Arwen's meanderings

Hi everyone and welcome to my dinghy cruising blog about my John Welsford designed 'navigator' named Arwen. Built over three years, Arwen was launched in August 2007. She is a standing lug yawl 14' 6" in length. This blog records our dinghy cruising voyages together around the coastal waters of SW England.
Arwen has an associated YouTube channel so visit to find our most recent cruises and click subscribe.
On this blog you will find posts about dinghy cruising locations, accounts of our voyages, maintenance tips and 'How to's' ranging from rigging standing lug sails and building galley boxes to using 'anchor buddies' and creating 'pilotage notes'. I hope you find something that inspires you to get out on the water in your boat. Drop us a comment and happy sailing.
Steve and Arwen

Thursday, 4 March 2021

Should recreational sailors pay for the disposal of their expired pyrotechnic flares?

 Now, this little news clip on page 10 of ‘Sailing Today’ caught my eye. “You pay for flare disposal” says government.

Apparently, the DOT wants leisure sailors to pay for flare disposal and it has put this proposal out to consultation which ends on 15th March. The department is proposing a ‘polluter pays’ principle. It says in the consultation document:

“The industry should have in place effective mechanisms and processes that facilitate the safe management, containment, storage and disposal of such items……and for which they are usually obliged to pay”

“It is perhaps not unreasonable, therefore, to encourage the recreational boating sector to adopt a similar approach in disposing of its own waste products”, the consultation says.  

I’m not sure how I feel about this proposal so I’d welcome other peoples’ comments in the comment box below so that I can gain a range of perspectives to help me reach an informed opinion.  


I used to take my expired flares to Brixham coastguard before it closed. Then Force Four chandlery took them when I bought a new set from them.  However, the coastguard scheme operating at 17 stations ended in December 2021 apparently, because their contract with an ordnance disposal contract came to an end. Hence the consultation now.  There are, so it seems, 360,000 flares in circulation throughout UK maritime waters, within any one three-year period!


So, why does this interest me?

Well, I carry flares onboard Arwen. Two red handheld, two orange smoke handhelds, a floating orange smoke. One white handheld.  I have no idea whether that is what I should be carrying – it came as a sort of inshore coastal waters pack deal.  I know that for recreational vessels up to 13.7m in length, there are no statutory requirements of safety equipment other than those required under SOLAS V. For recreational boats over 13.7m in length I think they have to carry a minimum of four red pyrotechnic flares (but I still need to check this fact so bear with me).

In truth, I’ve never been comfortable with pyrotechnics. I have used some whilst mountain rescue training many, many years ago. I’ve never used any in a boat. I found them unpredictable to say the least; but that could be due to my unfamiliarity with using them.

It strikes me that they are now an antiquated method of distress alerting. After all modern technology seems to provide safer, more reliable alternatives to pyrotechnics. There is EPIRB, PLB, VHF DSC, AIS for a start – some of that I carry on Arwen (smartphone AIS plotter, PLB (with SAR tracking, various navigation apps)). I have a handheld VHF but it does have the obvious limitations regarding range, line of sight etc. As a general rule, I very rarely travel more than four miles off shore when sailing the south Devon and Cornwall coastlines, so do I need ot carry pyrotechnic flares at all?

Most of this techie stuff is affordable and seemingly far safer to use than rolling about in a sinking boat trying to light a flare which then lasts a few seconds (orange smokes excepted). But then, in fairness, I have never had to use any of the technology in a distress situation whilst at sea, so maybe I don’t know enough about this to make any valid points! And if all else fails, an orange floating smoke in an emergency will be very welcome, thank you very much.

On the other hand, I only carry a limited number of orange smokes and these could be used up pretty quickly without any guaranteed success in an emergency situation.  The red flares will burn for no more than 15s max I suspect. There is no guarantee that anyone will see them and then go on to alert the emergency services. In fact, the RYA lists a whole number of problems with using pyrotechnics, not least of which is their limited three-year serviceable life and the disposal of them afterwards.

As I said before, I know that the regulations are clear that I don’t need to carry any pyrotechnics whatsoever on my boat given its size. Recreational boaters below 24m in length (that’s their boat, not themselves) are free to choose what means of distress alerting and location they wish to carry according to the RYA summary of the guidance. But they also say…… “The RYA strongly recommends that recreational craft carry both a means of distress alerting and a means of indicating location should Search and Rescue (SAR) services be required”. I’m sure my VHF, smart phone and PLB cover this.


And so, to my main issue with this consultation: electronic visual distress signals (EVDS). Known to some as laser flares, they are handheld non pyrotechnic devices which work out cheaper, safer, easier to use and easier to dispose of than traditional pyrotechnic flares. However, they are not currently recognised as an international distress signal in COLREG Annex IV. So, they cannot be considered a means of initiating distress but can be used for visual location once a distress alert has been sent (MCA recognition in Marine Information Note 542M+F).  

Now I know I am not a brilliant, experienced sailor; I know my experiences are limited to basically messing about in a small boat on inshore coastal and estuary waters. But, surely, it is time for the MCA to recognise that small boats in particular shouldn’t be carrying dangerous pyrotechnics and that there is a wealth of other better technology for distress alerting out there and this includes making EVDS part of that solution.

Rightly or wrongly, I feel pressured into having old pyrotechnics onboard even though I have other better distress alerting technologies available to me. I know it’s a self-imposed pressure born out of paranoia and a healthy self-preservation, major risk adverse instinct. But I wonder if there is a need for the government to come really clean about what recreational boaters need to carry in terms of distress alerting equipment – the RYA and RNLI have useful information on it. Is it time for research on the effectiveness of EVDS to be published and their inclusion into COLREGs be made, if it hasn’t been done so yet? Surely the common sense, sustainable approach is to try and reduce the number of old-style pyrotechnic flares being used in the first place. Then there wouldn’t be a disposal problem and the need for another cost added to boating! Should the government, MCA and other regulatory bodies now include EVDS’s? Would they be useful as a distress signal during daylight if all other distress alert technologies you had, had failed?

As regular readers of this blog know, I am oft to comment how simplistic my views often are and how generally naive I am about marine issues. I sense I am being rather na├»ve now, so fire away, give me your thoughts in the comment box below. Educate me towards a more enlightened perspective on this issue and consultation because at the moment the sceptic within me says the government has just found another money-making venture whilst my more ‘trusting’ soul says its right we should pay – it’s the sustainable fair way of resolving the problem and why should the MCA cover our costs?  


Blair said...

This is ill thought through IMHO, there is a risk people will dispose of their flares in landfill or throw them into a hedge. Pennywise, pound foolish.

steve said...

hadn't thought of that aspect

Joel Bergen said...

Very timely post, Steve. My pyrotechnic flares expire this year so I have been looking into this matter as well. The US Coast Guard requirements for boats our size can be met with a 3 foot square orange flag for a daytime signal, and a laser flare for a night time signal. I'm leaning toward going that route, eliminating pyrotechnics entirely. I also have VHF, cell phone, signal mirror, whistle, and orange smoke (albeit expired) in my PFD. The reality of it is, electronics are the way to go. I'd be surprised if anyone ever gets rescued via pyrotechnics in this day and age.

steve said...

Hey Joel - how are you - hope you are all safe and well and that you have had your first jabs.
Like you I have smartphone, VHF handheld, signal mirror and whistle, fog horn and radar reflector, torch and a PLB with SOS button linked to Cospart Satellite system. I need to buy a new orange smoke floating. I dont tend to do night time sailing. I'd prefer to carry a red laser EVDs system but they are not approved over here - which is frankly ridiculous.
when we used flares a long time ago as part of our mountain rescue training - I hated the things - very unpredictable - I used to carry a pack of mini parachute flares in my PFD when I did sea canoeing but again that is going back some years now.
Anyway, how are you, how is retirement, are your family Ok ad how is it in your part of the USA ?

Alastair said...

Who else should pay? But the cost of disposal should be included in the purchase price or as Blair said above .....

steve said...

Hi Alastair - i agree no one else should pay thats for sure. Maybe an extra cost is put on the purchase to fund their safer disposal as you say. Or maybe its time to dispense with them and look to electronic alternatives.

It is an interesting conundrum but I dont think flare disposal should be free - thats just not on.

How are you doing? Safe and well? How has lock down gone for you? Have you had any vaccinations yet?