We have a variety of ways to signal distress if we run into problems.

The easiest internationally recognised distress signal is really simple. Just hold your arms out to the sides and move them up and down. Easy as that. Don’t wave your arms over your head – you’ll look like you’re saying hello, and like as not just get a wave back instead of a rescue.

Next up, there’s the red button. This is another easy one. The VHF radio in the cabin has an automated DSC distress signalling function. Make sure the radio is on, then lift the red flap, hold the button underneath for 5 seconds and the radio will transmit an automated distress signal that includes the boat’s current position. The beauty of this is you don’t need to know how to operate the radio or how to find the vessel’s current lat/long to get an effective mayday out to everyone in the area. It also sends the vessel’s MMSI number, which means when the alert gets to the emergency services they’ll know what type of vessel is in trouble and have a better idea of what kind of help to send.

If you do know how to use the radio, you should always follow up with a voice mayday call on channel 16.

And that’s another way of sending a distress call. If you’ve done the VHF short-range certificate course, you should have covered this already. What makes a radio call a distress call is use of the word “Mayday”. Generally, if you say “I’m on fire and I need help!” anyone listening will get the idea, but it’s not a technically mayday call without the word “mayday”.

Then we have the pyrotechnics.

In the port cockpit lazarette you’ll find a sealed container. Inside, we have 3 types of visual signal. These all have visual instructions printed on them so they’re easy to use, but I’ll run through them anyway.

The 4 larger tubes are rocket parachute flares. They launch a rocket 300 metres up into the sky, from where the flare will slowly descend on a parachute. From that height, they’re visible for 30-40 miles, so these are good to use even if you can’t see any other vessels or land. From the deck of a yacht you can only see about 5 miles, so these are going to be seen way past the horizon.

You want to fire these on the downwind side of the boat and away from the rigging – it’s not going to do you much good to have the flare get stuck halfway up the mainsail. Note which way the arrow on the side is pointing – the flare is going to go the way the arrow points – and pull the plastic caps off both ends. The bottom end is covered with thin waxed paper; tear this off and you’ll find a short piece of string. Hold the flare out to the leeward side of the boat, pull the string and hold it at arms length pointing upwards. It might take a few seconds before it fires, so if nothing happens… wait a bit longer. And don’t, whatever you do, look in the end to see what’s happening. If it still hasn’t fired after 10 or 15 seconds, just drop it over the side (into the sea, not the boat!), get another one and do it again.

So you’ve fired a rocket flare. What do you do next? Wait one minute, and then fire another one! Think about it; if you’re on another boat you might just catch something out of the corner of your eye, look over that way for a while and be thinking “Did I see something or did I imagine it?”. The second flare gives someone on another boat confirmation. If they saw the first one and weren’t sure if it was a distress signal, the second one removes any ambiguity.

The shorter tubes are hand-held flares. These are great when you need to get the attention of someone within sight, and like the rocket flares these can be used day or night. Now, these can drop some sparks, so there are heavy gloves in the container that you can use to protect your hands if you want. Again, there are simple instructions printed on the side but I’ll run through them. These are telescopic to keep the burny bit further away from your hand, so you can extend the top part away from the handle. There’s some smoke and might be sparks, so you’ll want to hold these over the leeward rail so you don’t cover the boat in smoke. Remove the cap on the top and you’ll find a piece of string. Pull the string, hold the flare out and within a few seconds it should ignite. Like the rocket flare, if it doesn’t light up immediately, just wait a bit. Do not look directly into the flare. If it still hasn’t lit after 10-15 seconds, drop it into the water and grab another one.

The final item in our pyrotechnic box of tricks is the orange smoke canister. This one doesn’t create any light, so it’s only useful during daylight; nobody’s going to see it at night. They’re distress signals like all the others so you can use them to yell for help, but they’re particularly useful when you have a rescue helicopter in sight. If you think about it, a helicopter looking down in a busy area is just seeing lots of white boats with white sails and they all look the same. Smoke is good for letting them know which one is in trouble. It also gives them an idea of what the wind is doing down at surface level, which gives them more information to use in their rescue plan.

Instructions are on the side as always. They’re pretty simple; take the plastic lid off, pull the string and drop it over the side. You definitely want to drop it downwind unless you enjoy breathing orange smoke. Don’t be surprised if it takes a few seconds to start up, and if it takes a lot longer, you can use another one. One nice thing about these is that they’re fuel- and oil-safe; even if you’re floating in a diesel spill, you can still drop these overboard without worrying about starting a fire.

And there we have it. The VHF red button sends an automated DSC distress call to everyone in range. You can use a rocket flare to send a signal to people over the horizon, or a hand flare for anyone in sight. And during the day, orange smoke is another way to let people know you need help.