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 use of pyrotechnic flares for distress alerting was the only practical option available to many recreational boaters. Since then, advances in modern technology have provided safer and more reliable alternatives to pyrotechnic flares for distress alerting.
The RYA is keen to ensure that technological advances in distress alerting are embraced as widely as possible.
The RYA wants to achieve:
- Widespread recognition that modern technology now provides
a safe and reliable means of distress alerting and that pyrotechnic signals are
- No compulsory carriage requirements for pyrotechnic
signals on UK craft up to 24m in length.
The RYA has successfully
- Argued that private pleasure craft of 13.7m up to
24m in length should not be compelled to carry rocket parachute flares.
Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) has agreed that a general exemption in
respect of life saving appliances for Class XII vessels should no longer
include a requirement to carry rocket parachute flares.
- 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.
Modern electronic distress, alerting and locating devices are now readily
available at an affordable price and their use avoids the dangers associated
with the operation of pyrotechnic flares and difficulties encountered in disposing
of time-expired pyrotechnics.
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.
is no longer the case. The
International Cospas-Sarsat Programme (Search
and Rescue Satellite-Aided Tracking) began in 1979 and was
formally constituted as an intergovernmental organisation in 1988 through the
International Cospas-Sarsat Programme Agreement. The Cospas-Sarsat system is available to maritime and
aviation users and to persons in distress situations. Access is provided to all
States on a non-discriminatory basis, and is free of charge for the end-user in
distress in all GMDSS sea areas. As a result, affordable electronic distress
beacons are now readily available for recreational boaters. On average, about 5
persons are rescued every day with the assistance of Cospas-Sarsat alert and
addition, 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. The
International Maritime Organization has also postponed indefinitely plans to
suspend VHF watch keeping on ships.
some years now, the RYA has been aware that the effectiveness of pyrotechnics
as a primary visual signal for distress alerting and location was subject to a
number of limitations:
rocket parachute flare will only burn for about 40 seconds and a hand flare will
only burn for about one minute;
- The finite number of pyrotechnic flares
carried on board recreational craft can quickly be exhausted without successfully
attracting attention, even within busy shipping lanes;
reliability of pyrotechnic flares is susceptible to significant variations in ambient
reliability of pyrotechnic flares cannot be tested by the end user;
operation of pyrotechnic flares presents a significant risk of injury to the
operator and, potentially, to other people;
have been instances of pyrotechnic flares being activated accidentally within
sealed life rafts (e.g. when drop tested), causing significant damage to the
liferaft and its components;
- Pyrotechnic flares only have a three-year life from
the date of manufacture, which also includes storage time and transportation;
are major problems with the disposal of pyrotechnic flares at the end of their
three-year serviceable life.
The RYA believes that modern technology (EPIRB, PLB,
VHF DSC, AIS, EVDS and SART) is now able to provide reliable, accurate and
timely alerting and location methods without any of the above drawbacks of
regulations make it mandatory for certain recreational craft to carry flares
for distress alerting; these regulations require:
XII vessels (i.e. pleasure vessels of 13.7 metres (45ft) in length and over) to
carry four red hand-held pyrotechnic flares.
craft of any length which are operating commercially, such as those that are
used for training or for charter, to carry varying quantities of pyrotechnic flares
dependent on their area of operation.
carriage is not mandatory (i.e. on pleasure vessels of less than 13.7 metres
(45ft) in length), recreational boaters are free to choose what means of
distress alerting and location they wish to carry.
requirements for commercially operated vessels are set out in Marine Guidance
Note 280; those for pleasure vessels in Marine Guidance Note 538(M). Through the
RYA’s efforts, MGN 538 no longer requires the carriage of rocket parachute
flares on private pleasure vessels of 13.7 metres (45ft) in length and over.
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
the carriage of pyrotechnic flares has satisfied both the distress alerting and
location indicating functions and the distinction between the two has become
blurred. Perversely, however, flares have to be seen and acted on by a third
party before the SAR authorities can be alerted. Furthermore it is reasonable
to conclude that the further offshore a pyrotechnic flare is discharged the
less likely it is that a pyrotechnic flare will be seen.
In addition to electronic
distress alerting technology (including EPIRB,
PLB, VHF DSC, AIS and SART), there is an increasingly diverse range of Electronic
Visual Distress Signals (EVDS) – often referred to as “laser flares” – available.
EVDS are hand-held non-pyrotechnic devices and are being offered as
alternatives to pyrotechnic hand flares. Whilst the cost, safety of use, ease
of testing and disposal of these items might be attractive, they are not
currently a recognised international distress signal (they are not listed in
COLREG Annex IV) and should therefore not be considered as a means of
initiating distress. However, they do provide a realistic alternative for
visual location once a distress alert has been sent and the MCA has recognised this
in Marine Information Note 464M+F.
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.
RYA has published alternative carriage requirements which have been endorsed by
both the MCA and the RNLI. The RYA Table
of Guidelines for pleasure craft of less than 13.7m
length, outlines the alternatives and combinations that may be considered.
said, those who wish to continue to carry pyrotechnic flares, whether as their
primary means of distress alerting and location indicating or as a
supplementary means, are at liberty to do so and there is no suggestion that
the carriage of pyrotechnic flares on board recreational craft should be
RYA will continue to urge the MCA to:
modern electronic devices for alerting and location that communicate directly
with their search and rescue communications systems;
all compulsion to carry pyrotechnic flares on recreational craft under 24m in length
and those that are operated for training and charter.
only is the RYA convinced that modern devices enhance distress alerting and
location, but they will ease the burden of disposal.
Additional notes for
Current Affairs webpage:
Emergency Position-Indicating Radio Beacon
Very High Frequency (marine radio)
Digital Selective Calling
Automatic Identification System
Electronic Visual Distress Signals
Search and Rescue Transponder
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