A flare for safety — how and when to use them


As a boater, you should have the required flares on board, but do you know how and when to use them?

flare-copywebWhen to use flares

  • You want to use your flares when you are in distress and in a location where they can be seen by someone. If you have radioed or called for help, you may be asked to fire a flare to pinpoint your location, so you can be spotted at sea and from the air.
  • If searching for you, the U.S. Coast Guard may ask you to set off a flare or an orange smoke flare in the daytime. Lighted flares are effective for short time spans (some for 8–10 seconds, others for 2–3 minutes), so use them efficiently with foreknowledge and practice. Don’t wait until the need arises before preparing for action; it could make the difference between life and death.

How to use flares

  • You will want to shoot two flares relatively close together: the first one to catch someone’s attention and the second to confirm the sighting. Always fire flares downwind, so the burning phosphorous, wax and other materials fall away from your boat and body.
  • Always hold hand-held flares over the side of your boat so the drippings don’t land on your deck and ignite a fire on board.
  • If you use a flare pistol, get into a safe position and be ready to fire before loading the cartridge into the pistol. Immediately point the pistol high over your head with your arm fully extended, then cock it. Continue to hold the launcher overhead and point skyward while firing. Don’t look up at the pistol as sparks and residual hot material could drop into your face and eyes.
  • After firing, lower the pistol, open the barrel (pointing it away from others) and remove the spent cartridge. Place the expended cartridge into a pail of water to be completely extinguished. Do not drop the cartridge overboard.
  • If a cartridge fails to fire, continue pointing the gun skyward and wait 30 seconds; cock and pull the trigger again. If the cartridge still does not fire, wait 30 seconds before carefully removing the cartridge and placing it in a container of water.
  • Even though expired flares will often fire, the Coast Guard recommends that you get rid of flares five years past their expiration date. Turn over old, outdated flares to the Coast Guard or a USPS/USCG Auxiliary Vessel Safety Check station. The next time you go to the boat, check the expiration dates of all your flares. Even better, have a vessel examiner check out everything, including your flares. –Kathryn Byrd
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The Ensign magazine is an official channel of United States Power Squadrons, America’s Boating Club, a volunteer organization whose members teach boating skills and best practices to help improve the safety of our nation’s waterways. Learn more.