SOLAS & Visual Distress Signals


Visual Distress Signals (VDS) in the form of flares and orange smoke have been available for over 100 years. Although marine emergency signals via radios and satellite technology now provide worldwide coverage, a red flare on a dark night can still improve your odds of being seen and give a message of distress in an emergency.

Consider this: about 15 years ago in New England, a woman woke up suddenly in the middle of the night. Unable to get back to sleep, she got up and looked out of her bedroom window, which had an expansive view of the sea and night sky.

At that very moment, she saw a bright red meteor distress flare far out at sea arc through the night sky and fall slowly back to earth. She immediately called 911. Call it coincidence or divine intervention, a fishing crew was saved thanks to her insomnia and quick action.

In contrast, in the early moonless morning hours of April 15, 1912 between 1 and 2 a.m., the crew of the nearby SS Californian saw eight white flare rockets rise off their port horizon. The flare signals were from the RMS Titanic.

However, no one on the SS Californian knew what the white flares meant. Some thought they were part of a celebration of the Titanic’s anticipated arrival in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and the SS Californian ignored the signals.

This confusion and the lack of survival standards laid bare by the sinking of the Titanic lead to international treaties and, in 1914, the regulations now known as SOLAS—Safety Of Life At Sea. SOLAS set other minimum standards for vessel construction, survival equipment and safe operation of vessels. These regulations also standardized distress signals.

Thus red is the only color for distress flares and SOS is the only radio signal for distress. SOLAS standards for VDS and other safety gear are usually higher than those for individual nations. Therefore, we have two main grades of VDS for vessels: SOLAS or non-SOLAS.

The U.S. Coast Guard’s approved flares and smoke can be SOLAS or non-SOLAS, depending on a fishing vessel’s distance from shore.

SOLAS-rated flares have the advantage of being more resistant to deterioration in a moist marine environment. SOLAS flares are brighter, can be seen from farther away, and are less likely to fail. They are also safer to use around a life raft since they do not produce slag, a molten metal that drips and sprays from non-SOLAS flares.

That is why SOLAS flares are usually packed in the life raft’s survival kit.

Maintenance and Use Tips

Keep your flares updated and in good condition by protecting them from the elements. Non-SOLAS signals have a higher failure rate if left exposed to moisture and weather.

Check the expiration date on your signals at the beginning of the season. Most flares now have 42 months from date of manufacture until they expire. 

Be sure your crew knows where your VDS are stored and how to operate them. In the midst of an emergency on a dark and stormy night is not the best time to read the instructions. Although a life raft rated for use beyond 20 miles from the coast will contain flares, it’s efficient to delegate someone on your station bill to grab the flares if abandoning the vessel.

Disposal of outdated VDS is a problem. Don’t throw outdated flares in the ocean. Do not put them in the general waste stream. This has caused fires which are difficult to put out in trucks, barges and landfills.

Some fire stations will take them for practice—ask first. Use them in training for your crew if they are outdated but in good condition. Wear protective clothing, including gloves and goggles. Notify the U.S. Coast Guard, other relevant agencies and nearby businesses beforehand and give a Securite (safety signal) on the VHF radio before you set off flares for training. Cancel the Securite after you are done.

Keep the radio on during practice to help prevent an expensive false alarm. Treat them with the respect you give to firearms.

Distress parachute flares and meteors have a kick to them when operated. Some can go to 1,000-plus feet in height, drift much further and are difficult to keep on course when fired. Think of them as a jet propelled rocket. Read directions carefully and find an unpopulated area for practice.

Handheld non-SOLAS flares need to be held horizontally so that hot slag does not roll down the blind side of the flare that you’re holding. Wear leather gloves, goggles and shoes.

SOLAS smoke has a several second delay so you can throw it in the water away from the life raft because the can gets very hot. Even a light breeze will keep the orange smoke close to the surface of the earth and it will rarely reach the height of a meteor flare. Thus they will be seen only a couple of miles from another vessel, but can be seen further by aircraft.

Small handheld meteors can have a high failure rate if they get wet. Check monthly to make sure they stay dry.

Remember, you never know how the day is going to end, nor your night.

To view effective ways to use a variety of VDS, visit