Sailing 101: Add Some Flare

Ahoy Sailors, now that we know what to do when we receive a MAYDAY distress call, let’s talk about approved essential pyrotechnics that should live aboard every vessel, flares, and distress signals. Here is a guide to rules, regulations, styles, and brands of flares that are essential for recreational boating. Stay tuned for our next issue when we discuss how to handle and operate flares properly.


There is a visual distress signal requirement for recreational boaters. All boats operating on waters more than two miles wide in U.S. waters, including the Great Lakes and territorial seas, must be equipped with a visual distress signal.


There are several exceptions, so always check your state regulations to ensure you comply.


Regardless of exemptions, all boaters should have the proper equipment to signal for help onboard their vessel. In addition, boaters must have up-to-date U.S. Coast Guard-approved day and night signals for all boats operating on coastal and open bodies of water. The Coast Guard does not manually test flares for approval but instead defines the required test methods and minimum performance standards for approval. Product testing must be performed by a Coast Guard Accepted or Recognized Independent Laboratory. If you’re curious whether the function of your flare is USCG approved, please send the Submittal Package and other related information to For a complete listing of USCG Type Approved Equipment, please visit the Coast Guard Marine Information Exchange (CGMIX).

Federal requirements are as follows:

For boats under 16 feet in length: Distress signals are only required when operating between sunset and sunrise. One electric distress light or three combination day/night red flares are required if operating at night.

For boats 16 feet in length or greater: One orange distress flag (day only) and one electric distress light (night only) – or – three hand-held or floating orange smoke signals (day only) and one electric distress light (night only) – or – three combination day/night red flares (day or night); hand-held (day or night), meteor (day or night) or parachute type (day or night).

Today, two types of flares are marketed under three different brand names in the United States. Though the market seems to have undergone some shrinking, there is still a wide variety of designs to choose from.

The International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea is an international maritime treaty that sets minimum safety standards for merchant ships’ construction, equipment, and operation. SOLAS-approved options have been developed and are a standard set by the International Maritime Organization for offshore boating safety equipment. Some pyrotechnic signaling devices have been tested and are SOLAS approved and supported by the U.S. Coast Guard.

Aerial flares can contain parachute rockets that fall slowly from a high altitude and burn for more than 30 seconds or meteor aerials that burn for less than 10 seconds. Most parachute flares are SOLAS approved. Some aerial flares include:

  • Orion Red Parachute Signal Rocket – SOLAS approved
  • Pains Wessex Para Red Rocket MK8 – SOLAS approved
  • Comet Red Parachute Signal Rocket – SOLAS approved

Hand-held flares are usually red, but white collision flares are also available. However, the white flares are not SOLAS or USCG approved. Some hand-held flares include:

  • Pains Wessex Red Hand Flare MK8 – SOLAS approved
  • Comet Red Hand flare – SOLAS approved
  • Orion Red Handheld Flare – SOLAS approved

Smoke flares are best for daytime use and come in a hand-held version or a throwable floating smoke canister and are usually SOLAS approved. Some smoke flares include:

  • Orion Handheld Orange Smoke Signal
  • Orion Floating Smoke Signal – SOLAS approved
  • Comet Smoke Signal Orange – SOLAS approved
  • Pains Wessex Lifesmoke MK8 – SOLAS approved
  • Pains Wessex Manoverboard MK2 – SOLAS approved

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