By general definition, a visual distress signal can be anything that draws attention to your location in an emergency. To be most effective, it obviously has to be highly visible for a reasonable amount of time, and from an observable distance, most typically from searchers from above. In the case of paddlers, it needs to be seen across expanses of water as well. Basically such signaling devices are of two types: 1) pyrotechnical; and 2) everything else!
Pyro(“fire”)technics, by common definition are - fireworks! In the context of emergency signaling, pyrotechnics are represented by three categories of devices: aerial/meteor flares, ground flares and smoke.
Both the U.S. Coast Guard and the International Maritime Organization (IMO) have pyrotechnic standards for luminosity and have regulations based upon their own rating system. The IMO regs are more commonly known as Safety of Life at Sea - or SOLAS. Typically the USCG-approved devices are much cheaper (and often less effective and dependable) and probably more commonly used by recreational boaters.
All pyrotechnics are designed to enable you to complete two vital tasks: 1) signal that you are in distress, an emergency situation; and 2) visually lead responders to your location. A practical rule for using pyrotechnics is to not initiate them until you can actually see the approaching rescuers. There are exceptions to this rule, but the intent is to use them only when there’s the most likelihood they’ll be seen!
Flares have different burning times, altitude ranges and intensities (measured in “candela”units, a term that replaces “candlepower” - one candela is roughly equal to the amount of light produced by one candle).
Here’s an overview of each type:
Aerial/Meteor Flares - Think 4th of July bottle rockets or a bright, blossoming burst of light overhead. Many paddlers may use the popular “pocket flare” kits that provide short/low range, hand-launched aerial flares that can be kept handy in one’s PFD/Life Jacket. There are also larger versions including higher altitude-attaining parachute flares. Aerial projecting flares come in a variety of sizes and are all considered “hand-held”. Height, intensity and burn time are the three critical factors for an effective aerial flare and should be clearly noted on the label. SOLAS parachute flares are designed to reach a height of 1,000’, burning 30,000 candela for at least 40 seconds.
Historically, the less expensive, smaller pocket flares had a poor ignition rate; it was common for at least one flare in a new 3-pac to be a dud! In fact, an early kayak rescue video of the day included an on-water demonstration of a capsized paddler clinging to his boat and attempting to use the flares he had in his life jacket pocket. The first flare failed to ignite!
Hand-Held Flares - These are the type you see being held like a torch at arm’s length or tossed onto the beach. They are designed to burn with an intense red flame. They provide limited visibility from the ground or shoreline level. These typically burn at an intensity of 15,000 candela for approximately 50 seconds.
There are a few cautionary measures to take when using any hand-held pyrotechnic device. These things are messy! They burn, drip, sputter, smoke and sometimes explode! Not the kind of thing you want happening anywhere near your body or coming into contact with your canoe or kayak. Some projectile type devices also have a strong recoil - handle all pyrotechnics as you would a loaded firearm!
Smoke Signal - A billowing plume of a bright orange cloud makes a smoke signal the most visible and effective day-time distress signal. Its trail of smoke that typically lasts for about three minutes (SOLAS type) easily leads the observer back to the source. I’ve used the smaller smoke devices that were about the size of the old plastic film canisters - they barely lasted twenty seconds and the smoke dissipated nearly as fast. Those the size of a soup can are much heavier and bulkier but produce a dense, long-duration smoke. Like all pyrotechnics, especially those with metal jackets or containers - these smokers produce a lot of heat!
As one would suspect, smoke flares and aerial flares are affected by wind and sky conditions. It’s also vital to re-stress the importance of the proximity and visual contact of responders before activating a flare or smoke signal.
Prompted by their popularity, the USBOAT Foundation conducted tests on varieties of “approved” pyrotechnical devices - and despite their conforming to regulations, several cautionary discrepancies were revealed during on-water testing:
lowest rated flares were “virtually” invisible; highest rated “only slightly more visible”;
aerial flares were not very “attention-getting” in daytime (parachute flares were more visible);
Wind, vessel motion and launch angle all affected the height of the aerial flare.
It’s also important to heed expiration dates - chemical components can deteriorate over time; moisture can affect performance. Old pyro’ may fail to ignite, or function at a much lower performance level when it comes to burn time, intensity, achievable heights and all the other characteristics of optimum capability. Expired pyro’ can still be kept for additional use, but not in lieu of required, current-dated devices as required.
Handhelds offer a longer duration of attention-getting visibility, while aerial flares can be seen at a greater distance. Knowing how/when to utilize different types of signals plays a significant role in the search-phase of SAR missions.
While visual contact is the priority initiator of a signaling device, hearing an approaching aircraft (or water craft) might suggest firing the highest, longest visible signal possible. Searchers scanning a series of islands or a shoreline indented with myriad cuts and coves can be drawn closer to your location by using a high-altitude parachute flare. As the plane draws closer to a particular section of the search area, another, perhaps lower-climbing flare can direct the search party even more precisely to a particular island or shore front.
The last step in this sequence, once you actually have the craft in sight ( and hopefully approaching you and not veering away), is to fire either a hand-held flare (day/night) or smoke canister (day) that lets rescuers zero in on you exact location.
If you paddle on coastal waters, the Great Lakes and it’s connecting waters, you must carry flares and distress signals in waters up to two miles wide. If your craft is under sixteen feet in length, you only need to carry such signaling devices between sunset and sunrise. Those devices can be either an electric light or three combination day-night red flares. Having multiple pyro’ devices assures you of more options in such scenarios. Due to variations in performances, reliability and types of signals for day/night use, carrying at least twice the minimum amount makes sense. Cheaper units are less reliable, so weigh your options carefully.
One big limitation on knowing what pyrotechnics to use is that it is illegal to fire flares off outside an emergency situation and thereby not being able to judge their performance characteristics. The best way to observe this is through a controlled on-water demonstration. Check with a local or regional kayak expo’ or symposium to see if one can be arranged. You can also learn more about specs and other information on regulations and such through USCG and SOLAS websites.
Electronic devices, make-shift ground-to-air signals should complement your skill inventory, and above all: Be safe, have fun out there!