By: Captain Bill Jennings
I don't like flares. They are dangerous and can cause severe injuries. Flares burn at the melting point of steel and contain toxic chemicals such as nitrates plus an ignition fuel like sulphur. Imagine an emergency where a crew member grabs a flare and tries to quickly read the instructions that are printed on the flare in "mice type." They are notoriously difficult to extinguish, and when they reach their expiry date they are difficult to dispose of. At long last, there is an alternative distress signal to flares.
Very recently, the USCG followed by Transport Canada have both approved electronic visual distress signal devices, known as (eVDSD's) emergency light systems, that can replace flares and save you the trouble and cost of keeping flares in your boat. Depending on the regulations where you live, here is an example. As you might expect, the rules for using this device in Canada and the U.S. are different. Lets break down the distress regulations for each country into terms that are as simple as possible.
Firstly, here is a rule that applies to both the U.S. and Canada. You are not required to carry any flares at all, if you are operating on a river, canal, or lake on which at no time your boat can be more than 1 nautical mile (1.8 km), from shore. But if it is possible to venture more than 1 nautical mile from shore, even though it may not be your intent, distress signals are mandatory. There must be thousands of small lake boaters who are not aware of this rule and buy flares unnecessarily.
For the remainder of distress equipment regulations, they unfortunately differ between U.S. and Canada. Here's a summary of U.S. Coast Guard rules:
* Recreational boats less than 16' operating in coastal waters need only carry night signaling devices when operated between sunset and sunrise.
* All other boats must carry both night and day signaling devices.
* One electric distress light or three combination day/night red flares are required. The electronic light signal (eVDSD) effectively replaces 3 flares.
* The light must automatically flash the international SOS distress signal, which is three short flashes, three long flashes, and three short flashes.
* These lights must automatically flash the SOS signal in either all white or orange-red/cyan.
* Electronic signal lights simplify distress signal rules, because each boat need only carry one SOS electronic light, providing it states on the device that it meets the 46 CFR 161.013 or RTCM Standard 13200.0 requirements. To further clarify, a boat carrying a single electronic, eVDSD signal light, and the orange emergency flag that comes with the light, is Coast Guard compliant.
* Of course, the older traditional distress signal devices are still approved. For pyrotechnic devices, you can qualify with a minimum of three, providing they are approved for both day and night use.
* Floating and handheld smoke flares are approved for daytime use only, while red flares, whether handheld or aerial, are for daytime and nighttime. So, any combination can be carried as long as they add up to 3 signals for day use and 3 signals for night use. You therefore need a minimum of three visual distress signals that you can use in either day or night.
* For reference as to the legal life of a flare, they are stamped in the U.S. with the date that they expire, which is 42 months (3 1/2 years), after their date of manufacture.
* In addition to the above, all boats must carry an emergency sound signal.
Now lets look at a summary of distress emergency signal rules for Canada:
* When carried with an approved smoke signal, Transport Canada now recognizes that an electronic visual distress signal device (eVDSD) for pleasure craft, can be carried instead of all approved rocket parachute flares, multi-star flares, hand flares or a watertight flashlight. The smoke signal is intended for daytime alerting and the electronic light for night use.
* A Transport Canada approved smoke signal must be carried with the eVDSD for daytime alerting.
* eVDSDs must be certified by an accredited product certification body. The most important characteristics to be included with approved devices are: A 2-colour cyan (blue) and red-orange S-O-S light sequence and near-infrared signal, so it can be detected with night vision goggles. An operating temperature range of -1°C to +30°C. An average intensity of at least 50 candela and at least a 2 hour continuous operating life.
* Devices must be labelled with a statement that it complies with RTCM Standard 13200.0. If a device doesn’t include this statement, it can’t be used as a pyrotechnic alternative.
* Rules also state that written operating instructions for the electronic light, must be in both English and French.
* If flares are carried in lieu of an electronic light, all pleasure craft longer than 6 metres (19.5 ft) must carry a number of pyrotechnic devices based on the length of the boat.
Vessels no more than 6 meters in length require 3 flares not more than one of which is a smoke signal.
Vessels more than 6 meters, up to not more than 9 meters in length require 6 flares, not more than two of which are smoke signals. If the boat has a two-way radio, such as a VHF, it requires only 3 flares, not more than 1 of which is a smoke signal.
Vessels more than 9 meters in length require 12 flares, not more than 6 of which are smoke signals. If the boat has a two-way radio, such as a VHF, it may have only 6 flares, not more than 2 of which are smoke signals.
Human powered craft more than 6 meters require 6 flares, not more than 2 of which are smoke signals. If the boat has a two-way radio, such as a VHF, it needs at least 3 flares, not more than 1 of which is a smoke signal.
Personal watercraft require 3 flares, not more than 1 of which is a smoke signal.
* In Canada, flares are stamped with their manufacture date and are legal for 48 months (4 years), from that date, before expiring.
The U.S. and Canadian policy changes for distress signals carry several advantages for boaters. eVDSD lights provide boaters with a choice of signal methods. These new lights are safe for all persons on board to operate. They can be seen for 10 miles and while this may only apply to an air search, the Canadian requirement for multi-color LED makes several rescue approaches possible. And, the replaceable “C” cell alkaline batteries that are environmentally safe can be purchased worldwide. The U.S. white light models can be purchased for under $100 and the Canadian multi-color version for about $300. It is not often that you'll see governments make things more simple, so take advantage of it while you can.