Carriage of Pyrotechnic Flares

The RYA is keen to ensure that technological advances in distress alerting are embraced as widely as possible.

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 obsolescent;

  • No compulsory carriage requirements for pyrotechnic signals on UK craft up to 24m in length.

The RYA has successfully

  • Argued that pleasure vessels of 13.7m up to 24m in length should not be compelled to carry rocket parachute flares.

The 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.

RYA position

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.


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, regard less of how effective they were. 

That 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 location data.

In 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.


For 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:

  • A 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;

  • The reliability of pyrotechnic flares is susceptible to significant variations in ambient temperature;

  • The reliability of pyrotechnic flares cannot be tested by the end user;

  • The operation of pyrotechnic flares presents a significant risk of injury to the operator and, potentially, to other people;

  • There 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;

  • There 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 pyrotechnic flares.


Current regulations make it mandatory for certain recreational craft to carry flares for distress alerting; these regulations require:

  • Class XII vessels (i.e. pleasure vessels of 13.7 metres (45ft) in length and over) to carry four red hand-held pyrotechnic flares.

  • Recreational 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.

Where 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.

Mandatory requirements for commercially operated vessels are set out in Marine Guidance Note 280; those for pleasure vessels in Marine Guidance Note 599. Through the RYA’s efforts, MGN 599 no longer requires the carriage of rocket parachute flares on pleasure vessels of 13.7 metres (45ft) in length and over.

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.

Historically, 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 542M+F.

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.

The RYA has published alternative carriage requirements which have been endorsed by both the MCA and the RNLI. The RYA Table of Guidelines for pleasure vessels of less than 13.7mlength, outlines the alternatives and combinations that may be considered.

That 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 prohibited.

The RYA will continue to urge the MCA to:

  • Recognise modern electronic devices for alerting and location that communicate directly with their search and rescue communications systems;

  • Remove all compulsion to carry pyrotechnic flares on recreational craft under 24m in length and those that are operated for training and charter.

Not only is the RYA convinced that modern devices enhance distress alerting and location, but they will ease the burden of disposal.


EPIRB: Emergency Position-Indicating Radio Beacon

VHF: Very High Frequency (marine radio)

DSC: Digital Selective Calling

AIS: Automatic Identification System

EVDS: Electronic Visual Distress Signals

SART: Search and Rescue Transponder