In one corner, the Royal Yachting Association, declaring pyrotechnic flares are obsolete. In the other, the UK Maritime and Coastguard Agency, pointedly renewing for another 2 years its ruling that flares are mandatory under the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) convention, though softening it a little round the edges.
Result: confusion for yacht owners in a scrap that’s been going on now for quite a while.
The RYA case is that modern technology provides reliable, accurate and timely distress location methods at affordable prices without the need for pyrotechnics. A rocket flare burns for only 40 seconds, a hand flare for a minute, the stock on a boat is quickly exhausted, and these brief spurts of light and smoke can easily be missed because of distance or poor visibility.
Furthermore, there are reliability issues, including cases of them being set off accidentally during testing of liferafts. Modern equipment avoids the operational dangers, mainly of burns, that we face whenever we use flares, and also the difficulty of disposing of them regularly, since they become out of date after only 3 years.
The replacement distress technology the RYA lists is:
- EPIRBs and PLBs via satellite.
- Digital Selective Calling by radio with automated distress messages.
- AIS, which can be a distress homing device as well as its normal use for ship tracking.
- Electronic Visual Display Signals (EVDS), often called laser flares.
- Search and Rescue Transponders (SART), which use either radar or AIS as a homing signal.
In summary, the RYA says “The practical drawbacks of flares and their limited effectiveness in distress alerting, combined with the availability of alternatives…mean that pyrotechnic flares are now obsolescent”. It is not saying you shouldn’t carry them if you want to – but the other stuff is better.
The Coastguard’s view, just republished, basically reiterates the importance of flares, reminds people they are mandatory for yachts over 13.7 metres, and includes a blast against the laser EVDS in particular. The Coastguard says that an EVDS should not be carried as a substitute for official SOLAS signals ie for first-stage distress alerting flares, when nobody yet knows you are in trouble. But that is perfectly correct, and is anyway not quite what the RYA is getting at. The RYA, too, says that an EVDS should not be used as a primary distress alert, since other vessels may not recognise it – they are not the legally enforced SOLAS equipment that everyone is supposed to know about.
An EVDS is, however, a good substitute at night for the the red hand-held flares used to show rescuers your position – that is, rescuers already on the way because of an electronic alert. They will know to look out for an EVDS in those circumstances. Later in their official notice, the MCA seems to agree with this thought, and it does sort of admit that they might be considered an official rescue signal if they transmit an SOS flash.
What does it actually mean for a typical small yacht? The crucial issue here is that SOLAS distress signals are only a legal obligation for yachts above 13.7 m or on smaller craft licensed for commercial use, including sail training. They must carry flares. This means if you charter a yacht, it has to have them. The RYA has, however, won a dispensation allowing private yachts from 13.7 to 24 metres to at least dispense with parachute rockets, easily the least useful and most hazardous in use of the flares.
The important point is that the MCA’s tough line does not have any legal force with the rest of us, the purely recreational sailors on boats less than 13.7 metres. However, as the legal authority for all these matters, it still advises us to have officially recognised distress signals on board – ie flares.
The RYA is not giving up and is urging the MCA to remove all requirements to carry flares from recreational vessels under 24 metres, including those for training and charter. The MCA shows no sign of giving further concessions.
Where is Spring Fever in this? Our electronic equipment includes DSC radio and three PLBs plus an AIS receiver/transmitter. We stopped carrying rocket flares three years ago and bought an EVDS to substitute for red hand-helds.
We still have hand-held flares in the liferaft though they were packed by the service company. We have a powerful LED floodlight to shine on the sails, which we think is far more effective in alerting ships to our presence than white hand-held flares. But we do plan to keep renewing our floating orange flares, because in daylight they still have a useful function in pinpointing our position when lights are no good. We do not currently have hand held orange flares (below).
The company we bought them from will take them back to dispose of them when they are replaced. If you buy from a source that does not take old ones back, the cost of disposal is rising even if you can find anyone to take them, and coastguard ‘ last resort’ disposal facilities are extremely difficult to find, only intermittently operational, and at short notice.
The RYA statement can be found here: https://www.rya.org.uk/knowledge-advice/current-affairs/Pages/carriage-of-pyrotechnic-flares.aspx
The MCA notice can be found here: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/876625/MIN_542_Amendment_1.pdf