Shore services around the world require boats sailing in coastal waters or on the high seas to carry a set of visual distress signals. Almost always, these sets include pyrotechnics. But are we sure that this somewhat outdated technology is the most efficient and safest way to call for help?
Electronic distress lights for use on a yacht. Traditional set of pyrotechnics on board
Most marine vessels, commercial and recreational, today are equipped with high-tech facilities such as radars, emergency beacons, radar transponders, AIS etc. And it seems that this is the best that only can be. However, you can often hear from people rescued at sea that they cried out for help using the simplest means: bright light! After the ubiquitous mobile or satellite phones, sometimes the second best way to attract the attention of a passing ship or people on the shore is with powerful light. Especially when outbreaks can be unambiguously identified as SOS signal.
According to the reviews of many people rescued at sea, they attracted attention to themselves with the help of bright light.
Why do we use hand flares?
Pyrotechnics - a very useful "Plan B", when the other methods didn't work, but. Pyrotechnics are difficult to store and dangerous to use, especially on a rocking boat in stormy seas. It is even worse to do this at night, when it is rather difficult to read and understand the instructions. Not to mention the safe use of such a risky "device". If we were dealing with flares in a laboratory setting, it would take a few trainings before we were allowed to just pick them up. However, we expect everyone on board to be competent enough to use pyrotechnics in a stressful situation!
So why not try one of the many electronic distress signaling methods first? Of course, not everyone will read the instructions and learn how to use all these electronic things. But at least there will be no risk that someone will burn the boat with pyrotechnics, or, worse, themselves or other crew members. In addition, a simple, large-print algorithm flyer can be attached to each device, so that even an untrained passenger will have a general idea of how to send a signal for help.
Modern radio equipment is one of the main methods of transmitting a distress signal
And further. Various non-pyrotechnic means - are they really better than the good old hand flare? Yes and no. Hand flares can be very effective if the conditions are right. The problem is that there are often no such conditions.
Pros and cons of pyrotechnics
Traditional remedies have two main benefits. Parachute rockets can be shot high into the sky, and they burn very brightly for a minute or so. First, it expands their range of sight for miles. Second, it gives the untrained eye enough time to recognize the signal before it disappears.
Burning hand flares very good for locating a vessel up to three miles away. And, when a helicopter is involved in a rescue operation, the smoke can also indicate wind strength and direction to the pilot.
Traditional pyrotechnics has a number of advantages, but it also requires certain conditions for itself.
First, as a means of attracting attention, hand flares can be (and often does) be mistaken for ordinary fireworks. Secondly, they must be carefully stored so that they do not get wet. And this eliminates the option of taking a couple with you in your pocket when you are on watch on a rainy night. Finally, although rare, they can be unreliable. And there were even cases when they exploded in the hands - especially if the expiration date was coming to an end or they were already expired.
They are also quite expensive, which once again encourages sailors not to throw them away after the expiration date. In addition, they are difficult to dispose of. All of the above suggests that it may be time to revise the maritime rules and free yacht owners from the need to have such flammable substances on board, especially those that are unsafe on plastic or wooden boats.
I think that today most skippers would rush to the radio station first to report the problem - I would definitely do that. Modern "twos" (VHF) with DSC (digital selective calling) let the most notorious technophobes take the station and press the big red button for five seconds. And even if all the rest of the information is missed, the distress signal and your GPS position will still be received at the other end (it is assumed that you did not forget to connect VHF To Gps).
Radio stations with digital selective calling are easy to use and allow you to transmit a distress signal even in the hands of inexperienced users
If I were on the high seas, I would surely use an emergency beacon when there is an imminent danger and make sure that all crew members have PLB (personal locator beacon) and LED beacons in our pockets in case we have to leave the ship. At this point, I would grab my alarming duffel bag and a box of signal lights, but did not fire them until the last moment. And I certainly wouldn't do it until I waited an adequate time to see if someone answered my radio signal.
Perhaps if I walked in sight of the land and my boat was leaking and the batteries were flooded, I would probably think of other ways to attract attention - like flashes and lanterns.
The first models of electronic lights were laser. And, although they were very bright, they gave a rather thin beam. This meant that they had to be directed to a specific target, which was difficult when you were thrown at a swinging ship. Laser lights are also available, but personally I would not like to inadvertently blind them to someone - especially someone who is in a hurry to help me.
Lasers are not a reliable substitute for traditional pyrotechnics
Most recently powerful LEDs offered a better alternative to lasers as they can have many bulbs and their light looks more like traditional fire.
Many powerful LED lights and some can be set to SOS continuously. However, as with a laser, they are usually unidirectional, only a few are truly waterproof, and very few can stay afloat. Moreover, most only use batteries, which is hopeless if you are on a raft. Where, it is more than likely that you will not be able to recharge them when the flashlight is urgently needed.
Pros and cons of electronic flashes
Unlike most pyrotechnics, electronic flashes are water resistant, may fall into water and some may still float. Usually they can be used for several hours, turning off at any time. Their working condition is easy to check - unlike flares... They can be hung somewhere on the rigging while you are busy rescuing the boat. Even children can handle them. And small devices can be attached to a lifejacket or in a pocket in case you are washed overboard or forced to leave the ship. After the initial purchase cost, you don't have to think about replacing them for years.
The Orion buoy floats on the water with an SOS signal
Electronic flashes yet not as noticeable during the day as pyrotechnics. And at night they can easily be mistaken for nautical markers, ship lights or shore illumination.
Therefore, at the end of the day, a good skipper should always make sure that he and his crew have an ample choice of ways to signal help when needed. Speaking about myself, I would first use modern electronic means before resorting to pyrotechnics.
A short overview of the most popular lighting devices
LightsignalSOS from Weems & Plath (SOS Distress Light)
This flashlight meets the requirements of the US Coast Guard and can completely replace traditional hand flares. The LED flash can work up to 60 hours. The flashlight only transmits the SOS signal and is visible from a distance of up to 10 nautical miles. The device uses three standard C batteries. Water resistant.
SOS Light from Weems & Plath (SOS Distress Light)
Buoy with signal SOS from Orion (Orion Electronic SOS Beacon Locator)
The buoy stays on the water and transmits the signal SOS... The device is simple and intuitive to use, there is a function that indicates that the batteries are low and need to be replaced. Meets US Coast Guard requirements for nighttime visual distress signals.
Orion Electronic SOS Beacon Locator Short Review
Positioned as the most compact electronic distress signal. Has 4 modes of operation + SOS signal... Continuous operation for 6 hours, visibility up to 7 miles. Perfectly visible from planes or helicopters. Waterproof up to 10 meters.
Odeo distress flare
Up to 9 hours of continuous operation at full power with lithium batteries. Has an SOS signal. Floating, water resistance up to 50 meters. Visibility up to 6 nautical miles.
Odeo distress flare
See-Me 1.0 LED waterproofflashlight (See-Me 1.0 Waterproof LED Light for Emergency)
See-Me 1.0 LED Light works up to 17 hours using only 2 AAA alkaline batteries. Has an eyelet and loop for hanging on a life jacket. The lantern is durable and can be submerged in water to a depth of 1 meter. Visibility in the dark up to 3 miles.
See-Me 1.0 LED
Translation: Dmitry Bushuev
If you have any questions about yacht arrangement and safety on board, the Interparus Yachting team will be happy to advise you on how to solve these problems from personal experience. Contact us!
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