The U.S. Coast Guard has received reports from crews, ship owners, inspectors and other mariners regarding poor reception on VHF frequencies used for radiotelephone, digital selective calling (DSC) and automatic identification systems (AIS) when in the vicinity of light emitting diode (LED) lighting on-board ships (e.g., navigation lights, searchlights and floodlights, interior and exterior lights, adornment).
Ah, the Local Notice to Mariners… Most of us know about it, but many of us don’t really check it out and still others have never even heard of it. For the latter group, the Local Notice to Mariners is a document that gets regularly published by the U.S. Coast Guard (weekly), letting us know about stuff that gets changed on the charts (“discrepancies”), advanced notice of things that are going to be coming down the pike and it also brings us up to speed on situations that are happening in our local waters.
Okay, so most of us know we need flares (visual distress signals or VDS) on board to both be safe and to satisfy the requirements of the law, but the whole flare thing can be a bit confusing. Let’s make our way through what’s needed and how these things perform.
Let’s kick things off with a short video to set the scene…
US Coast Guard Requirements
The official US Coast Guard edict is kind of wordy and text-booky. Like many written laws, it doesn’t quite roll off the tongue or sit in the ol’ brain box so comfortably.
The best way to understand is to see some examples of VDS combinations that meet the requirements for boats over 16-feet.
There are exceptions, like a rowing shell for example, but most boats should have a supply of flares. So the most prudent thing to do is go get some flares (or an electronic handheld beacon) that will save your butt if things get dicey. And remember to regularly check the expiration dates and replace as necessary. The last thing you want to have happen is for you to have no working flares in an emergency situation.
Choosing the Right Visual Distress Signals
Many weekend boaters often have on board both some “alert” flares and some “locator” flares. “Alert” signals draw attention to your emergency and “Locate” handheld flares show rescuers where you are. There is a variety of signals to choose from when it comes to flares and it can be slightly confusing, but it’s not rocket science… or is it?
ORION Skyblazer Aerial Signals
Handheld Meteor Alert Flares
The alert flares sometimes come in a package of four (one more than the law requires) and have a little pull-tab that you yank on – a bright fireball shoots about 500-feet into the air and lasts about seven to eight seconds. Hopefully someone sees it and saves you. If not, you have three more chances! After the fourth lonely firing of an alert flare it is known that many troubled boaters ask themselves: “Why didn’t I get more than one package of those flares?”
Orion 12-Gauge Flare Launcher
12-Gauge Meteor Alert Flares
Rather than handheld launchers some boaters prefer the gun variety of shooting flares. This is essentially a plastic pistol that fires the flare about the same height as the aforementioned handheld (although performances may vary) but is more controllable and many feel more comfortable with this system. It’s very similar to firing a handgun – you load the shell, cock the pin and fire into the sky. These are also for day or night use with more effectiveness in the dark.
Orion Hand-held Red Signal Flare
Handheld Locator / Signal Flares
Locator flares (or signals) are similar in look and design to the handheld alert flare but they spit out a very bright glowing ball of light for a duration of one to three-minutes. The idea is to create a reference point for a solid period of time to facilitate rescue. They are effective both day and night, but more so during the night. The surface-to-surface sighting range on water is approximately three to five miles and experts say it is prudent to have at least 12 minutes (total burn time) of signals onboard to maintain a strong homing signal until help arrives. It’s important to hold these over the side of the boat on the leeward side because they drip hot goo that could make your situation worse!
Orion Hand-held Orange Smoke Flare
Day Signal Flares
In the flare world, the most common and effective day signal is a smoke flare. If you’re in trouble during the brightness of a sunny day, for sure, smoke flares are what you should use. They create a bloom of orange smoke, lasting about a minute, that is visible way far away and will make other nearby mariners say, “you see that crazy orange smoke over there?”
Orange Flag Day Signal
Other Day Signals
However, if you want to go old-school, you can carry an orange flag to be compliant. But let’s be real: If you’re at the point where you’re calling for help, reaching for an orange flag isn’t the most satisfying of feelings. When your crew says curiously, “Say, Jim? Do you have some flares around here? And you say, ‘no, but I have this awesome orange flag!‘” It’s not going to be well received.
SOLAS Grade Visual Distress Signals
SOLAS Grade Flares
The Coast Guard has minimum requirements for what a flare should be and that’s not based on a worse case scenario. If you’re the kind of sailor who goes far offshore or just likes to be as safe as can be, check out the SOLAS grade flares. Both alert and locator SOLAS flares burn brighter, last longer and are waterproof. Parachute Flares are within this designation – these babies will get you noticed! Also called signal rockets, they shoot an extremely bright meteor 1,000-feet into the air (in four-seconds) then a parachute pops out and descends for 40-seconds. There are also SOLAS grade smoke flares and they create a seriously large orange cloud.
Weems & Plath Electronic Flare
LED Electric Beacon
New to the flare scene is the Weems & Plath SOS Distress Light, which is the only LED Visual Distress Signal Device that meets U.S. Coast Guard requirements. The battery charged unit will flash the universal Morse code signal for SOS (· · · – – – · · ·) for 60-hours and is visible up to 10-miles away. It is waterproof and will float. Many find the most alluring element of the LED beacons is they never need replacing. Unlike ordinary pyrotechnic flares that need to be replaced every 42-months, the beacons never expire.
The American Sailing Association is all about getting out on the water and having a great time sailing, but we’re also all about making sure people are safe in that pursuit. We’ve developed books and courses to that end and firmly believe that a solid educational foundation paves the path to total enjoyment of the sport. However, this activity involves the forces of Mother Nature and that can sometimes instigate a change in plans. For that reason, we strongly advocate the use of a “float plan.”
So you want to be called Captain?
There are many reasons, professional and personal, to get a United States Coast Guard Captain’s License. In many cases the recreational mariner doesn’t need a USCG license, but would like to have one to improve their sailing resume, cement their knowledge of maritime rules and regulations, and pave the way toward sailing professionally.
For sailing instructors, the USCG license can often be essential. While your ASA training and certification are what prepare you to be an excellent teacher of sailing, most instructors are also legally required to have USCG captain’s license. This is due to strict rules related to carrying passengers, skippering for hire, and the type of boat involved. We created a handy chart to help determine which instructors are required to have a USCG license. In short, if you receive any compensation, if the boat has auxiliary power, and if you’re operating in USCG waters, you MUST have a captain’s license.
Whatever the reason, if you’re interested in getting a license, how do you go about it?
The most common type of license is called the Operator of Uninspected Passenger Vessel (OUPV). This allows you to operate a vessel of 100 tons or less with as many as 6 paying passengers on board. For that reasons, it’s often referred to as the “6-pack license.”
To get your license, you need two things: time and knowledge.
“Time” means logging experience on the water. This means you need to have a record of your time spent on the water in the type of vessel that fits the license you’re applying for. If you want to be a charter sailboat captain, log your time in a comparably sized sailboat! For the 6-pack license, you need 360 days since your 16th birthday, with a day constituting at least 4 hours on the water. 12 hours or more can be logged as 1.5 days. Time spent on the water with ASA courses or flotillas counts, naturally, and if it’s a liveaboard trip, so much the better!
“Knowledge” refers to the test you must take in order to get your license. Be warned: this test is no walk in the park. Serious study and preparation is needed to pass it, as it will test your knowledge of seamanship, rules and regulations, navigation, and more. Taking a course is highly recommended. Select ASA schools offer USCG classes in addition to ASA curriculum. Check with the schools in your area to see if they do – if not they may be able to make a recommendation, as their instructors probably have USCG licenses!
Getting your USCG captain’s license is not easy, but if you achieve it, along with ASA certification, you will be part of an elite group of sailors with the experience and training to get the most out of the sailing lifestyle. Best of all, everyone will have to call you captain!
Cell phones and driving don’t mix–and that goes for driving a boat too. Recently USCG crew members were involved in two boating accidents due to the skipper’s use of a cell phone while operating the boat. And I’m not talking about kissing fenders; there were several serious injuries and one death as a result of these two accidents. If the vigilant Coast Guard is having these kind of problems texting while driving, I’m sure the rest of us are just as much at risk.
The USCG has already issued guidelines about cell phone usage, but the National Transportation Safety Board urges them to take it a step further. The NTSB issued two recommendations this week regarding the use of cell phones and other wireless devices aboard boats:
1. That the USCG should “develop and implement national and local policies that address the use of cellular telephones and other wireless devices aboard U.S. Coast Guard vessels,” and
2. That the USCG should “issue a safety advisory to the maritime industry that (1) promotes awareness of the risk posed by the use of cellular telephones and other wireless devices while operating vessels and (2) encourages the voluntary development of operational policies to address the risk.”
The problem is that cellular communications, especially in coastal boating areas, can function an excellent and readily available backup tool in the event of loss of radio communications. I don’t know many people who wouldn’t want to bring their cell phone sailing–especially considering all the navigation and weather apps available now. But if you get a phone call while sailing, do you have the discipline not to answer it? According to their release, “the NTSB believes that to reduce distraction and improve the operational safety of vessels, the use of cellular telephones and other wireless devices by individuals in safety-related positions should be strictly limited during vessel operations.”
“The use of wireless communications devices while operating vehicles in any mode of transportation poses an unacceptable distraction,” NTSB Chairman Deborah A.P. Hersman said. “State governments and federal regulators have been acting to combat these safety hazards and we urge the Coast Guard to do the same.”
Could we be moving towards no cell phones while boating law? SHOULD we be? How would you feel if you were ticketed for taking a call on your cell phone while driving your boat?