SAFE-BOAT SMART-BOAT: Using flares – Safe handling, firing, training

by Fred Mattera –

I am often asked what to do with old, expired flares or if I want them.  Actually, I do take and use them to conduct hands-on flare training.  I also tell captains to consider keeping an expired flare kit in a container marked “for training purpose only,” distinguishing them from the vessel’s updated kit, and use them for at-sea training.

Flare kits are required safety equipment on commercial fishing vessels.  Outside of 50 miles, a vessel needs a SOLAS A kit containing six handheld, three orange floating smoke, and three parachute flares.


A qualified Coast Guard-approved marine drill instructor, Fred Mattera of Point Judith, RI is the owner/president of North East Safety Training Co. (NESTCo), which conducts fishing vessel drills and inspections and basic safety training workshops.
A commercial fisherman for 40 years, Mattera is a member of the Commercial Fishing Safety Advisory Committee to the Coast Guard, and, since 1998, has been president of the Point Club, a fishing vessel mutual insurance group. He also has served on the board of directors for Sunderland Marine Mutual Insurance Co., the principal underwriter for the Point Club and more than 2,000 US fishing vessels, since 1998.

From three miles to 50 miles, vessels are required to have a SOLAS B kit with the same number of flares and types.  These are just a little less bright and burn for a shorter duration.

SOLAS stands for the International Convention for the “Safety of Life at Sea,” a maritime safety treaty.  To distinguish the two kits, SOLAS A kits are marked as 160.121 and SOLAS B as 160.021.  Note the difference in the last 3 digits, which, for SOLAS A, starts with the numeral 1 and, for SOLAS B, starts with the numeral 0.

Cost is a factor as well.  SOLAS A kits are more expensive.  But there are times when I see SOLAS B flares on an offshore vessel, which means the boat is not in compliance.

Flares also are included in the equipment package aboard your life raft, identical in number and type as the flare kit you need for your vessel.


Read the instructions

Flares are excellent distress signaling devices but all have their advantages and disadvantages.  They can be used only once, and they can cause injury or property damage if not properly handled.  It is extremely important to read the instructions.

Always look for the direction of the arrow on the flare, which points to the end of the flare that ignites.  I have witnessed a parachute flare shot right into the toe of a fisherman’s sneaker.

The flare itself is very hot and will expel ash and slag as it burns.  Even though these particles cool quickly, they can cause a painful burn or ignite materials.  Always take the wind into consideration and keep it at your back.  Also, you must hold a flare over the side and in such a way that neither you nor the raft is damaged.

Pistol-launched and handheld parachute flares have many of the same characteristics of a firearm and must be handled with the same caution and respect.  Never aim flares directly at a searching aircraft or surface vessel.

Handheld or floating orange smoke flares work best on clear days with light winds.  They tend to lose effectiveness in high winds because the smoke rapidly disperses.  So, they are best used during a helicopter rescue, providing a large target and indicating wind direction to the helo crew once it’s in sight.

Red handheld flares can be used during the day but are most effective at night or in restrictive visibility such as fog or haze.  Always hold only the plastic handle at arm’s length before igniting.  Turn your head away and, again, be sure the wind is at your back.

Pistol-launched flares can be used during the day but are most effective at night.  Because they descend rapidly, their burning time is shorter and they may not be as readily seen as a slow-descending flare.

Red parachute flares are good for both day and night because of their altitude, slow descent, and brilliant intensity.


From the raft

Once you are situated in the life raft, one of the first things you should do is to ignite a parachute flare to alert vessels within a 20-mile radius that may not have heard a mayday call to your position.

This parachute flare is shot out of a tube and ascends to 1,000′ in approximately two seconds.  It then slowly descends over 25-30 seconds giving off a bright red light.

This is a very powerful and dangerous flare.  Again, read the directions.  Find the arrow and point it toward the sky at an 80°–85° angle.  Hold it with your knuckles facing your body at chest-to-chin height before activating the trigger.

I have seen a fisherman ignite a parachute flare and shoot it right by his ear and down the side of a building because he cupped the flare in his hand instead of holding it correctly.  I can’t emphasize enough the importance of properly handling this type of flare.



Store your flare kit in a brightly colored container in a cool, dry, and readily accessible place.  Everyone onboard should know where the flares are.

Also, assign one crewman responsibility for grabbing the flare kit as part of your abandon-ship procedure.  You may want to store a pair of welding gloves and protective eye wear in the container.

Expiration dates are important as these flares are only good for three years from the time of purchase.  Expired flares do not count as part of your minimum requirements.  If you don’t want to save expired flares, again storing them in a clearly marked container for training purposes, dispose of expired flares by bringing them to your local fire or police department.  Do not place them in the trash.

“Wow, I never realized how bright and hot the handheld flares are, not to mention how scary and powerful and quick a parachute flare is.  I’m glad I’m activating them here in a drill rather than at sea in peril.”

I’ve heard comments like this hundreds of times.

Take time to train.  Don’t end up the victim.  An excellent opportunity to activate and ignite flares is during the series of free safety and survival training sessions that will be offered by the Massachusetts Fishermen’s Partnership this year.  For more info, call the partnership at (617) 928-3443.

Fred Mattera