Laser flare improves emergency signaling

Probably the biggest danger to offshore sailors is falling overboard at night. Locating an overboard crewmember can be difficult even in daylight. With darkness in the equation, retrieving someone from the water gets considerably more challenging. Add to this a hard wind kicking the seas up, and the effort begins to take on a grim, desperate aspect.

Since a sailor’s head bobbing on the surface quickly disappears into the fractal patterns of the waves, the key to rescue just might be the ability of the sailor to visually signal his or her position. A new laser signaling product, developed by a former Alaska bush pilot named Jim O’Meara, has great potential to improve the chances of an unlucky crewmember who falls in the drink.

O’Meara, who was involved in many search and rescue efforts for downed pilots in Alaska, during his 30 years as an active bush pilot, got the idea for the Rescue Laser Flare three years ago during a Halloween party. Someone in the room was using a laser pointer. One of the kids chanced to interrupt the laser beam with a clear plastic wand. After passing through the lens-like plastic, the laser beam emerged as a straight red line on the wall. O’Meara immediately saw the possibilities inherent in that red line. Asked why no one else ever thought of teasing the red dot of a laser out into a line, O’Meara said, "It was probably too simple."

The Rescue Laser Flare, manufactured by O’Meara’s Anchorage-based company Greatland Laser LLC, is no bigger than a small flashlight and has an output of five milliwatts, but it can throw out a line of laser light that can be seen 10 miles away. In one test in the Arizona desert, the light output from the Rescue Laser Flare was detected at 22 miles.

The genius of the Rescue Laser Flare (which isn’t a flare at all in the usual pyrotechnic sense of the word) is that its light isn’t concentrated into a single dot, but is extended into a line. A single dot of laser light would be virtually impossible to aim effectively at a target several miles away, yet the laser line gets longer the farther it travels from the laser flare. At a distance of 10 miles, the line is roughly a mile long (or more properly, a mile high, since the laser flare is designed to be used with the line in the vertical position). This line of light allows a user to aim the flare more easily. When the line is swept across a searching boat or plane, it produces a distinctive red flash in the eyes of searchers and alerts them to your position.

A second use for the Rescue Laser Flare is as a search tool for sailors on a boat searching for their lost crewmember. Retro-reflective material (those patches of hexagonal-patterned tape that bounce light back toward a light source, like a flashlight) works very well with light from the Rescue Laser Flare. Thus, if a crewmember in the water has retro-reflective tape on his or her life jacket, foul-weather gear or harness, the Rescue Laser Flare will make a distinctive flash when the laser line is swept across it. According to O’Meara, his laser will pick up a retro-reflective-equipped sailor in the water at a distance of more than a mile. This makes the task of homing in on a lost crewmember a bit easier.

The 4-inch length and waterproof case of the Rescue Laser Flare means it can be attached easily to a life jacket or harness like white incandescent rescue lights. Since life jackets and safety harnesses often come in for rough handling, you might think twice before attaching an $89.95 laser-flare unit to one of them. But true to its Alaskan heritage, the Rescue Laser Flare is built for abuse. "We designed it to be frozen in the ice, chopped out with an axe and still work," said O’Meara, who has more than 19,000 hours flying in and out of Alaska’s backcountry. Operated continuously, the laser flare will reportedly last for five hours on its six-volt lithium battery.

The Rescue Laser Flare is a promising tool to bring along if you are forced to abandon your vessel and take to your liferaft; although, without a 406 EPIRB to sound a general alarm, it seems that the laser flare might be equally marginal at getting the attention of passing ships and aircraft, as standard flares have generally proven in a variety of survival situations. Still, don’t forget to include a selection of pyrotechnic flares in your ditch bag for signaling; although you should pay close attention to the expiration dates. For liferaft situations, the Rescue Laser Flare would seem best suited to provide an excellent homing beacon once you have fired up your EPIRB and the cavalry is on the way.

Using the Rescue Laser Flare is simple enough. You remove the red cap that protects the unit’s lens and then rotate the end piece clockwise. With the beam on, you must then rotate the unit until the line is vertical. In order for the pilot of a miles-distant aircraft to see the laser, you must slowly sweep the beam across the target. "You have to sweep it really slow," O’Meara said, "about 5° per second."

O’Meara has shown the unit to several search and rescue professionals and has reportedly garnered positive response. One of these is Paul Burke, a former Alaska State Trooper, who in January 2001, retired as search and rescue coordinator for the State of Alaska and now works for Greatland Laser. "I think this is going to make a big difference," Burke said. "To have this in the hands of a victim, it could reduce search times."

According to O’Meara, several high-ranking Coast Guard officers have seen the laser flare demonstrated and are interested in the technology. O’Meara has also talked to several safety products firms about a licensing agreement. Offshore sailors interested in safety are prime customers for this device. Even if you’re equipped with a Rescue Laser Flare, you still want to make sure you stay with the boat at all times. However, if you do fall overboard, it is another excellent tool for getting back aboard your boat.

By Ocean Navigator