Daytime Distress Signals: Flares Shine in the Wind

In our tests of daytime signaling devices in windy conditions, a night flare beat all the smoke generators for visibility. Don't blow off your smoke, though—there are emergency conditions to fit all devices.


No matter how you put out a call for help on the water—VHF, EPIRB, cell phone, or mental telepathy—sooner or later you’ll need to establish visual contact with potential rescue craft. That’s when you discover that boats (not to mention liferafts and swimmers) are very small, and the water around is very large. It’s extremely hard to locate anything in the water unless you’re close to it. 

There are a variety of approaches aimed at increasing the noticeabilty and visibility of a boat in distress. For nighttime use, there are aerial flares (both the self-contained variety and ones shot from flare guns), handheld flares, and a variety of strobes and incandescent lights. For day use, there are flags, smoke generators, dye markers, streamers, signal mirrors and kites.

It would seem that the requirements for nighttime and daytime distress signals should be as different as, well, night and day. That’s only partially true. While daytime-only distress signals will not meet the Coast Guard’s legal requirements for boating after dark, the CG will accept approved nighttime devices as meeting legal requirements for daytime boating. Legal requirements, as we’ve often said before, represent the minimum performance that the Coast Guard considers adequate. Equipment that meets the legal requirement will save you from a summons in case your boat is inspected, but it may not save your life.

What We Tested
For this report, we rounded up a batch of daytime-only flares and smoke signals, and added several handheld nighttime flares. Previous tests had shown us that aerial flares, whether meteors or parachute flares, aren’t particularly helpful in daylight, so we didn’t include them in this test.

We wound up with a mixed bag of products: USCG-approved handheld flares from Orion and Bristol; USCG/SOLAS-approved handheld flares from Pains Wessex; USCG-approved handheld smoke generators from Orion and Pains Wessex/Pinpoint; three floating smoke generators—a USCG and SOLAS-approved model from Orion, a USCG-approved one from Pains Wessex , and one from Skyblazer that carried neither of these approvals—and USCG-approved orange warning flags from Orion, Skyblazer and Anchor Line.

We did not test, in this instance, dye markers or trailing streamers. These are intended more for airborne searches and air/sea rescues. We’ll line up an airplane and pilot, and report on these in a later test.

The handheld flares and smoke generators from Orion are similar in size, shape and operation. They’re roughly 9-1/2″ long, 1-3/8″ in diameter, and are ignited by scraping a button across a striking surface. To fire either, you pop off a black plastic cap to expose the striking surface mounted on a removable orange cap. You pull that cap to expose an igniter button that you then strike across the striking surface. The similarity is both a good and a bad idea: On one hand, you can fire either without the need for learning two sets of instructions. On the other hand, it’s all too easy to grab the wrong device and fire an inappropriate signal. One of our testers, in a nighttime flare test a few years back, did just that, firing a smoke signal instead of a flare because he was unable to distinguish between the two in the light of a dim flashlight.

The Bristol handheld flare consists of a wooden handle attached to a heavily waxed cardboard cylinder. It’s similar in size to the Orion, measuring 1-1/2″ in diameter and 10″ long. Bristol flares are packaged in a sealed waterproof plastic pouch, which keeps them dry but is difficult to open without using a knife. Once you’ve gotten a flare out of the pouch, operation is similar to that of the Orion: You remove a cap and expose the striking surface by pulling off a second cap and then scraping an igniter button against the striking surface.

The Pains Wessex Red Handflare is a SOLAS- and USCG-approved flare. It consists of a steel tube with a plastic handle; to operate, you rotate the handle 90 degrees (there’s a molded-in guide) and hit the bottom of the handle smartly with your hand. The Pains Wessex/Pinpoint handheld smoke generator uses the same firing mechanism. It’s about the same length as the Pains Wessex handflare but has a larger diameter tube.

The Pains Wessex Handflare came packed in a cardboard tube—you have to remove it from the tube before using it. This is not obvious, nor particularly easy. The tube looks like a flare might look, and the only thing that identifies it as a container is a band of small type on the side of the tube (see photo, next page). We’ve seen someone trying to fire the package—with no success. Such packaging should be removed and flares stowed in watertight containers (with directions) on board.

The three floating smoke generators covered a wide range of sizes. The Orion and the Pains Wessex are similar: steel canisters with orange plastic screw-off caps and pull-to-fire chains. To operate, you unscrew the cap, pull the chain and chuck the canister overboard.

The SkyBlazer is a different story. It’s also a steel canister, but it’s much smaller—about 2″ in diameter and 2″ tall. To fire it, you must remove its plastic wrapping and a sticker that covers the top of the canister. Below the sticker is a chain that you pull.

The three daytime distress flags—from Orion, Skyblazer and Anchor Line—are all 3’x3′ squares of orange vinyl with a black square and a black circle. The simple flag proved to be a surprisingly effective signal. The intense orange was easier to see at a distance than the smokes, and the fixed shape helped considerably.

How We Tested
We anchored a 10′ dinghy offshore on an overcast, fairly windy (12-15 kts.) day and loaded it with a two-way radio, an assortment of signaling devices, and the editor of Powerboat Reports. We then motored off one nautical mile (as per our GPS), and anchored our observers’ boat, also equipped with two-way radio. To optimize viewing, we made sure that the line between the boats was perpendicular to the wind direction—observing directly from windward or leeward would have sharply reduced the area of blowing smoke signals. Even with virtually no haze, at one mile the dinghy was effectively invisible, even when we knew where to look.

We then tried each device, photographed it and made subjective judgments on how much—if at all—the dinghy’s visibility was improved.

What We Found
Our most salient finding was that the increase in visibility from most of these devices was negligible in the wind. In such conditions, if you’re not looking for a signal, or don’t know where to look, you’re not likely to notice anything. To be observed at all, much less attract attention from boaters who aren’t actively looking, requires that the signal device be readily distinguishable from the water and whatever background exists.

The smoke signals we tested, even the SOLAS-approved Orion floating smoke generator, produced a quantity of orange smoke impressive only to our man in the dinghy—the guy who set them off. To the observers a mile away, all that was visible of the floating smoke devices was a thin line of an orange-brown color that hugged the water: barely visible, much less attention-grabbing.

The Pains Wessex/Pinpoint handheld smoke produced a similar result, but for a much shorter time (one minute vs. four minutes). The Orion handheld smoke also lasted for a minute but produced much less smoke; if our observers hadn’t known exactly where to look, they probably would have missed it entirely. The Skyblazer floating smoke generator produced no results visible at one mile. We tried six of them with no success; two failed to fire at all.

The problem with smoke signals is that, unlike flares, they don’t produce a focused spot of brilliance. Instead, they achieve increased visibility by providing a large area of orange that contrasts with the normal colors of the marine environment. In calm conditions smoke works quite well, producing a good cloud of orange. In a wind like the one we encountered during this round of testing, the smoke disperses rapidly, and with it the signal’s effectiveness. Again, in a breeze, what’s meant to be a fat, bright billow ends up a puny, thin wisp at the water’s surface.

Pains Wessex Red Mk 7 Handflare
This flare is not generally thought of as a daytime signal. Nevertheless, it was more attention-grabbing and more easily visible than any of the smoke generators. Its flame, even from a mile away, looked like an intensely bright red ball, eye-catching and easily seen, while it produced a dense cloud of white smoke.

If the Mk 7s have a drawback, it’s that they have a relatively short burn time (about 1 minute) so that the legal requirement of three flares should be considered a minimum.

We were unable to get a sample of a Pains Wessex/Pinpoint flare. Pinpoint is Pains Wessex’s name for its non-SOLAS-approved pyrotechnics; we’ve never noticed an appreciable difference between the Pinpoint and the SOLAS-approved Pains Wessex products, except that the Pinpoint line is considerably less expensive.

Orion Handheld Flare
The Coast Guard standard for handheld flares calls for a minimum intensity of 500 candela for at least 120 seconds. While the Orion exceeds that by a couple of hundred candela and a couple of hundred seconds, it’s no match in intensity for the Pains Wessex. In our daytime test, we could barely see a red dot at a distance of one mile; it looked more like a bright nav light than a distress signal. At a price comparable to that of Pinpoint, we can’t recommend the Orion.

Bristol Handheld Flare
The Bristol handheld flare performed much the same as the Orion, which is perhaps not surprising given that Bristol is now owned by Orion. The Bristol flare has a wooden handle, which is easier to hold onto if your hands are cold and wet.

Orion Handheld Smoke Signal
Well, it looks like an Orion handheld flare, and you set it off the same way, but instead of a red flame you get orange smoke—about a minute and a half’s worth, and not very much of it. It wasn’t the least effective signal we tried, but it wasn’t particularly noticeable in our tests.

Pinpoint Handheld Orange Smoke Signal
The Pains Wessex Pinpoint handheld smoke signal was more effective than the Orion handheld, delivering a dense cloud of heavy orange smoke for a bit over a minute. From our observers’ viewpoint, though, it produced only that thin brownish-orange line we’ve been talking about. Operation was simple and positive, but its utility on a windy day at a distance of a mile was negligible.

Orion Orange Floating Smoke Signal
Smoke signals tend to be bulkier than flares. That’s why high-volume smoke producers, like the SOLAS-approved Orion Floating Smoke Signal, are made to float; they’re too bulky to be handheld. It’s difficult to measure smoke output, but visually the Orion Floating Smoke appears to generate smoke at a somewhat higher rate than the Pinpoint Handheld, and generates it for over four minutes. It produced a visible streak from a mile away—not a blatant attention-grabber, but it made it possible to locate the otherwise invisible dinghy. We’d expect good visibility in lighter winds.

Pains Wessex Lifesmoke Mk 3
The Pains Wessex Lifesmoke Mk 3 is similar to the Orion floating smoke signal in size, operation and performance. It measures 3-5/8″ in diameter x 5-5/8″ tall. While its specifications call for three minutes of smoke generation, the sample we tested ran for a bit over four minutes, or about the same as its Orion counterpart. It’s designed to be safe even in gasoline or oil-covered waters, as is the Orion; we didn’t test this aspect of its operation.

Skyblazer Survival Smoke Signal
The little Skyblazer Survival smoke signal is a floating orange smoke generator that’s inexpensive, compact (1-1/4″ diameter x 2″ tall) and not particularly effective. It was the feeblest smoke producer we tried, and the only one that failed to fire. It may be of some value for kayakers, but we think it’s virtually useless for most marine emergency applications. Skyblazer representative Danielle Salmon said the company’s smoke signals are geared more toward land uses, such as hiking.

Signal Flags
Flags, at first glance, don’t appear to be impressive signaling devices, but they are, especially if you can raise them on halyards. They were surprisingly effective in our windy-day test, as might be imagined. We were able to locate the dinghy and keep it in sight. The Anchor Line flag (the flimsiest of the three) provided a sleeve to accommodate a boathook or oar; the Orion provided ties at each corner. The Skyblazer comes with grommets at the corners, but no ties. It would make sense to pre-rig these grommets with stout cord, so that you don’t have to do so in dire straits.

A signal flag isn’t as large as a cloud of smoke, but it doesn’t disperse or lose color intensity, and its fixed size and shape make it easier to distinguish against a background that normally doesn’t include large, square, orange objects. The three flags we purchased are USCG-approved daytime distress signals that share several advantages. They’re all inexpensive (about $10), there’s no expiration date, and very little to go wrong with them.

The most effective daytime distress warning device we found was also the most effective nighttime handheld device: a high-intensity handheld flare. We found that the Pains Wessex MK 7 Handflare worked well as an attention-getter and location marker.

The SOLAS-grade floating smoke signals—both the Orion and the Pains Wessex—and signal flags were comparable in effectiveness, though not as good as the bright handheld flares. Floating smokes are expensive; signal flags are cheap. Keep some of the former if you like, but definitely carry one of the latter.

Handheld smoke signals and lower-intensity (Orion and Bristol) handflares were largely ineffective at one mile, though the Pinpoint Handheld Orange Smoke Signal was the best of this lot. They’re better than nothing in windy conditions, but not by a wide margin.

Basing our recommendations solely upon how they worked for a surface observer, we think that a basic arsenal of daytime distress signals for windy conditions should consist of three high-intensity handflares—like the Pains Wessex SOLAS-grade Mk7s—and a distress signal flag. We recommend either the Skyblazer or the Orion flag; we doubt that the Anchor Line flag would stand up to much wind for long. That brings us back to those windless days when flags won’t fly: As disappointing as the smoke signals were in this round of tests, we would hesitate to suggest doing without them. They can make a fine bloom in light air and, after all, they’re not a lot extra to carry in the safety kit.

Contact- Bristol Flare Corp., P.O. Box 540, Bristol, PA 19007; 800/788-3008; Orion Safety Products, RR. 6 Box 542, Peru, IN; 46970 800/851-5260; Pains Wessex Australia, P.O. Box 25, Glen Iris, Victoria, Australia 3146; (61) 03-9885-0444; Skyblazer, Inc., 4275 North Palm Street, Fullerton, CA 92835; 800/631-7269;


Also With This Article
Click here to view “Value Guide: Daytime Visual Distress Signals.”
Click here to view “Effective, Cheap, and Often Overlooked.”

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.


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