Pyrotechnic Flares – past their sell-by date?


The use of pyrotechnic rocket parachute flares and hand-held flares showing a red light is just one of the methods set out in Annex IV of the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea 1972 to indicate distress and need of assistance.

In 1972 the range of communication equipment available to the recreational boating community was extremely limited and pyrotechnic flares were realistically the only option available to recreational boaters for signalling distress, regardless of how effective they were. That is no longer the case. Modern technology (EPIRB, PLB, VHF DSC, AIS, EVDS and SART) is now able to provide reliable, accurate and timely alerting and location methods without the need for pyrotechnic signals.

Indeed, Digital Select Calling (DSC) VHF radio sets have been available since the turn of the century and allow every other radio in range to be called at the same time in the event of distress.


For some years now, the RYA has been aware that the effectiveness of pyrotechnics as a primary visual signal for distress alerting and location are subject to a number of limitations and drawbacks. The RYA believes that modern technology is now able to provide reliable, accurate and timely alerting and location methods without any of the above drawbacks of pyrotechnic flares.

Until international regulations recognise alternatives to pyrotechnics, code vessels and RYA Training centre vessels are required to carry pyrotechnic flares.


“Laser flares”

The RYA strongly recommends that recreational craft carry both a means of distress alerting and a means of indicating location should Search and Rescue (SAR) services be required. In addition to electronic distress alerting technology, there is an increasingly diverse range of Electronic Visual Distress Signals (EVDS) – often and wrongly referred to as “laser flares” – available.

In the RYA’s view, the practical drawbacks of pyrotechnic flares and their limited effectiveness in distress alerting, combined with the availability of alternative electronic distress alerting and location indicating technology, mean that pyrotechnic flares are now obsolescent.

That said, those who wish to continue to carry pyrotechnic flares should be aware that they have a lifespan and should be replaced before they expire. Expiry dates are printed on the individual flares. The disposal of out-of-date flares is a growing problem for boat owners who face severe penalties if they fail to dispose of out of date flares appropriately.

For good practice, follow the RYA’s top tips if you choose to carry flares:

  1. Keep flares in good condition and accessible at all times on your boat. You should clearly sign where safety equipment is kept on your boat.
  2. Make sure you know how to use flares before you go out on your boat so you’re ready in an emergency.
  3. Check the expiry dates on safety equipment regularly and replace them before they expire.

Remember it is your responsibility to dispose of time expired flares properly. The RYA is acutely aware that many boaters have great difficulty in getting rid of out of date flares. For that reason we urge everyone to think carefully about the alternative means of raising a distress alert and for pinpointing their location.

For advice on alternatives to pyrotechnic flares visit here; for more advice on flare disposal visit