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by Wayne Spivak, National Press Corps, United States Coast Guard Auxiliary
with Dan Hess, Flotilla 07-03-08, Plantation, FL, United States Coast Guard Auxiliary

In many coastal communities, lights in the sky after dusk are a rare sight. In other areas of the country, they are commonplace. But streaking lights always make people look twice.

With the exception of the 4th of July, these streaking or arcing lights at night should make you sit up and take notice. They are probably a Visual Distress Signal (VDS), commonly referred to as an Aerial Flare.

Here’s a story of recognizing a call for help, persistence and nautical knowledge, which saved the day.

The location is Cedar Key, Florida, the date April 6, 2004, the time 8 P.M. Upon entering a local eating establishment, a commotion was overheard with patrons that a flare had been seen about 15 minutes prior. While the diners discussed what to do, one smart waitress declared she had called the local Coast Guard Station to report the sighting.

Approximately 15 minutes went by before another flare was sighted. Our man on the scene estimated the distance to the flare to be one to two nautical miles. As he tried to flag down the waitress, another flare was sighted.

The Coast Guard Station was able to raise a Florida Wildlife and Game officer (FWG) who was in the area (the Coast Guard Station was approximately 20 miles away) and had access to an air boat (those flat bottom boats with the big fans for propulsion – such as those seen in the 1960’s TV series Flipper). When the FWG officer arrived at the dock, our man, who had been inside the restaurant, introduced himself to the state officer.

“Follow the Orion’s ‘knife sheath’ stars down to the waterline”, said the man, a member of the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary. “This will place you in the approximate spot the flares were sighted.”

As our Auxiliarist watched the FWG officer maneuver his boat, the Auxiliarist saw that the officer was traveling too far west. Based upon his current course, the officer would never find the boat in distress. Thinking quickly, the Auxiliarist requested permission of a near-by boat owner to use his VHF radio.

Making contact with the Coast Guard, he was able to have them re-direct the FWG officer. He could hear the noise the airboat made to change course but then lost track of the airboat. In the meantime, a Coast Guard Patrol Boat arrived on scene, as well as extra Coast Guard members via land.

As they prepared to begin their search pattern, the FWG officer emerged from the darkness with five extra persons on board, clinging to his airboat.

The Auxiliarist, after talking with the survivors re-told their story.

A family’s 17-foot boat had run aground and got stuck high and dry after they went out of the marked channel. The family consisted of husband and wife, as well as their three little girls – an infant and two older girls, about eight and ten years old. All were OK, but obviously cold and a little shaken from the experience. They had no blankets or any way to stay warm overnight and they had no emergency supplies, even water. Luckily, the weather was good and the sea state calm, which made the search and rescue a little easier.

In this case, all’s well that end’s well. But it may not have been. Here are some guidelines should you see what you believe is a flare.

1. Estimate the direction of the flare from where you are.

2. Estimate the distance.

3. Record the time of each flare sighting.

4. Call the Coast Guard.

5. Have your location ready.

6. Have a description of the type and quality of the flare sighting.

  • Did the reporting source see the flare both rise and fall?
  • Rising only?
  • Falling only?
  • What were the rates of rising and falling (rapid rise and fall, rapid rise, slow fall, etc.)?
  • Was the trajectory steep (mostly vertical) or flat (mostly horizontal)?

7. Note the flare’s color (red, orange, white).

8. How long did the flare burn?

9. Estimate the angle from you to the top of the flare’s projectory.

(If you hold your fist at arm’s length, with your thumb on top and the bottom of your fist on the horizon, was the top of the trajectory above or below the top of your fist?)

The answers to these questions will aid the Coast Guard in calculating true distance and direction from you vantage point to the approximate position of the vessel in distress. Multiple sightings aid both you and the Coast Guard in pinpointing the exact location.

For more information on the procedures for reporting (and taking) flare sightings, the Coast Guard has in Appendix I of the Addendum to the United States National Search and Rescue (SAR) Supplement everything you need.

For more information about boating safety and/or the United States Coast Guard Auxiliary, contact your local Flotilla by using the Flotilla Finder ( For more information about the Coast Guard, contact your local unit or find them on the web at

(By the way, the hero Auxiliarist, who assisted in locating the family of the 17-foot boat, was Dan Hess of Flotilla 07-03-08, Plantation, FL. Well done Dan!)