Buyer’s Guide: Handheld Emergency Flares

Brightest is still best, but Pains-Wessex Pinpoint flares provide bright light and no spatter at a reasonable price.


Aerial flares, such as we reported on in the March 1999 issue, are intended to attract attention. Theyre designed to alert a potential rescuer to the fact that a rescue is required. As such, they are intended to be visible for as great a distance as is possible, which means that they are projected skyward as high as possible when fired. Theres no necessary visual connection between the flare and the vessel thats in trouble. This is especially true if its a windy day, when a high-flying parachute flare can wind up a considerable distance from the point where launching occurred.

Handheld flares, on the other hand, are made to guide the already-alerted rescuer to the rescuee. A handheld flare provides a bright light that stays with you, allowing rescuers to locate the boat in distress even in conditions of poor visibility. They don’t have to have the long-range eye-catching properties of a good alerting device, but they must burn brightly enough and long enough to permit a raft or disabled vessel to be found, even under adverse conditions. If you think of meteor flares and parachute flares as high-powered roman candles and skyrockets, the handheld ones are effectively super sparklers.

The United States Coast Guard doesn’t distinguish between these two fundamentally different types of flares in defining a boats legal requirements-the rule is that you must carry either three aerial flares or three handheld ones. But both types are important, particularly at night.

To give the USCG regulations their due, theres no clear-cut dividing line between the functions of the two types of flares. A parachute flare or meteor, if observed at the beginning of its trajectory, can indicate the launching point enough to provide a fix under favorable conditions; a handheld flare can alert passing vessels if theyre close enough. We think, though, that the greater visible range of aerial pyrotechnics make them much more suitable for alerting purposes, while the fact that a handheld flare stays with the distressed party makes it a clearly superior location device. Any overlap of functions is gravy.

There are, of course, other devices besides handheld flares that can help locate the distressed vessel. Flags, dye markers, mirrors and smoke-generating devices are useful, but only by day, while flares are effective both in daylight and at night. Flashing white lights have limited visual range, and theyre too easily confused with navigation and anchoring lights or with lighted buoys. They can be useful adjuncts to flares, but we feel that pyrotechnics should be a skippers first line of defense.

What we Tested
We tested six different models of flares, all handheld. Marine handheld flares are intended to provide a bright red light that will last long enough for a rescue vessel to obtain a bearing. Handheld flares resemble automotive highway flares, although there are several important differences between the two types: Because theres usually no real need to find the disabled car nor to be visible for extreme distances (motorists in need of help are generally found on or next to a road) highway flares don’t have to be nearly as bright as marine flares. And because a highway flare is a device for alerting other traffic to the presence of a broken-down car, rather than one whose purpose is to guide the other traffic, a highway flare must have a considerably longer burn time than is required of a marine flare.

Unlike their land-bound equivalents, the sea-going flares are intended to be held in the hand during their entire burn period, which makes the spattering of molten slag a much more serious consideration.

The Coast Guard requires that approved handheld flares burn a red flame with an intensity of at least 500 candela for at least 120 seconds. The international SOLAS standard requires a minimum of 15,000 candela for a burn of at least 60 seconds, the theory being, apparently, that their much greater light intensity compensates for a shorter burn time. SOLAS is an international treaty organization to which the United States is a signatory, so that SOLAS approval automatically carries USCG approval. The converse is not true; USCG-approved pyrotechnics are not internationally accepted.

Since we last reported on handheld flares, there has been a significant addition to the flares available to boater owners. Pains-Wessex, which generally sells SOLAS-grade flares, has introduced a new model, the Pinpoint, whose specifications call for an intensity of 10,000 candela and a burn time of at least 60 seconds. The Pinpoint doesn’t meet the SOLAS requirement of 15,000 candela, but its much brighter than the Coast Guard requires, and carries a price tag thats only slightly higher than the other USCG-approved devices.

Another new development-in labeling, at least-comes from Simpson Lawrence, which has appropriated the name SOLAS as a tradename for the flares they distribute. Its apparently legal, but we think it adds unnecessary confusion to an area where additional confusion is not called for. The SOLAS (tradename) flares we tested are manufactured in Sweden by Norabel Hansson and are claimed to conform to SOLAS (the treaty organization) standards.

Of the five handheld flares we tested, three-the Bristol, Orion, and Skyblazer-are USCG approved. They are all rated by their manufacturers at 500-700 candela and a 2-minute burn time. All three work pretty much the same as a highway flare: You remove a protective cover from the flares two-piece cap to expose a striking surface. You then strike the flare against the cap the same way as youd strike a safety match.

The Orion and the Skyblazer are similar in design and appearance. Theyre both cardboard cylinders roughly 9-1/2 long by 1 in diameter with two-section plastic end caps. The Bristol flare is about the same size overall, but consists of a wooden handle and a heavily waxed cardboard tube and cap. To ignite the Bristol, you tear off a tape tab to expose the striker surface and release the cap. The Bristol flares are individually packaged in polyethylene bags, which is a mixed blessing-the packaging provides extra protection against water, but it makes it more difficult to get at the flare in a hurry, although removal of the flare from the bag seemed easier than it had in our last go-round. Bristols instructions now tell you to remove the flare from the bag by pushing the wooden handle through the bags seal.

Two of the flares we tested-the Pains-Wessex Red Mk 7 and SOLAS (brand) MK4-claim SOLAS certification. These are roughly the same length as the three models described above. The Pains Wessex consists of a molded plastic handle attached to a steel tube. To ignite it, pull out the base of the handle, rotate it 60 (theres a molded-in guide) and strike it sharply with your free hand. Its not an intuitively obvious motion, but once youve read the instructions its the simplest and most foolproof system weve encountered. The Pinpoint flare, also made by Pains-Wessex, has the same dimensions, construction and firing mechanism. The SOLAS MK4 has a somewhat different arrangement: You pull a tab to open a plastic top-end cap, exposing a pull cord with a metal washer tied on as a grip. To fire the flare, you yank the cord. This is a straightforward enough system, but we found that the washer can get stuck in its tube, making it a bit difficult to pull the cord, especially if your hands are cold and wet.

Both the Pains-Wessex Mk 7 and the SOLAS MK4 flares are rated at 15,000 candela with 60-second burn times; the Pinpoint has the same length burn, but is rated at 10,000 candela.

How We Tested
We tested the six flares simply by firing them. Our distressed vessel was our 11-ft RIB anchored in a dark area of the Greenwich, Connecticut harbor; our rescuer manned the camera onshore.

Because emergency flares may have to be used in driving rain and heavy seas, we wanted to determine if firing would be seriously affected. So a sample of each flare was submerged in sea water for an hour (the Bristol remained in its plastic bag) and then tried firing it (all of them worked, though the cardboard tubes on the Orion and Skyblazer showed some signs of softening).

We also tried dousing each burning flare with a heavy stream of water from a garden hose.

Each flare, once lit, was photographed from the same position, using the same camera settings. We noted each flares ease of use, potential for improper use, length of burn and tendency to spatter or drip.

We then moved the show onto dry land and supported each flare in a vertical position on top of a 36 square piece of paper and fired it. The pattern of burn marks on the paper provided us with a useful comparison of how much spatter each flare produced.

What We Found
The photographs, we think, speak for themselves. The two SOLAS flares and the Pinpoint are simply much more effective than the three with USCG-only approval. All three were far brighter, easier to light and less affected by dampness.

The Bristol, Orion, and Skyblazer USCG-only approved flares produced droplets of molten slag during their entire burn time; the SOLAS did spatter, though not as prodigiously as did the first three mentioned (weve always thought that SOLAS-approved handheld flares shouldnt do this). The Pains-Wessex MK 7 and the Pinpoint produced a cloud of cool fly ash, but didn't spatter or drip.

Spatter can be a painful and potentially dangerous problem. Its all too easy to wind up with an arm decorated with a pattern of burns and blisters. All the flares carry warnings to hold the flares downwind and the three USCG-approved flares warn you to keep them away from the face or body-a good, if obvious, idea with any flare. We keep imagining an emergency situation in which someone who hasn’t memorized the instructions strikes a USCG-approved flare and holds it directly overhead. Results? A severely burned head and probably a hastily dropped flare, which wouldn't do the boat or liferaft much good.

While its a good idea to hold a handheld flare 45 to the body, aimed downwind, and where stray drippings arent apt to encounter any fuel, we think that the Pains-Wessex and the Pinpoint are much less likely to cause fires or burn flesh, and are more useful if help happens to be coming from the upwind side of your craft.

Bristol Marine Hand Red Flare
The Bristol flare we tested shows some worthwhile detail improvements over ones weve encountered in the past. It still has a wooden handle, reminiscent of the old German potato masher hand grenade, but the heavily waxed cardboard cylinder that used to be a Bristol standby has given way to a cardboard tube with a much easier-to-read label. The whole thing is sealed into an individual plastic bag, which can be opened without tools. Theres a two-part cap; you remove the top cap to expose an abrasive striking surface and remove the inner cap to expose the end of the flare that you strike on the abrasive.

Theres a somewhat startling pop when you first light it. Like most of the other USCG flares, it burned for a long time-3 minutes and 5 seconds, to be precise. It showed no signs of extinguishing in a simulated heavy rain.

Bottom line: While we found the USCG-only approved flares in general to be considerably less effective than their SOLAS-approved counterparts, the Bristol Marine Hand Red Flare worked at least as well as the Orion and Skyblazer. The Bristols packaging, in sealed individual plastic bags, makes it a bit awkward to get at in a hurry, however. If price is the major consideration-and we don’t think it should be in the case of flares-the Bristol is worthy of consideration.

Orion Hand-Held Red Signal Flare
The Orion is a much slicker package than the Bristol, with clear, legible instructions printed in black on white. Theres no handle per se, but the upper portion of the tube is marked in red, with a warning not to hold the flare in that area. The Orion conceals its striker below the top section of a two-part plastic cap.

In terms of brightness, the Orion was comparable to the Bristol. Unlike the Bristol, though, we found that a heavy rain (from our trusty garden hose) could extinguish it-a severe disadvantage. The Orion did have the longest burn time of any handheld flare we tested-3 minutes and 42 seconds.

Bottom Line: The Orion Hand-Held Red Signal Flare had comparable performance to the other conventional USCG-approved devices and a longer burn time. The Orion failed our rain test, though, and we think its apt to be unreliable in conditions of heavy spray or rain. That limitation is a serious one, and we don’t recommend the Orion because of it.

Skyblazer Life-Star Red Flare
The Skyblazer is similar in design to the Orion except for a somewhat slimmer profile (3/4″ diameter vs. 1″). Instructions are printed in black on white, which is good, but the print is considerably smaller and the layout is cramped and hard to read, in part because instructions are listed in both English and French (pictorial instructions are stylishly-and illegibly-printed in black and red on a blue background).

The Skyblazer, like the Orion, uses a two-section removable cap to protect the striker and the striking surface of the flare.

The Skyblazer was the feeblest of the flares tested-by a hair-and with a burn time of 2 minutes and 13 seconds it didn't last as long as the Bristol or Orion. Unlike the Orion, however, the Skyblazer stayed lit through our heavy rain test.

Bottom Line: The Skyblazer Hand- Held Red Flare was, by a slight margin, the weakest performer of the flares tested. It stood up well to the rain test, and doesn’t require your wrestling with a plastic bag as does the Bristol. Again, worthy of consideration but only if price is your major consideration.

Pains-Wessex Red Mk 7 Handflare
The Pains-Wessex has its instructions printed in red on a yellow background; not bad, but not the easiest arrangement to read in the dark. Firing was easy, once the instructions were understood.

The Pains-Wessex is a SOLAS-approved flare, which means that its supposed to be about 30 times as bright as the USCG requires. In our tests, the Pains-Wessex performed outstandingly, lighting up a wide area with a brilliant red light. It had a shorter burn time than the three USCG flares, averaging about 1 minute and 10 seconds. It passed our rain test handily (one sample we tried continued to blaze away merrily even when completely submerged).

Bottom Line: The Pains-Wessex Red Mk 7 Handflare is an impressive, effective location device. Its relatively short burn time shouldnt present a problem to rescuers, if the instructions (Use only when aircraft or vessel is sighted) are followed. We like everything about it except its price-about $13 each at catalog houses or about three times the price of the less-expensive USCG-approved devices.

The flip-up-the-cap-and-pull-the-cord firing system of the SOLAS MK4 is almost as convenient as the Pains-Wessex arrangement, as long as the disk that weights the cord doesn’t get jammed into the top of the flare. A worthwhile activity if you use these flares would be to open the cap and check. Theres a molded-in guide for the disk and if the disk is slipped into this, there should be no problem. Instructions are easy to read and follow.

When fired, the SOLAS performance was similar to that of the Pains-Wessex, if not quite as bright. It still did a fine job of lighting up a considerable area. Burn time was 1 minute and 3 seconds. It burned well despite a heavy rain and withstood total immersion while burning. We observed a moderate spatter of molten slag, not as bad as with the Orion, Bristol, and Skyblazer, but much more than was produced by the Pains-Wessex Mk 7 or the Pinpoint.

Bottom line: Much of what we said about the Pains-Wessex also applies to the SOLAS MK4. At $12.98 each (discount) the Pains Wessex Mk 7 costs slightly less than the SOLAS MK4, which sell for $15.75. More importantly, we prefer the Pains-Wessex because of its freedom from spatter and slightly brighter light.

Pains-Wessex Pinpoint
The Pinpoint, as mentioned above, is an attempt by Pains-Wessex to provide a flare with near-SOLAS performance at a price closer to flares with USCG-only approval. We think theyve succeeded admirably. The Pinpoint, in our tests, was almost as bright as the Pains-Wessex Mk 7 (and just about as bright as the SOLAS MK4 brand). It burned for 1 minute and 8 seconds, was immune to spray and immersion, and produced no spatter.

The biggest difference between the Pinpoint and the SOLAS-approved flares is its price: $19.99 list for a package of three, or $6.66 each (discounted, in packs of three). This represents a saving of about 50%. In other terms, you can buy a three-pack of Pinpoint flares for only about $5 more than a three-pack of the other, feebler USCG-approved devices from Bristol, Orion or Skyblazer.

Bottom Line: Were enthusiastic about the Pains Wessex Pinpoint flare. It provides excellent visibility (if not quite the best), together with an excellent firing system and freedom from spatter and slag, and does it for less money than the comparable SOLAS-approved flares.

Operation of any of these flares isn’t difficult, but we wouldn't say that operation of any of them is intuitively obvious. Its a good idea to spend a few moments to familiarize everybody on board with how they work before an emergency arises.

All the flares lighted after they had become immersed in water, but the Bristol, Orion and Skyblazer flares were much more difficult to light than samples whose striking surfaces were dry. Moral? Store flares in a dry place. This is a sound idea even for the SOLAS-grade flares and the Pinpoint, though both models tested were immune to this problem.

Of the flares tested, the Pains-Wessex Mk 7 Handflare grabbed first place. Its only real disadvantage is its price- $19.95 each. The SOLAS MK4 performed almost as well and carries a somewhat lower price tag ($15.75), but in our opinion produced an undesirable degree of spatter.

In terms of value, the Pains Wessex Pinpoint was the clear winner. It did virtually everything its pricier sibling did, and while its minimum rated brightness is lower than that of the Mk 7-10,000 candela vs. 15,000-its still much brighter than the 500 candela typical of the other USCG-approved flares. And the Pinpoint costs only about $1.50 more.

Of the three other USCG-only approved flares, the Bristol edged out the Skyblazer for a distant third. It was much less effective than either of the SOLAS-grade models. The Orion, due to its inability to stay lit in a heavy rain, is not recommended. In the past, weve struggled with trying to decide if the higher cost of a SOLAS-approved flare was justified by its superior performance. We think that the introduction of the Pinpoint makes that discussion unnecessary. Considering the vastly greater visibility provided by the Pinpoint as compared to the other three, and its comparable price, we think its choice is a no-brainer for any application where SOLAS approval isn’t required.

Finally, shipping flares can be expensive due to regulations concerning shipping pyrotechnics and explosives. Youll generally save money if you can buy your flares locally.

Contacts- Bristol Marine Hand Red Flare ($19.25 for three), Bristol Flare Corporation, Box 540, Bristol, PA 19007; 215/788-3001. Skyblazer Hand Held Marine Flare ($24.95 for three), Skyblazer, Inc., 4275 Palm Street, Fullerton, CA 92835; 714/254-8350. Solas Hand-Held Red Flare MK4 ($15.75 each), Simpson Lawrence USA, 6208 28th St. East, Bradenton, FL 34203; 800/946-3527. Orion Handheld Red Signal Flare ( $22.75 for three), Orion Safety Products, RR 6 Box 542, Peru, IN 46970; 800/851-5260. Pains-Wessex Red Mk 7 Handflare ($12.95), Pains-Wessex Pinpoint Hand-Held Red Flare (3 for $19.99), Pains-Wessex, 7040 W. Palmetto Park Rd., Boca Raton, FL 33433; 561/883-1201.

Darrell Nicholson, editor of Practical Sailor, grew up boating on Miami’s Biscayne Bay on everything from prams to Morgan ketches. Two years out of Emory University, after a brief stint as a sportswriter, he set out from Miami aboard a 60-year-old wooden William Atkin ketch named Tosca. For 10 years, he and writer-photographer Theresa Gibbons explored the Caribbean, crossed the Pacific, and cruised Southeast Asia aboard Tosca, working along the way as journalists and documenting their adventures for various travel and sailing publications, including Cruising World, Sail, Sailing, Cruising Helmsman, and Sailing World. Upon his return to land life, Darrell became the associate editor, then senior editor at Cruising World magazine, where he worked for five years. Before taking on the editor’s position at Practical Sailor, Darrell was the editor of Offshore magazine, a boating-lifestyle magazine serving the New England area. Darrell has won multiple awards from Boating Writer’s International, including the Monk Farnham award for editorial excellence. He holds a U.S. Coast Guard 100-ton Master license and has worked as a harbor pilot and skippered a variety of commercial charter boats.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here