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Burn, Baby: A Question on Marine Flare Exercise Protocols

Eric Spross from Sausalito was sailing his Swan 431Terral a few weeks ago, when he heard a Sécurité call on Channel 16. The San Francisco Yacht Club boat Victory was advising mariners that it would be conducting flare exercises in Raccoon Strait. As Eric and his crew were motoring nearby, they had a pretty good view of what was taking place.

“As we watched the smoke (which looked great from 100 feet away on a calm day) and red handheld locator flares (which didn’t show up so well during daylight), we were inspired to imagine doing the same thing ourselves.

“Wouldn’t this be a great way to dispose of expired flares (cf. Latitude 38, October 2022, ‘Expired Flares Are Still Difficult To Throw Away’), while giving us all valuable practice?”

Marine flares off boat in Raccoon Strait
We all carry the required safety gear, but in an emergency, how many of us know how to set off the flares we carry? We don’t want to be trying to read the instructions while in the throes of a life-threatening situation.
© 2022 Eric Spross

Eric acknowledged there are some good reasons why we all don’t conduct the same exercises. “Perhaps emergency responders — official as well as good Samaritan — might not hear every announcement, and might not want to beat to quarters unnecessarily. Or, are there environmental concerns? We did, after all, observe what looked like burning slag and an active smoke flare being discarded into the water.”

Eric added that he was unable to find any published protocols about conducting marine flare exercises, and “I wasn’t invited aboard the SFYC Victory.” So the question he asks is, “Do we all just incant Sécurité three times into the radio, and then set about exercising? Or is there more to it?”

We conducted our own internet search and were unable to find anything, other than some photos of the USCG conducting their own flare exercises. We then reached out directly to the Coast Guard, and in due course we received the following information.

1.) The phone number to call when scheduling a training exercise for flares is (415) 399-3539. This is Coast Guard Sector San Francisco’s Command Center incoming call line. 2.) The broadcast type that the Coast Guard watchstanders will relay is a Safety Marine information broadcast. They will begin the broadcast on the international distress and hailing frequency (Channel 16) and then transition to the Coast Guard’s Liaison frequency (Channel 22A) to broadcast the safety message.

Any individual or group wishing to practice using flares needs to give the Coast Guard a minimum of one day’s notice. In the case of San Francisco Bay, mariners are to call Coast Guard Sector San Francisco’s Command Center at (415) 399-3539. The Coast Guard will require the name of the captain and crew (and presumably vessel details, though this wasn’t mentioned), what they plan to do, e.g. deploy marine flares for training, when, where — latitude and longitude — and the type and quantity of flares.

This all seems quite straightforward and easy to do. So, how about it, readers? Now that we have some information about the official protocols for conducting marine flare exercises, is this something you will do? Have you ever taken part in a marine flare exercise, or conducted one aboard your own boat? We’re keen to hear how often sailors do this and how it has worked out for them.

Let us know in the comments below, or email us at [email protected].

[Note: the article has been corrected after it incorrectly stated that Victory was the St. Francis Yacht Club committee boat.]

13 Comments

  1. Chuck Hawley 3 months ago

    As part of the US Sailing Safety at Sea courses, we regularly demonstrate the different types of “flares” (visual distress signals) largely to show the superiority of the SOLAS grade signals, but also to give students experience with lighting or launching the signals safely. There’s absolutely an element of risk involved, but with good instruction, and the use of a leather welder’s glove (or something similar), they can be demonstrated safely.
    However, there are some caveats:
    1. While a call on Channel 16/22 may alert nearby boaters who have VHF radios, inevitably flare demonstrations generate 911 calls, or cause inquisitive boaters to investigate if there is an actual emergency.
    2. Aerial signals, especially SOLAS red rocket parachute signals, travel with the wind and can end up where you didn’t anticipate over their 40 second lifetime. You need a lot of searoom and planning before launching one. I’ve witnessed many close calls over the last 30 years or so when demonstrating this “safety” item.
    3. At Safety at Sea courses, we try to use expired signals from life raft repackers, like Sal’s Inflatables, or expired Coast Guard approved signals. This does reduce their reliability somewhat, which is a good lesson in itself.
    4. Finally, the good news is that pyrotechnic signals are being replaced, slowly, but other means of signalling for help. Modern electronics (VHF radios, EPIRBs, SEND devices, etc.) as well as LED signals have greatly reduced the need for pyro signals. Thank goodness: they are a disposal problem, have a modest effective life, have some risk involved in their use, etc.

  2. Graeme 3 months ago

    The crew of SV Merope happened upon this while departing Ayala Cove and it caused a bit of concern. We knew we were in a rush to get back to port before the ebb left our channel too shallow, but we turned and beat to weather (and away from out destination) to make sure the vessel was not in distress. We did not hear an announcement on VHF 16 from the vessel, but we did eventually hear one from the Coast Guard, at which point we high-tailed it back to port.

  3. Susan 3 months ago

    The Mercury is the San Francisco Yacht Club boat, and the class was being held there …. not the StFYC!

    • Forrest gay 3 months ago

      Also wrong…. The photo is of the Victory and SFYC’s safety at sea course, not St Francis.

    • Monica Grant 3 months ago

      Forrest — Thank you for pointing out the ‘Victory’ being the SFYC boat, not StFYC; an oversight on our part but now corrected.

  4. Heinz 3 months ago

    Interesting read. I don’t think it is okay to go on your own to do emergency flare test or training. The USCG can deny your request and I am sure they will for private parties.
    If you want to dispose your expired flares bring them to the recycling center where you also dispose your flammable chemicals. They take them.

    • Tim Henry 3 months ago

      Heinz — For the last three years, sailors from all over the West Coast have told us how difficult it is to dispose of flares — especially at their local recycling centers. Not even the Coast Guard takes old flares, leading to this very discussion of what does one do with expired, required equipment?

    • Kevin 3 months ago

      Richmond, CA had a disposal day for old flares, but you needed to be a resident of the county to be able to take advantage of it.

  5. Jane Piereth 3 months ago

    Chuck’s comment about the orange smoke flares is why that is what we carry on our safety boats, and when I was in the CG reserves, and doing safety presentations for SSS, I encouraged them to carry orange smoke flares, as they are more easily seen in the day.

  6. Ashley Perrin 3 months ago

    This flare exercise was part of the San Francisco YC safety at sea training week. Since 2012 we have done between 4-6 courses per year participants receive the World Sailing certification which requires hands on training exercises. Using pyrotechnics can be hazardous to your health. As Chuck pointed out we participants wear leather gloves and safety glasses. The exercise is pre organized with the coastguard. I would not suggest that individuals start doing their own exercises. I would suggest that anyone who is cruising does not replace their expired flares and instead purchases an electronic flare, distress flag and possibly an orange smoke flare. The less pyrotechnics onboard vessels in my opinion the better for the environment and peoples health and safety.

  7. Eric Spross 3 months ago

    Thanks, Latitude and community! This is great information, and pretty amazing to me that it isn’t better understood. I mean, I’ve been sailing for decades and this info just isn’t readily available.

    On the topic of flare disposal, this week there was a presentation (https://youtu.be/HVKVSGaWwIU?t=5674) hosted by the California Clean Boating Network (http://dbw.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=29201) about voluntary flare disposal events. According to the presenters, there are only three facilities in the US that handle flares, and the cost of disposal is really significant. For example, a recent event in Wilmington, CA, brought in 1396 flares and cost $23,095…or almost $20 per flare, covered by a grant from CalRecycle.

    Further reason to replace your nifty pyrotechnics with the new electronic flares when the time comes…

    (and my apologies to whichever yacht club was slandered by my not knowing which boat is whose! that was my fault, not Latitude’s!)

  8. Max Crittenden 2 months ago

    Some years ago a Coast Guard officer advised some group I was part of to make a Securité call announcing that you’re going to conduct a flare exercise (and giving your location, of course) 10 minutes before you start, 5 minutes before you start, and when you start. And make another call when you finish.

    Last year I gave it a shot when I was 100+ miles west of Ensenada. There was a bit of confusion because USCG San Diego heard my call but it was somewhat garbled, so they were concerned that I was actually in trouble. But we got that straightened out and I commenced the drill.

    One problem I’ve had both times I’ve partipated in flare exercises is that the SOLAS flares I was using are quite intense in terms of their noise and power. Maybe it’s different if you’re accustomed to firearms, but after launching a couple of rocket flares my nerves were frazzled. I haven’t come close to firing off all my expired flares.

  9. John Arndt 2 months ago

    Further input from Greg Nelson, “I was in the Safety at Sea class renewing my 2-day certificate and on the boat testing signaling devices.

    In the story it says “ We did, after all, observe what looked like burning slag and an active smoke flare being discarded into the water.”

    The smoke signal was put into the water because that is how it is deployed. It was retrieved and properly discarded like all the used flares.”

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