Whether sifting through sand, or scrambling over a rocky shore, it's about finding treasures in every day. 

Flare Practice

I've done it: I've grumbled about having to go out and buy new flares for the boat because of U.S. Coast Guard regulations. Every other year we spend between $50 and $150 on the required flares. There is an expiration date on the flares that indicates when we will be buying new ones.

Today put an end to my grouching about having to purchase fresh flares.

Remember ear muffs and safety glasses when you practice with expired flares.

Julia told me that she had some expired 12 gauge flares. Those are the rocket flares that are fired out of a flare launcher, often called a flare gun. In Bellingham, where she is from, boaters are encouraged to turn expired flares in to the fire department for disposal. She had never had occasion to fire the flare launcher, and I suggested that we practice using it. 

We checked with the local police and fire departments, and they were supportive of us going to the rifle range to practice. Our fire department is also the local search and rescue. We made sure that they knew when we would be at the range so that if anyone called in a sighting of the aerial flares it would not activate a search.

With wonderful luck, we were the only people at the rifle range, so we had plenty of time and space in a quiet environment. It had been raining for over a week, so there was no fire hazard.

We did a little reading of the simple instructions. Things like this warning on the flare launcher, "For most effective use, fire after sighting potential rescue vessel" and on the handheld flares, "DO NOT WAVE SIGNAL OVERHEAD." Seems pretty basic, but when things get exciting then crazy stuff happens. Getting familiar with safety equipment in the dark, on a wet, rolling deck, with the wind howling just isn't as easy as a mellow practice run on a drizzly afternoon on terra firma.

First Julia used the 12 guage signal flare launcher.

See that black strap hanging off of the flare launcher? It is actually a bracket to attach a set of flares to. Having the flares attached to the launcher before an emergency happened would be a great idea. (I just hate it when the flares roll off of the deck and plop into the water.)

Open the barrel, insert the flare cartridge, close the barrel.

Hold the launcher up over your head, cock the hammer.

Aim straight up, pull the trigger.

This was the moment that I decided to cheerfully purchase fresh flares when needed. Julia's expired flares fired, but there wasn't much signal. A small red sparkle that lasted less than two seconds was all. She didn't fire one of her current flares, which should give a bright red signal for seven seconds.

After several practice rounds with the launcher it was time to practice with the handheld flares. I did the first one. I forgot to remove the black lid on the cap FIRST. I was surprised that it was much harder than I remembered to pull the cap off of the flare. Little things, but good to have a feel for in an emergency.

Julia set off one of the handheld flares, too.

Pull the small black lid off of the red cap. Pull the red cap off of the flare. It might be hard to pull off!

Hold the bottom of the flare. Turn the red cap so that the strikers on the cap and the flare face each other.

With a sweeping motion strike the cap against the end of the flare. This is a startling moment!

Get a good grip on the bottom of the flare and hold it out over the side of the boat. Stand where you can grasp the boat with your other hand.  See the molten plastic dripping from the flare?

It is easy to imagine waving that thing around if you desperately want to be rescued! Handheld flares drip molten plastic, though, so hold it out over the side of the boat.

This flare burned brightly for three minutes, and then more dimly for another minute and a half. There was a LOT of smoke, and at times it engulfed us.

It was great to go with a friend for this experience! We took our time, talked with each other about the equipment, and had great hands-on practice with safety gear.

I keep expired handheld flares for extras in an emergency, as practice flares, and as emergency fire starter. The new flares are always within the easiest reach. The old flares are a good addition to the GO BOX, and may someday save our lives or at least make an unplanned night on the beach more comfortable.

There are other types of visual distress signals like parachute flares and orange smoke flares. The Coast Guard requirements for boaters are the minimum, but it is a great idea to have more than the minimum on board.

Here's a few of the take-aways from Julia's and my flare practice:

  • It is well worth having current flares on the boat, and the best ones that we can afford.
  • An on-shore practice run is VERY valuable experience.
  • The police and fire departments here in Wrangell were supportive and helpful. Checking in with local departments can help keep the process painless.
  • Practicing in a safe, quiet place kept the focus on the equipment that we were learning about.
  • Handheld flares may be difficult for some women to open.
  • Handheld flares drip flaming bits.
  • Attach aerial flares to the bracket on the flare launcher when the kit is purchased or when refills are purchased so that they are held together in an emergency.
  • After practicing with flares on shore make a dry run on the boat. Here's how I did it: Imagine a rough, windy night. I walked to where the flares are stored on the boat, took two flares out to where I would use them, braced myself against the imagined rolling of the boat, pretended that I am setting off the flare, held the flare over the side of the boat and hung on to the boat with my free hand. When I was done with the practice I put the flares back into their storage place.

A big thanks to Julia, you beautiful, adventurous woman!

Safe boating Everyone!

Alaska Beachcomber