LED and laser flares claim to replace pyrotechnic flares on board: but how do they compare with a traditional flare and an LED torch? Ben Meakins and David Pugh try them out on a dark night in Studland Bay
Why do we carry pyrotechnic flares on board?
Is it to attract attention? Gone are the days of firing off a parachute flare and hoping for the best: assuming your VHF radio and DSC are working, it’s much more effective to make a distress call. A flare is a good backup, but comes at a price – they are dangerous to use, especially at night on a pitching boat and with crew unfamiliar with how to work them.
For a lifeboat crew, actually finding the casualty can be tricky, especially in a crowded area or at night – and that’s where handheld red flares come in. A parachute flare is a useful attention-grabber, but it’s no use as a locator beacon as it will be hanging high up in the air. Red handheld flares are designed to be used when a potential rescuer is in sight: they are visible up to three miles, day or night, have a burn time of around 60 seconds and produce 15,000cd (candela) of light. In the daytime, an orange smoke flare is recommended as it’s easier to see.
However, carrying explosives on board is a tricky and potentially dangerous business. Manufacturers have been offering electronic distress flares for a few years now: these started off as laser flares, which we tested back in 2011. As we found then, the problem with a laser is that it’s directional, with a very narrow beam – fine if you know where your target is and can shine it at them, but very hard to do on a pitching, rolling boat at sea. As LED technology has improved, manufacturers have started moving towards high-powered LEDs as a solution. There are currently two products available in the UK – the Odeo Flare Mk III and the Ocean Signal EDF1.
As a comparison, we also tried a high-powered LED torch (the Coast PS400), a laser flare from Greatland Laser and an Ikaros handheld red pyrotechnic flare.
How we tested them
We headed into Studland Bay on a cold May evening in pitch darkness, with no moon. Dropping PBO editor David Pugh on the beach, we headed offshore in a fast RIB. Ashore, David set off the signals in turn, while on the RIB we noted down how visible they were against a black background, and also how well they could be distinguished from background lights, channel markers and shore lights. This done, we set off at speed to carry out a range test, up to a maximum range of 5 miles.
The Odeo flare was originally launched with lasers in
a rotating lamp, but has now been changed to use high-power LEDs. It’s foolproof to use – you rotate the base, mimicking the way you set off a parachute flare. The 21 red LEDs flash in an SOS pattern (••• – – – •••) with a long flash in between.
In use, we found it to be not quite as bright as the EDF1 at the 5-mile range, but the SOS flash made it stand out against the background lights. It could be confused for a red navigation marker (most of which use LEDs these days), but the regular SOS pattern means that you can distinguish the light from its surroundings. It was by no means comparable to the pyrotechnic flare in attracting attention, but as a tool to guide in a lifeboat or other rescuer, it worked well.
You can replace the batteries yourself – it uses three L91 lithium iron-disulphide cells (AA-type) which are readily available, and has a five-hour duration. It’s also buoyant and waterproof.
Ocean Signal’s EDF1 uses LEDs, including two on the top for aerial signalling. In use, we found it to be brighter, with a more intense light than the Odeo flare, especially at the 5-mile range. Unlike the Odeo flare, there are a few options for light level, which are accessed by sliding a cover down and pressing a button. This gives three levels of intensity – Economy, Bright and Ultra. A further press gives ‘Beam’ mode, which is more directional, with a 30° beam width. An SOS mode is also available, where the unit flashes SOS every 20 seconds, and this is accessed by pressing the ‘Test’ key with the unit in operation.
It had a ‘flickering’ effect when observed, which helped distinguish it from background and other lights. While the EDF1 had a brighter, more intense light on high power than the Odeo flare, especially at long range, we found that it was a little trickier to operate the small buttons and negotiate the multiple features, especially in the dark. Its Li-MnO2 battery pack is user-replacable, but must be supplied by Ocean Signal retailers. It can be
tested with the ‘test’ key.
Greatland Laser Rescue Laser Flare Magnum
This laser flare, supplied by rescue-flares.co.uk, takes two AA batteries and produces a spread, fan-shaped beam. It’s waterproof, but not buoyant. The manufacturers claim a 20-mile range at night, but the visible horizon will reduce this – in our case, to around 5 miles. In use, when actually pointing at the RIB, it was a very bright flash, by far the brightest of the electronic units we tested, but actually getting it to point at the RIB was hard enough. We had some success by panning it along the horizon, which produced a single flash on the RIB, but best results came by talking the operator in by mobile phone (‘left a bit, flash, ok, that’s good’), although this would be totally impractical in a rescue situation on a moving boat.
Coast Polysteel PS400 LED torch
We added a high-powered LED torch to our line-up to see if it would make a valid comparison. This torch is waterproof and has three modes, with a maximum of 300lm (lumen) on high power –
which we tried. It will last for 1.5 hours on full beam, and takes four AAA batteries which can be user-replaced.
The torch proved highly visible during our test, equalling the red handheld LED flares at our 5-mile range. Unlike the LED flares it is of course directional, and thus not as effective at pinpointing your location should you not know the vague bearing of the people looking for you. However, it has greater use than a flare – you can after all use it as a torch the rest of the time, and you can still flash SOS with it using the power button – although it can’t just be turned on and held aloft as the others can.
Ikaros Handheld Red Flare
We were impressed by the LED flares and the torch, and set off a handheld red flare to which we could compare them. We were totally unprepared for the effect, which illuminated the beach for a good 100m around and was almost enough for us to read by in the RIB, a quarter of a mile off the beach. It burned for 55 seconds before David ditched it, and was violent but undeniably effective.
The heartening thing was that in comparison with our previous test, the move to high-powered LEDs has improved the performance of electronic flares no end. While LEDs are not as powerful as lasers, their visibility is much improved as they are much less directional.
Questions still remain about what exactly flares are for these days. With a VHF radio to contact the coastguard (and a handheld VHF as a backup in case of rigging loss or electronics failure), a handheld flare’s use is really only to help pinpoint your position to a lifeboat or rescuer. None of the electric flares was comparable in power and visibility to a pyrotechnic flare, but all were visible from 5 miles out, assuming you were looking for them. The SOS flash helps here. With a lifeboat on the way, setting off one of the two LED flares and letting the lifeboat crew know to look for a flashing red signal would be an effective way of doing things.
The Odeo Flare was the easiest to use – just twist the base – and its SOS flash distinguished it well from background lights and navigation marks. The Ocean Signal EDF1 was brighter, with a more intense light and thus slightly easier to see, but was more complicated to use, especially with cold, wet hands, and its 20-second SOS signal wasn’t as noticeable as the constant-flashing SOS of the Odeo Flare. Emergencies and fiddly controls don’t mix, which is why the Odeo gets our best buy.
The laser flare was powerful for the few seconds it was on target, but was far too directional to be of any real use on a boat. The LED torch was a good substitute at a low cost and with other uses on board, but was directional and had a much shorter burn time than the LED flares. You could use it to light up your sails and rigging to attract attention.
There is a good argument that the LED flares offer a useful substitute to the red handheld flare. There’s an argument for carrying a few red parachute rockets as a last-ditch effort to attract attention should all your electrics go down, but as a way of pinpointing your location to a rescuer who is looking out for you and will be able to identify a strong, SOS-flashing light, carrying one of the LED flares and a powerful white torch should cover all other eventualities. They don’t go out of date, have a much longer burn time, and are much safer than pyrotechnics.
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