The use of pyrotechnics as a signalling device dates back to the Mongolians in the 12th century. Since those early days when gunpowder was a primary ingredient, they have evolved into a very precise and effective visual distress signal. Flares are often underrated but they have the potential to save your life and I know first-hand how important they can be in an emergency situation.


This article is designed to clarify the most common types of flares, their uses and importantly how they should be stowed to allow for easy access in a time of emergency.


The Orange Hand Smoke Flare

This hand held flare emits a very dense orange smoke, which can be seen from 3-6km away depending on weather conditions. This type of flare is strictly for day use and is an essential item on-board. It will emit smoke for approximately 60 seconds and is only to be used when you can see or hear rescuers or passers by.


The Red Hand Held Flare

This hand held flare emits a very bright red flame like a torch. It burns extremely hot and is used as a night visual distress signal, which again can be seen for approximately 6km and can be a true lifesaver. Night time adds a new level of complexity and fear to an emergency situation. Remember stay together and stay calm if you find yourself in a situation at night, communicate clearly and calmly. Treat your night flare like they are made of gold as they will save your life.


Red Rocket Flare

Although not a mandatory flare in some states, in my opinion, they are a must when travelling offshore. This type of flare can be seen from a lot further away than the handhelds. The rocket flare will shoot a very bright visual distress signal 300m into the air and the burn time is approximately 40 seconds. They are similar to firing a mini rocket launcher so treat them with respect and hang on tight, most are activated by a pull cord and like I said never fool around with this type of product.


Floating Smoke Canister

Not widely used in the recreational sector but are also very effective and also a true lifesaver. Normally approx. 100-120 mm high in the shape of a can, these flares will float and have the longest burn time of approximately 3 minutes. They emit dense orange smoke and are considered to be for day use.


Stowing of Flares

Like the rest of our marine safety equipment the stowage of flares is critical. Flares need to be stored in a dry watertight container. Remember flares are quite heavy and four flares may weigh as much as a house brick which of course will sink if they do end up in the water after an accident or capsizing. Having them in a buoyant container is essential.


Not a lot of the boating public have ever really given flares much thought; we simply have them on-board so we do not get fined. Many people believe they may need them if they breakdown or are sinking slowly. Remember that bad things happen fast, so you really have to know where your flares are and how to use them. You will more than likely be using them in highly stressful situations so read the instructions or get online and know how to use your flares in advance. They could just save your life!


Department of Transport in WA has recently launched “The 30 second challenge” to help you determine if you can put your hands on your safety equipment in 30 seconds?


The take home message is to take marine safety equipment seriously, everything we are mandated to carry is designed to save our lives. Store it in the wrong place and it could do the exact opposite and cost you your life.


I have lived through this situation, the last thing you are doing in a life and death situation is searching frantically for your safety equipment including your flares. I know all of this may sound melodramatic or even pessimistic, but what I know for sure, is if I would have spent three more seconds on-board trying to get my flares when my boat sunk, the four of us including two 11 year old boys, would have been killed. I knew where they were, but it all happened too fast and I couldn’t get to them.


Please take my message to heart and be prepared. Stay safe and enjoy the great Aussie pastime of going boating over the summer months.


Happy Boating


Scott Smiles