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The burning question: are flares time expired?

Stuart Carruthers, RYA Cruising Manager, responds to your comments and questions on the carriage of pyrotechnic flares.

Thank you to all who took the time and trouble to write in response to the RYA’s call for a change in the current carriage requirements for flares. Some of your comments can be seen in Dear Editor.

We received a wide range of views and I should make it quite clear that the RYA is pressing for a change in mandatory carriage requirements; we are not trying to get flares banned, removed or prevent boaters from having them if they wish to do so.

Currently, the UK regulations that apply to small vessels in commercial use for sport and pleasure and those that are more than 13.7m in length compel the carriage of certain quantities of pyrotechnic flares as a primary means of distress alerting dependent on area of operation and whether you want them or not.

The RYA fully recognises that there will be those who consider flares to be an essential part of their emergency equipment and who will continue to want to carry them, that is their choice and the RYA respects that. However, the RYA also considers that modern distress beacons and DSC VHF provide more reliable and safer options for distress alerting than pyrotechnic flares.


The RYA believes that UK regulations should recognise that modern technology provides accurate, timely, and reliable distress alert and location data to help search and rescue authorities assist persons in distress. It is modern technology that has enabled the MCA to streamline and consolidate the management and control of Search and Rescue resources around our coast.

Where such technology is carried on board a pleasure craft as a primary means of distress alerting, we take the view that owners should be able to decide for themselves what pyrotechnic flares they may wish to carry, what they are carrying them for (distress or location) and ultimately how many, if any, they may want to carry.

Modern technology

In simple terms, the International Satellite System for Search and Rescue (Cospas-Sarsat) system detects and locates emergency beacons (EPIRB and PLB) activated by ships and people in distress to reduce the time required to locate a distress and provide assistance.

DSC VHF allows distress alerts to be sent automatically to ‘all stations’ simply by pressing one button. This triggers an alarm on every DSC enabled set within range. Furthermore, the alert is repeated every few minutes until it is either acknowledged or switched off. Clearly a DSC alert should always be followed up by a mayday call and traditional sets can still initiate distress with a mayday call on Channel 16.

Pyrotechnic flares

On the other hand, if you choose to fire a pyrotechnic flare to initiate a distress alert, you have to cross your fingers and hope that someone is close enough to see it, that they are looking in the right direction during the 40 seconds to one minute it will burn for and that they then react by raising the alert. All of that would appear to be rather hit or miss, particularly the further out to sea you are.

More recently we have written about Electronic Visual Distress Signals (EVDS) as a means of providing visual location. Work has begun internationally to develop a performance standard for EVDS and it is hoped that this will enable them to replace red hand held flares. This work is being undertaken by the US Coastguard through the Radio Technical Commission for Maritime Services in conjunction with the MCA.

The RYA is strongly supportive of this work to develop alternatives to hand held pyrotechnic flares, but recognises that this will take some time. In the meantime the MCA is reviewing its carriage requirements in the light of the EU pyrotechnic articles directive and a review of the small commercial vessel codes.

We will publish more information as it becomes available.

Stuart Carruthers, RYA Cruising Manager

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