The Royal Yacht Association, Britain’s equivalent of BoatUS, the Power Squadron and various race governance bodies all rolled into one, has challenged the United Kingdom’s requirement that recreational vessels carry flares, saying that new technologies can offer better, safer options.
The U.K.’s Maritime and Coastguard Agency currently requires all vessels 45-feet and up to carry four parachute and four handheld flares, something the RYA now calls “unreasonable and illogical.”
“In today’s modern age there is no compelling case to support the mandatory requirement of flares,” says Stuart Carruthers, cruising manager of the RYA. “The RYA has been shown no persuasive evidence that flares have search-and-rescue benefits that cannot be provided by modern technology.”
According to Carruthers, the answer in modern technology, such as EPIRBs, personal locator beacons and VHF radios with Digital Selective Calling.
“If the question is how to initiate response, our position is this: Flares are only required to burn for 40 seconds and you are expecting someone to see it, to recognize it, and to take action,” Carruthers says. “If you are not carrying another electronic device, then you’d be barking mad.”
Carruthers says the failure to recognize new technologies is the regulatory equivalent of living in the Stone Age. He cited the recent European Pyrotechnic Articles Directive as a prime example. The directive makes the operation of parachute flares illegal without first undergoing training. However, governing bodies do not yet provide training courses for recreational boaters even though the law requires that boaters carry parachute flares.
U.S. boaters have similar pyrotechnic carriage requirements, but no one has raised that issue on this side of the Atlantic—yet. The U.S. Coast Guard mandates that most boats over 16 feet carry at least three certified nighttime and three daytime visual distress signals; which can include smoke and SOS flags for day use only.
Though flares are considered safety gear, they are inherently dangerous. (See Smoke on the Water in the Nov./Dec. 2013 PassageMaker.) And Chuck Hawley, vice-president of product information at West Marine, believes that pyrotechnics are on their way out, even while noting their advantages. Flares are extremely simple devices and do not rely on outside electrical systems or batteries. They are also unmistakable as a sign of distress. “We can all think of situations where they might have made a difference,” Hawley said.
“A fixed mount DSC VHF that is correctly working is a damned good device, and cheap too,” Hawley said. “Back that up with a handheld DSC/GPS VHF and you have a great signaling and communication tool up to 30nm offshore.”
Captain Henry Marx, owner of Landfall Navigation, cites the fact that only a minority of boaters have a properly set up DSC-activated radio, especially in the recreational sector. BoatUS reports that a staggering 80-percent of DSC VHF mayday calls have no vessel location.
“I think for low experience boaters in a stressful environment that pyrotechnic flares do pose some operational hazards, however, so does not getting rescued,” Marx said. “Flares are simple and they work.”