flares are self-contained, hand portable, waterproof and work without relying on power supplies and batteries.”

MarinaWhat other distress signals can be used in an emergency?

CF“There are a variety of products available that can be used to aid rescues at sea, such as EPIRBS (Emergency Position Radio Indicting Beacons), AIS (Automatic Identification System for collision avoidance), DSC (Digital Selective Calling on VHF radios). No one system is the last word in safety and all means of signalling distress are valid and work best when used in conjunction with each other. A nearby craft may see your flare and rescue you, well before anyone can react to your Mayday call or EPIRB signal. An EPIRB will provide an accurate location but in particularly bad weather, rough seas and at night, a flare will precisely pinpoint your position. Pyrotechnic flares also act as a wind direction indicator for any approaching rescue craft, vessel, spotter plane or helicopter to safely retrieve casualties. No system or device currently replaces the specific function of flares making them a necessity for vessels all over the world.”

MarinaDo I need any training to use flares correctly?

CF“Ensuring that everyone is sufficiently trained is vital as it is essential that flares are used quickly, correctly and safely in an emergency situation at sea. To inform and support seafarers we’ve produced short instructional training videos, all of which you can view on the Comet and Pains Wessex websites.

Here’s an example of the short instructional training videos available from the Comet and Pains Wessex websites.

MarinaHow safe are flares?

CFFlares are built to rigorous specifications and contain energetic materials, so should always be used according to the maker’s instructions. Flares should always be stored in the right way and disposed of safely and responsibly.

MarinaAre there different types of flares?

CFThere are a wide variety of flares available from hand flares to orange smokes and rocket flares. The type of flare you select will depend on the situation and time of day. For example, an orange hand smoke is ideal for day-time rescues, whereas a red parachute rocket can be used by day or night, offering visibility over a longer range.

As well as on-board stock, make sure you have personal flares for your crew

MarinaHow many and what type of flares do I need for my boat?

CFThere are minimum recommendations for flares. Boats sailing within three miles of the shore are recommended to have two red hand flares and two orange hand smokes, stored in a water resistant 3-litre polybottle. Boats sailing within seven miles of the shore are recommended to have two red hand flares, two orange hand smokes and two red parachute rockets, stored in a water resistant 3-litre polybottle. Boats sailing seven miles beyond the shore are recommended to have four collision white handflares, two lifesmokes, four red hand flares and four red parachute rockets, stored in a waterproof 12-litre polybottle.

Safety Q&A - Flares
©Drew Marine Signal and Safety

MarinaDo I need to have personal flares as well as on-board stock?

CFYou should ensure that you have enough flares on board for the type of sailing that you do. As well as an on-board stock, it may be advisable to have personal flares for each member of the crew – a combined day/night or mini-flare is ideal for this.

MarinaWhat’s the best way to store my flares safely?

CFMarine flares are very safe when used and stored in the right way. Flares should be stored in an easy-to-reach location and everyone on board should know where they are and how to use them – every signal has instructions.

MarinaHow do I dispose of out of date or damaged flares?

CFFlares have an expiry date so that the user can be confident that the flares will work at sea. An out-of-date or damaged flare is not an inactive flare and needs to be disposed of safely and responsibly. Flares should not be dumped at sea or in household waste. If you contact your local Coastguard Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre they will advise you where to take your flares for disposal.

Flares best practice


  • Only use flares in a marine emergency
  • Make sure your flares are in date
  • Ensure everyone on board knows where the signals are stored and how to use them
  • Use red flares by day or night and orange smoke signals in daylight
  • Store them in a waterproof container
  • Hold the signals downwind and away from your body, as per instructions


  • Fire a distress signal if you are not in an emergency situation
  • Use a flare that is past its expiry date
  • Expose flares to extremes of temperature or humidity
  • Use a flare if it’s damaged or dented – treat flares carefully
  • Store your flares near sources of heat
  • Let children play with flares
  • Use flares in confined spaces
  • Point a flare in the direction of people or property


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