Spring commissioning always involves taking inventory of spare parts, gear and safety equipment to make sure we're prepared for the season ahead. Invariably, it feels like our flares are expired every spring, though in reality I believe they have a shelf life of about 3 years. When they are truly expired, I'm always at loss for how to properly and safely dispose of them. Replacing them requires a $40 purchase. These are minor hassles for the inherent safety (and USCG compliance) that carrying the flares onboard provide.
But have you read the what the USCG says about electronic alternatives?
From Title 33 of the Code of Federal Regulations, Subpart 175.130:
Any of the following signals, when carried in the number required, can be used to meet the requirements of 175.110:
1) An electric distress light meeting the standards of 46 CFR 161.013. One is required to meet the night only requirement.
2) An orange flag meeting the standards of 46 CFR 160.072. One is required to meet the day only requirement.
From Title 46 of the Code of Federal Regulations, Subpart 161.013:
Electric S-O-S Distress Light: This is an alternative to flares for recreational boats. It is required to automatically flash S-O-S. Light intensity and duration requirements apply. Electric S-O-S distress lights are self-certified by the manufacturer. The Coast Guard does not issue approvals or keep an authenticated list of manufacturers. Approval standards for these are found in Title 46, Subpart 161.013.
The folks at Sirius Signal have a "Why didn't I think of that" alternative that meets the above requirements and it's called the SOS Distress Light (exclusively manufactured and distributed by Weems & Plath). According to Sirius Signal, this is the first and only LED visual distress signal device that meets USCG requirements to completely replace traditional pyrotechnic flares. This is good news because the SOS Distress Light never expires (battery changes keep it fresh) and therefore no flare disposal challenges are encountered.
So what exactly is the SOS Distress Light? Well, it's essentially a floating LED light on a handle that flashes the SOS light sequence. Turning it on is as simple as twisting the lens on top to activate the extremely bright LED with visibility for up to 10 nautical miles. It also comes with the orange signal flag from CFR 175.130 above to meet daytime requirements. The run time is listed as up to 60 hours on 3 C-cell batteries. Holding it feels a bit like holding an ice cream cone because of the foam flotation ring, but it's incredibly simple in concept and operation. The light floats with the lens up to optimize the all-around horizontal and vertical beams. What I also really like is that it can also be used as part of a crew-overboard procedure by tossing it in the water if someone falls off so you can more easily locate them.
I'm loving the SOS Distress Light. I no longer have to carry pyrotechnics onboard, nor do I have to buy new flares every couple of years or hassle with disposal of outdated flares. There's not much downside here other than needing to keep fresh batteries stocked. I suppose some might question the overall visibility, considering that the flag must also be flown if used during daylight hours. Still, I'm a believer and am eager to get the Coast Guard's reaction during a vessel safety inspection this coming summer.