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Flare fact finders

Learn about marine distress signals and VHF radio from an expert and discover if anyone has a flair for flares!

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You’ll need

  • Pens or pencils
  • A4 paper
  • Sticky tack
  • Access to the internet
  • Local map

Before you begin

  • The best way to learn about flares, distress signals and marine VHF radio is to speak with someone who knows what they’re doing. Flares and distress signals can be dangerous to use and difficult to get hold of, and to use a marine VHF radio you need a licence. The best way to do this is to organise a visit and learn from the experts.
  • Have a look at some local sailing clubs, marinas or Sea Scout venues (if you’re near the coast), to see what kind of activities might be possible near your meeting place.

Get in touch with suitable venues and talk with staff about the reason you’d like to visit, what the group is learning about and whether there’s anything you’d need to bring. Accessibility needs and measures should also be covered. Make sure you give the venue plenty of notice, plan transport and timings, complete the required risk assessments and get consent from parents and carers for the trip.

Run the activity

  1. Split into three groups and give each group one of the following topics to explore. We’ve also included some information below to kick-start the research:
    • Flares
    • Distress signals
    • Marine VHF radio
  1. Groups should come up with two or three ideas for questions or facts to check for their topic and note these down. They could conduct their research online, use printed materials or talk to local sailors or Sea Scouts. Questions could include:
    • When might these be used?
    • Are Sea Scouts allowed to use these?
    • How often might these be used?
  1. Groups should pass their topic and ideas to the next group along, then think about the new topic they’ve just received. Add any new ideas to the topic and pass it along again. Continue until all of the groups have seen all of the topics.
  2. With sticky tack, stick up the topics for everyone to see. Discuss whether any changes need to be made to any questions, or whether some questions fit a particular topic better.

With an adult leader’s support, review everyone’s work and come up with a list of questions everyone is happy with.

  1. Write up the finished questions to bring along to your visit.
  • When thinking about flares, distress signals and when it might be appropriate to use them, it’s important to understand what you’re signalling. The worst-case scenarios involve a ‘grave and imminent danger to a vessel or persons’, and these are the ‘distress’ situations we’re talking about.
  • All the methods of signalling about distress are intended to give the widest possible chance of a large number of people seeing them. That’s why you won’t find using a mobile phone in this list as only the other person on the call will know you’re in distress. If you’re using one, dial 999 and ask for ‘coastguard’.
  • For most craft with a VHF marine radio, a ‘mayday’ message is the primary way of signalling distress. For craft with a newer radio set fitted, there may be a red ‘distress’ button that you can push. Even if there is, you’ll need to send a voice message afterwards on Channel 16. To find out how to send a mayday message, take a look at this distress message by VHF radio guide or undertake the RYA VHF course, if you’re over the age of 16.
  • If the situation isn’t quite as serious, and you’re asking for help but aren’t in grave or imminent danger, use a ‘Pan Pan’ call.
  • The massive advantage of voice radio calls is that as well as the coastguard, who’ll coordinate a rescue, other boats nearby can hear you and come to help.

Top tips:

  • If you know the phonetic alphabet, use it.
  • Always make sure you know where you are.
  • Lifeboats are often equipped with radio direction finding equipment - they may ask you to keep talking so that they can locate you.

Flares are traditional distress signals. They are pyrotechnic devices, so make sure you only use them if you understand how they fire. Effectively, these are handheld or launched fireworks.

For signalling distress, you may have:

  • A red parachute flare. This launches a bright light into the sky. This is used for signalling that a boat is in distress, but only gives a rough location.
  • A red handheld flare. Producing a bright red light, which you hold. This is helpful for locating the exact position of your boat at night.
  • Orange smoke canister. This floats on the water and produces orange smoke. This can be really useful for helping helicopter crews see the wind direction and mark your position in the daytime.

For more information, take a look at these types of distress flares. Remember that flares should only be used for distress and must be used with care.

There are a whole range of other distress signals, with some more commonly used than others.

  • Wave your arms up and down. Outstretched arms moved slowly and deliberately up and down are a simple method of attracting attention.
  • A noise at one-minute intervals. A strong whistle may be the simplest item to use.
  • An EPIRB (Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon). This is a piece of electronic equipment that sends a distress signal via satellites.
  • Shouting. Sometimes the simplest ways work best!

Always make sure someone knows where you are, as the other ways of raising an alarm are for someone else to do it for you. The simplest way is to make sure that someone knows where you’re going, when you’re due back and what to do if you don’t appear.

In the UK, an RYA App called SafeTrx is used to register trips and sends the coastguard information if you don’t check in.


After the visit, possibly at your next session, gather the group together and recap what everyone learned with a quick description game. Each person should state something they learned about either flares, distress signals or marine VHF radio. Everyone else should guess which of the three things they’re describing. When deciding on descriptions, people could think about what this nautical practice or item looks like, when and why it’s used, where it would be located or performed on a ship, or any other interesting facts or history connected to it.


All activities must be safely managed. You must complete a thorough risk assessment and take appropriate steps to reduce risk. Use the safety checklist to help you plan and risk assess your activity. Always get approval for the activity, and have suitable supervision and an InTouch process.

If you have suitable supervision, consider having group members plan your visit. They could help arrange travel and timings and could help contact the chosen venue too.

  • Make sure that any site you visit is accessible for everyone in your group and make the staff aware of any accessibility needs you have.
  • Groups can share ideas for questions about topics with each other freely, rather than owning them, if this is how the group prefers to learn and investigate topics.

All Scout activities should be inclusive and accessible.

Consider doing the RYA Essential navigation and seamanship course, which is available both as a face-to-face course or online.

Before planning your visit, discuss with the group which places might be best to go. This might help identify a venue with types of craft that the group are most interested in.