"The sea, the great unifier, is man's only hope. Now, as never before, the old phrase has a literal meaning: we are all in the same boat."
- Jacques Yves Cousteau
Jacques may be right about all of us being in the same boat, but that no longer means we all carry the same kind of emergency distress signaling gear. As I wrote a few years ago when Sirius Signal released their original A-1001 LED SOS distress light, conventional pyrotechnic flares have some serious competition for keeping boaters safe and complying with U.S. Coast Guard regulations.
But before we dive into the details, you might be wondering just what is an LED SOS distress light and which USCG regs are relevant. An LED SOS distress light, often referred to as an electronic Visual Distress Signal Device (eVDSD) in the industry, is simply a battery operated light that flashes SOS in Morse code. The U.S. Code of Federal Regulations Part 175.130 states that an electric distress light meeting the standards of 46 CFR 161.013 is acceptable for meeting the night only requirement for vessels 16 feet or more in length. To make a long story short, the Sirius Signal C-1003 (and the A-1001) meets the standards and is acceptable. 46 CFR 161.013 specifies several light intensity, signal, and power source requirements, again all of which are met by the C-1003. Most notably, an eVDSD that emits light over an arc of the horizon of 360 degrees must have a peak equivalent fixed intensity of at least 75 candelas, which provides about 10 miles of visibility in certain conditions. Notice above that I wrote the C-1003 is acceptable for night requirements. To meet the day time requirement, Sirius Signal includes an orange signal flag meeting the standards of 46 CFR 160.72. So as a package with the included signal flag, the C-1003 can be carried in place of traditional flares.
The new model (C-1003) of SOS distress light from Sirius Signal functions nearly the same as the original, but has some nice improvements. Most immediately noticeable is that the foam flotation ring has increased a bit in size to help the light float higher, thus increasing visibility. Essentially, the whole unit is similar in form factor to a handheld flashlight and so the molded pattern on the handle has also been changed to provide improved grip, particularly in wet conditions I presume.
To turn on the distress light function, you simply twist the clear lens on top of the unit clockwise and the bright LED flashes the Morse code SOS signal continuously for ~60+ hours on a fresh set of C-cell batteries, which are included. To turn off the light, twist the lens counterclockwise. The lens is fully removable to replace batteries, but you'll need to make sure you don't twist counterclockwise too far when turning the light off otherwise the lens will back away from the two o-rings and compromise the waterproof housing. It feels sturdy and the electronics seem well made. While I'm no electronics expert, you can find the same opinion from someone who is - Ben Ellison from Panbo. There are also two shockcord lanyards built into the handle for securing the light and/or keeping it on your wrist while in use. Lastly, a signaling whistle is also included in the package. So for less than $90 USD, you get the light, the batteries, the daytime distress flag, and the whistle. For comparison sake, handheld flare kits run about $35 for a four pack while flare guns with included flares run $75+. You'll get about 3 seasons out of the flares before they expire, which means if you're truly going to replace your flare kit with an eVDSD, you won't recoup your cost until about year 3 or so.
However, cost isn't and shouldn't be the only factor you consider when comparing traditional flares with an eVDSD like the C-1003. Flares will usually be more visible than an eVDSD. For example, many are rated at 700 (or much more) candelas as opposed to the 75 for the C-1003 and many are able to be launched several hundred feet into the air. The smoke from daytime signal flares is also potentially visible at a longer range than a signal flag. So what's the downside to traditional flares? Well first is the expiration dates and replacement costs that I've already mentioned. Second, burn times measure in minutes as opposed to hours of operation for eVDSD's. And remember that word "pyrotechnic"? Flares produce chemical reactions that give off immense heat and are a fire hazard as well as an environmental hazard. Speaking of which, have you found anywhere that will accept expired flares? The Sirius Signal C-1003 has advantages beyond cost and longevity too. First and foremost for me is safety. They don't pose a fire hazard in storage or while in use. And on a related note, the C-1003 should be air travel friendly if you're flying to use a boat and want to make sure you've got safety signal gear covered. And another bonus is that you can use the C-1003 as MOB marker by tossing at a MOB to help you return for recovery.
So what's the bottomline? Well for me, I carry a Sirius Signal eVDSD as my primary nighttime distress signaling device and the signal flag for daytime use and enjoy not worrying about expired flares and purchasing new ones every few seasons. I carry a set of extra C-cell batteries and check the charge in both sets seasonally. We don't go offshore, but if I did frequently I might consider carrying a pack or two of the expired flares I have laying around my garage too. As it is, I think the C-1003 is perfect for the way many boaters enjoy the water...an afternoon or weekend at a time.
Ready to purchase a Sirius Signal C-1003? Visit their website to get the full package for $89.95.
Want to see the C-1003 in action? Watch the video below for SOS distress light operation in my basement: