Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Are you in Distress?

Pop Quiz! If you saw a boat flying this flag, what should you do?
Scroll down for the answer.

This flag is the international daytime visual distress signal. Memorize it in case you ever see someone displaying it. Someone flying this flag is in distress.

Talking about being in a life or death situation on a vessel is much like talking about your mortality - it can be uncomfortable for some people. I have been fortunate in my over 40 years of boating (going all the way back to childhood) that I have never been in a situation - on my boat or someone else's - which required any kind of distress signal or deployment of flares. All that being said, I still prepare for the worst by inspecting all my safety gear on a regular basis and repairing / replacing anything that is expired or worn out. There is no substitute for being prepared for as many different situations as possible. As an exercise, I sometimes imagine a scenario and what I would do in the event that it occured.

Anyone who has owned a boat over the years has dealt with the issues surrounding the Coast Guard signaling requirement. Most boaters meet the signaling requirement with flares. The problem with flares is that they expire 42 months after manufacture. In order to stay current, most boaters are on a 3 year cycle of replacement. In many municipalities, it has become increasingly difficult to properly dispose of expired flares. They are considered hazardous materials and are not allowed to be tossed in the garbage. Flares contain perchlorate, which has been deemed a hazardous substance. Soaking them in water before tossing in the garbage is illegal since it will leach that chemical into the ground in the landfill. In the county where I live, they have monthly HAZMAT days during the summer months, and will take the handheld flares, but they will not take the aerial flares. Unfortunately, the aerial flares are the biggest problem. Aerial flares cannot be discarded by firing them off - because of laws against making a false distress signal. Many boaters solve their problem by buying new flares to satisfy the requirements, and then keeping some or all of the expired flares as "extras".  Eventually, the oldest "extra" flares will need to be discarded to make room for new ones, and the problem reappears - what to do with the oldest flares?

Using old flares as extras is, in my opinion, a dangerous practice. One blog piece I read recently where the author test fired some expired flares, the expired flares were much more unreliable than expected. In most cases, if you have a dud you can just reload and try another one. In one particular test, there was an expired aerial flare that misfired and did not launch when the trigger was pulled, but the round deformed, jamming the launch gun. If that happens in an emergency situation, you now have a jammed flare gun in a potentually life or death situation. Poking and prodding a dud flare to unjam the launch gun is a very dangerous activity. Once a pyrotechnic device misfires, it can be very unstable and must be handled with extreme caution. If you are going to keep old flares around as extras, I recommend firing off the newest ones first in any emergency situation before moving on to the less reliable ones.

Last year at the Annapolis Boat Show, I ran across the booth for the Sirius Signal SOS device. These devices are being marketed as an environmentally friendly way of distress signalling without the problem of outdated flare disposal. These devices are battery powered hand-held signalling devices that emit a constant SOS signal by flashing SOS in morse code using a white LED, visible in all directions. They market their device as a replacement for flares, negating the need to keep them on board any longer. The list of advantages that Sirius Signal gives for their devices being superior are as follows:

  • Floats with lens-up to optimize both the all-around horizontal and vertical light beams
  • No expiration or disposal issues
  • No flame - safer than flares
  • Visible up to 10 nautical miles
  • Battery-operated (3 C-cell Alkaline batteries, not included)
  • Daytime distress signal flag included in package to meet ALL requirements for DAY and NIGHT use in lieu of traditional flares
  • Duration - these lights will flash for hours, where flares are burned out relatively quickly
This device is solidly built and I have no question about it's durability and operation. However, I am not convinced that they are a complete flare replacement. While the device meets all the written requirements of the Coast Guard distress signaling regulation, it is my opinion that these devices are a SUPPLEMENT to the safety gear, not a flare replacement. Here are three reasons that I feel the Sirius Signal devices are not a complete replacement for flares.

  1. Confusion: If you've ever been out on a boat at night, you will find that what looks familiar in the daylight becomes a confusing array of steady and flashing lights of varying colors at night. Especially if you are navigating in coastal or inland waters, where shoreline lights are present, I'm sure you've encountered the situation where the navigation lights of buoys and lighted marks are obscured by or mixed in with shore based lights. The Sirius Signal device becomes another flashing white light amid a confusing array of other lights already in the environment. Offshore, where there is less light pollution from other sources, these may be more effective as a signaling device. The advantage of a flare in this scenario is uniqueness. Since flares are almost never used for any other purpose, you can be fairly certain that if a flare is deployed and someone sees it, there will be no mistaking a flare for any other signal.
  2. Unfamilarity: In this age of instant communication via cell phone, VHF, Satellite link, Morse Code has gone the way of the Do-Do bird. Without cheating and looking it up, do you know the morse code pattern for S-O-S? If you saw it flashing in the confused night time environment referenced above, would you recognize it for what it was - a call for help? Further, they include a "distress signal flag" to meet the day time signaling requirements. If you had difficulty with the pop quiz at the beginning of this article, that is a great illustration of the flaw in the daytime signal argument.
  3. Visibility over the horizon by elevation
  4. Elevation: The Sirius Signal device suffers from lack of elevation in normal use. These lights would usually be displayed right at the water surface. If you're forced to abandon your vessel into a life raft or dinghy, you are floating just a foot or two above the water level. Large swells can momentarily obscure the visibility of your light. Furthermore, being closer to the water, your light will disappear over the horizon sooner. The advantage of a flare in this scenario is elevation. An aerial flare fired high in an arc will be visible from a longer distance than a flashing light at water level.
I don't want to give you the impression that I think these devices are useless. Far from it. They are well built devices that are suited for a very specific purpose. Much like the tools in your tool box, each tool is in the box for a particular application. While it's true that you could use a crescent wrench as a makeshift hammer, I bet you wouldn't consider tossing out your hammer because you have a crescent wrench. Similarly, in a life or death situation, you may find that there are boats out and about but nobody seems to see your flashing white light or signal flag. Maybe a flare will get their attention. In that case you will be glad you have some on board.

Unfortunately, I have no good alternatives to offer you on how to dispose of expired flares, but I am also not ready to remove them from my boat and replace them with a flashing light just yet.

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