New Year's Eve tradition of firing flares from ships halted after decades, authorities flag safety concerns

New Year's Eve tradition of firing flares from ships halted after decades, authorities flag safety concerns
Flares fired from ships off East Coast Park at the stroke of midnight on Jan 1, 2016.
PHOTO: The Straits Times

A longstanding maritime tradition to ring in the new year has seemingly come to an end in Singapore's waters.

For decades, mariners on vessels in Singapore's harbour have fired flares at the stroke of midnight each Jan 1 – a sight to behold from various spots on the mainland, especially along East Coast.

Having set up his cameras at a vantage point that faces out to sea on Dec 31, 2022, architectural photographer Darren Soh waited to capture the moment.

But he was surprised when midnight passed and just two flares were spotted in the sky, instead of the usual volley.

He wrote in a Facebook post on Monday (Jan 2): "For years, I could depend on the ships to do this one thing at the stroke of midnight on New Year's Day but my faith was suddenly shaken."

In the same post, Mr Soh noted that the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore (Caas) issued a notification to the maritime community on Dec 9, 2021, which stated that the firing of flares for non-emergency purposes are offences under the Air Navigation Order.

"These actions can confuse, distract, or cause discomfort to pilots, and can be hazardous to aircraft operations, especially during the aircraft's critical phases of take-off and landing," said Caas in the notification, which added that first-time offenders face a fine of up to $20,000, while subsequent offences carry a fine of up to $40,000, jail of up to 15 months, or both.

In response to queries, Caas and the Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore (MPA) said Caas had noticed an increase in such activities, particularly on New Year's Eve, in recent years.

"An increased number of calls were made to the authorities from members of the public raising potential safety concerns posed by the firing of flares," said the two agencies, which added that none of these activities has "resulted in disruptions to aircraft operations or pilots having to seek medical attention".

"The firing of pyrotechnics in non-distress situations can create confusion and be mistaken as distress signals which could tie up resources needed for real emergencies," they added.

The agencies said that to "raise awareness on the dangers of the firing of flares to aircraft", they worked together to remind the maritime community of the prohibitions on the firing of flares in non-emergencies.

"Surveillance of such activities was also stepped up," said the agencies, which added that they "take a serious view of such activities". Warning letters were issued by Caas to offenders identified by MPA, they said.

The practice of mariners setting off flares to mark the new year in Singapore's waters had been reported in newspapers as early as 1960.

It was also acknowledged by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in a Facebook post on Dec 30, 2015, where he posted a photograph of breakwaters in East Coast and wrote that they "will be a good place to catch ships firing off their flares at midnight tomorrow to mark the new year".

Mr Soh had said in his post that flares were fired on New Year's Day in 2022, while others commenting on his post shared pictures of the flares that they said were taken in recent years.

Captain Frederick Francis, president of the Singapore Nautical Institute, said that previous instances of flares being fired, which is a practice among mariners worldwide, could have taken place with the authorities "turning a blind eye because it's New Year's Eve".

Ultimately, the practice is incorrect because flares should be fired only when there is distress on board, said Capt Francis, adding that doing so could also pose safety hazards, as mariners typically use expired flares on New Year's Eve.

Serviceable flares are a safety requirement on board vessels, and these usually expire after three years.

Capt Francis, who noted that he had fired flares on New Year's Eve while he was a cadet officer in the late 1970s, said that mariners also sound their vessel's horns to mark the occasion, but added that "ringing the bell is not as fun as releasing pyrotechnics".


He said that with shipping firms becoming increasingly stricter with rules, maritime traditions such as the releasing of flares on New Year's Eve and the equatorial baptism –- an initiation that marks a sailor's first crossing of the Equator – are dying.

Ragging typically regularly occurs during these "baptisms", which shipping lines would want to distance themselves from due to ethics and safety concerns, said Capt Francis.

Pilot and flight instructor Jezreel Mok said he agreed with Caas' concerns over the safety of air navigation, as the firing of flares is uncommon. The practice might be disruptive if pilots have to abort landing just to ensure they remain a safe distance from the flares, said Mr Mok.

According to the Western Australian Department of Transport, the incandescent parachute flares – the type usually fired on New Year's Eve – can reach a height of about 300m.

If fired from some of Singapore's eastern anchorages, the flares could encroach into the path of planes that are taking off or landing at Changi Airport, depending on which runway is being used, Mr Mok added.

Mr Mok said he hoped that the tradition will be allowed to resume among mariners in the coming years, suggesting that a short temporary pause in take-off and landing at Changi could be arranged while the flares are being set off.

According to Caas' website, the firing of pyrotechnics is allowed with a permit from the authority, and applications must be submitted at least seven working days before the date of firing.

This article was first published in The Straits Times. Permission required for reproduction.

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