Distress signals

Nautical Signals | Boat Safety Devices
Welcome to the page of our e-commerce HiNelson dedicated entirely to the sale of rescue signals such as hand fires parachute signals, smoke bombs, light sticks and so on: here you can find all the emergency signals that you must necessarily keep within reach on your boat. As is well known, before setting...

Welcome to the page of our e-commerce HiNelson dedicated entirely to the sale of rescue signals such as hand fires parachute signals, smoke bombs, light sticks and so on: here you can find all the emergency signals that you must necessarily keep within reach on your boat.

As is well known, before setting sail, whatever our destination, it is necessary to check that we have all the safety devices required by law on board. Common sense and experience, to tell the truth, suggest in most cases to have something more. Of course it would be absurd to equip our boat with a life raft excessively larger than the size required according to the maximum number of people in our crew, but it is instead always a good idea to keep a few more hand flares on board, especially during longer cruises.

Nautical signals: what does the legislation foresee?

As is well known, the safety equipment required by law is defined on the basis of the distance of navigation from the coast (as stated in the Decree of the Ministry of Infrastructure and Transport no. 387 of 29 September 1999 and the subsequent Regulations implementing the Recreational Craft Code with Ministerial Decree no. 146 of 29 July 2008). As far as nautical signals are concerned, the obligation takes over for all boats sailing more than one mile from the coast. Specifically, boats moving within three miles from the coast must have on board at least one smoke buoy and two red light hand flares; for navigation within 6 miles, instead, it is necessary to rely on one light buoy, two smoke buoys (no longer just one) and two parachute flares at red light. For navigation within 12 miles from the coast, the regulations regarding nautical signals do not change, but they are revolutionized in the case of navigation within 50 miles from the coast. In this case, in fact, besides the luminous buoy and the two smoke buoys, it is necessary to have on board three red light hand flares and three red light parachute flares. Outside these distances, and therefore for navigation without limits, the regulation provides for the presence of one light buoy, three smoke buoys, four red light hand flares and four red light parachute flares.

Types of flares and emergency fires

Each nautical signal corresponds to a specific use: using them incorrectly means in fact undermining their effectiveness, which in case of emergency could turn into a real drama. For this reason, before leaving the dock and heading out to sea, it is always advisable to check whether the crew knows how to use the various emergency flares and fires on board. The first step is obviously to distinguish between the various signals and to identify the specific uses.

From a general point of view and starting from the widest possible view, there are basically 3 types of signal fires for navigation, namely:

Thered light fires: these fires, to which also the orange light smoke can be assimilated, have the purpose of making the arriving rescue means and the surrounding boats understand what our position is. They should be used, therefore, only and exclusively in case of emergency, in order not to alarm nearby boats unnecessarily.

White fires: it must be underlined that these are nautical signals, but at the same time they are not emergency fires. Their use, therefore, is not correlated with an accident at sea or with a real emergency situation. The purpose of white fires is instead to warn promptly and clearly a boat that is approaching in a dangerous way, and that by maintaining that trajectory could cause a collision with our boat.

Emergency fires: as their name suggests, these fires must absolutely be used only in case of a rescue request. Their presence on board, as we have seen, is made compulsory by law. However, there is no single type of emergency fire, and each one requires a different type of use.

How should emergency fires be used?

Emergency fires are vital safety equipment. In order for them to really help in the event of danger, however, you need to know how to use flares properly, so that you can signal your situation to help and not make the situation worse through improper use of the fires.

Let's start with the smoke buoy. Who is fresh out of the license will probably remember the quiz, which asked if the orange smoke buoy was a signal daytime, night or even to be used only in the presence of fog. Well, this particular safety device has the purpose to signal our presence also to boats at important distances. But that's not all, as the colored smoke buoys lend themselves well also to be identified from above, and then by any rescuers in helicopters, as well as aircraft that casually pass over our head. So - without any regard to the presence of fog, pure whim from quiz - the buoy is used during the day, to be launched a few meters of our boat stuck. This signal is also used to signal a general danger, as well as to be sure of not losing the position of a man at sea.

The smoke buoy is obviously a floating device. To activate it, it is necessary to remove the lid and energetically pull the trigger, consisting of a rope: after a few seconds it will begin to emit colored smoke and highly visible. It will then be time to throw it into the water, so as to make its position visible. It should be pointed out that, in the absence of particularly high waves, the coloured smoke buoy is a nautical signal capable of lasting about 3 minutes. It should also be noted that these safety devices are designed to be able to emit smoke even when submerged by about ten centimeters of water (the tests speak specifically of a minimum of 10 seconds of colored smoke emission for a smoke buoy at 10 centimeters from the surface).

And at night? What should be used at night to signal nearby units and rescuers of our location? How can the SOS be launched in the dark, perhaps from a damaged ship? The coloured smoke buoy itself has no reason to be used at night. This is where the red light hand flares come in, very simple and cheap devices, which, however, despite their banality, can be extremely useful in case of emergency at sea during the dark hours (it must be said that, in many cases, the red light flares can be very useful also during a daytime emergency, to give an extra indication to rescuers). It must be underlined that these nautical emergency signals have a maximum capacity, beyond which their use is completely useless. Generally speaking, the range of red light hand flares is about 6 miles, a distance that obviously can vary depending on many factors. To use them safely, it is advisable to use a glove, to avoid painful burns. Having taken this precaution, you will proceed to remove the protection that is in the lower part of the signal, and pull with one energetic blow the cord, so as to light the fire. It is not necessary to emphasize that, once lit, it is necessary to keep it at a proper distance from your body.

And now we have arrived at the most powerful of the nautical emergency signals, the red parachute flare: this instrument, designed above all for the night hours but which can also be used during the day, allows you to signal your emergency situation many kilometres away, going well beyond the typical limits of hand-held fires. With parachute flares for boats, in fact, we are talking about a visibility up to about 25 miles away. But how should they be used to make sure they don't nullify or reduce their effectiveness?

Well, the use of parachute flares must be studied very well, as they can be considered as the last resort of a boat in difficulty in the middle of the sea. These flares, in fact, enable a dramatic situation to be reversed, being able to draw the attention of sailors who never, ever could have seen the hand fires. Even in this case, it is advisable to use a protective glove. It will then be necessary to direct the rocket towards the sky and tilt it at about 45°: a good launch carried out with normal weather conditions can reach the remarkable height of 300 meters, from which the slow descent of the luminous rocket will begin. It is impossible, for any observer positioned at a handful of miles from the vessel in danger, not to see the nautical emergency signal and act accordingly.

It is certainly not necessary to underline that parachute rockets must never be used except in case of emergency, and that in any case the launch must be made taking into account the fact that the rocket must fall into the water: otherwise, in fact, it could start dangerous fires (the ignition temperature of these emergency rockets exceeds 300 degrees, and it is much more powerful than the classic pyrotechnic fires on sale).

Nautical signals: watch out for the expiry date... and disposal!

The law does not require that flares be simply carried on board. No, these nautical emergency signals must also be in all respects efficient, and therefore - as specified by the decree n.387 of 29 September 1999 - they must not have more than 4 years of life, a term to be calculated from their date of manufacture. Beyond that date, every sailor must absolutely replace the emergency signals. Nothing could be easier, right? The cost of this safety equipment is not prohibitive, and it is even possible to buy kits including all the nautical signals that are compulsory for your boat (according to the distance of navigation).

The problem, in short, is certainly not related to the new signal flares, but rather to the old emergency fires. What to do with the old nautical signals? How to dispose of them? Until some time ago, there was no answer for the destination of this hazardous waste, and mariners had no real alternatives to properly dispose of their nautical emergency signals, such as parachute flares and red light hand fires. The illegal ways to dispose of this waste were therefore different, and one worse than the other: those who used the old flares as fireworks, those who threw them into the sea with all the pollution that can result, those who threw them - again, illegally and with great risk - in the rubbish bin.

Finally, in May 2016, the Ministry of the Environment clarified the matter, explaining the methods through which explosive products, such as emergency flares for boats, had to be disposed of. According to the decree 101, such devices should be withdrawn in a completely free way by the sellers, as it happens for all the expired pyrotechnic devices. The retailer must then hand over the waste to the manufacturers, who must then dispose of it - a similar chain has also been adopted for WEEE waste.

The decree, however, has not solved the situation. In fact, the rule was harshly contested by the Confindustria Nautica Italiana (the Italian Boating Industry Association), which criticized both the classification of expired flares - which become hazardous waste from "explosive material" - and the distributors, who would not be authorized to manage deposits of explosive material.

In short, as far as the disposal of nautical signals is concerned, unfortunately, there is still no certain and valid answer. The important thing, in any case, is to make them safe, and then neutralize them: the fastest and easiest way is to immerse them in water for a long time, so as to be sure to wet the internal dust.

Do you need more advice before buying the new nautical emergency signals for your boat? Contact us, we will help you in your choice!

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