Flare at Night Consider the Plight... - 08/13/2008

How many times have you seen a flare at night only to think that it was a prank or that if it were a real “Mayday” someone else would see it and call the Coast Guard? Unfortunately, emergency flares don’t last very long – mere seconds – and chances are good that no one will be looking in the right direction during those few seconds. If you do see a flare, take the position and call it in. If you are on the other end of the bargain you wouldn’t want it any other way.  

Visual Distress Signals
…of Those in Fright, so worry not you’re Right, 
Rescue take Flight.

Here’s a quick story of recognizing a call for help, persistence, and nautical knowledge which helped save the day for one Florida family.

The location is Cedar Key, Florida. The date is April 6, 2004. The time is just after 8:00pm. Upon entering a local eating establishment situated on the water’s edge, a commotion was overheard that an unusual streaking light had been witnessed shooting across the sky about ten minutes prior. While the diners discussed what to do, one smart waitress declared she had already called the local Coast Guard Station to report the sighting. Approximately ten more minutes went by before a second flare was sighted. A man on the scene estimated the distance to the flare to be one to two nautical miles. As he attempted to flag down the waitress, a third and final flare was sighted.

The Coast Guard Station was able to raise a Florida Wildlife & Game Officer (FWG) who was in the area and had access to an airboat (the nearest Coast Guard Station was approximately 20 miles away.) When the FWG Officer arrived at the dock at the restaurant, our man on the scene introduced himself to the State Officer.

“Follow Orion’s knife sheath down to the waterline,” said the man, an active member of the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary. “That will put you in the approximate area where the flares were sighted.”

As the auxiliarist watched the FWG Officer maneuver his boat way out in the distance, he realized that the officer was traveling too far west. Based upon his current course, the officer would never find the boat in distress. Thinking quickly, the Coast Guard auxiliarist requested permission of a near-by boat owner to use his VHF radio. Making contact with the Coast Guard, he was able to have them re-direct the FWG Officer. He could hear the noise the airboat made as it changed course, but then lost track of it in the darkness. In the meantime, a Coast Guard patrol boat had finally arrived on scene, as well as extra Coast Guard members via land.

As they prepared to begin their search pattern, the officer’s airboat emerged from the darkness with five extra persons on board. The auxiliarist, after speaking with the survivors, re-told their story. A family’s 17 ft. boat had got stuck high & dry after they wondered out of the marked channel and ran aground. The family consisted of a husband, wife, and their three little girls – an infant and two young children, about eight and ten years old. All were safe, but obviously cold and a little shaken from the experience. They had no blankets or any way to stay warm overnight and were not equipped with any emergency supplies, not even extra water or rations. What they did have, was a flare gun. Luckily, the weather was good and the sea state calm, which made the search and rescue a little easier. In this case, the incident ended fairly well. But without the visual distress signals, that may not have been the case.

Visual Distress Signals
It’s a plane! No, it’s a helicopter! No, wait a second, that’s an aerial flare!

For the sake of everyone on the water, here are some guidelines to consider and make note of should you witness what you believe is an aerial visual distress signal, referred to as a flare.
-Determine the direction of the flare from your exact position.
-Estimate the distance.
-Call the Coast Guard.
-Record the exact time of each flare sighting.
-Multiple flare sightings will aid both you and the Coast Guard in pinpointing the exact location.
-Have your location ready.
-Have a description of the type and quality of the flare sighting.
-Did you see the flare both rise and fall?
-Note the rates of rising and falling (rapid rise and fall, rapid rise, slow fall, etc.)
-Was the trajectory steep (mostly vertical) or flat (mostly horizontal?)
-Note the flare’s color (red, orange, white).
-Estimate how long the flare burned?
-Estimate the angle from you to the top of the flare’s trajectory. (If you hold your fist at arm’s length, with the bottom of your fist on the horizon, was the top of the trajectory above or below the top of your fist?)

The answers to all these questions will greatly assist the Coast Guard in calculating true distance and direction from your vantage point to the approximate position of the distress signal. The valuable, potentially life saving information could make a huge difference to the victims in distress.

For more information on the procedures for reporting flare sightings, the Coast Guard Addendum to the United States National Search & Rescue (SAR) supplement has everything you need.

It is located on the web at: www.USCG.mil.

For more information about general boating safety and/or the United States Coast Guard Auxiliary contact your local Flotilla by using our Flotilla Finder.

By the way, our hero auxiliarist, who assisted in locating the family from the 17 ft. boat, was Dan Hess of Flotilla 07-03-08, Plantation, FL. Well done Dan!

Reprinted from Florida Sport Fishing Magazine.