Distress flares

When you’re out on the water, flares are a good means of communicating distress.

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Know how to use your flares

Flares are pyrotechnic devices that create an intense bright red flame or an orange plume of smoke; these are highly visible from the air and on sea, making it easier for rescuers to spot.

Flares allow you to communicate visually.

Flares are only useful when seen by someone who can give help or alert others. Because each flare burns only for a short time, you should try to maximise the chances of your flare being seen.

Making your signal as effective as possible

1. Be prepared

  • Read and understand the firing instruction(s) for your flares before you need to use them. You will not be able to read the instructions in a distress situation at night, when emergencies often occur.
  • Store your flares in a waterproof container, or in a dry area below deck. Make sure passengers and crew know where they are and how to use them.
  • Check the expiry date of your flares regularly and be sure to replace them before they expire.

2. How to fire a flare

Do not set off flares unless you are in distress - or at an organised training session. Misuse of distress signals is a criminal offence.

  • Hold the flare to the leeward side of your boat before firing. Flares burn with extreme heat and can easily damage your boat or life raft.
  • Fire only one flare at a time and keep the other flares until you need them. If you see a searching aircraft or boat, you can use your remaining flares to attract attention.
  • If you have parachute flares, fire them downwind, not into the wind, and at a 15–20 degree angle off vertical.

Types of flare

There are three main types of flares, with different options available for each type:

  • Orange smoke flares are only effective for daytime use
  • Red handheld flares are effective during the day and night as they are very bright, burn for up to 60 seconds and are visible from aircraft
  • Red parachute or rocket flares are capable of attracting attention in daylight (up to 10 miles) and at night (up to 40 miles). The flare is launched up to 300m and burns for 40–60 seconds as it descends slowly under a parachute.

Disposal of old flares

Expired flares must be disposed of appropriately. You can hand them in to:

  • your local police station
  • harbour police
  • sea rescue headquarters
  • the Ministry of Defence
  • a life raft service station

Do not incinerate old flares or put them in the rubbish. If they ignite, they can cause fires, injury or burns.

Flare demonstrations

Coastguard Boating Education holds flare demonstration and training exercises from time to time around the country. They use flares that are close to their expiry date.

These demonstrations act as a training session for new recruits to Coastguard and for boat owners, highlighting the importance of carrying flares and knowing how to use them.

They are also a good way for people to see how flares work and the effectiveness of the different types available in New Zealand.

Related information:
Register your beacon with the Rescue Coordination Centre New Zealand (RCCNZ).

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