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Visual Distress Signals - A Guide For Recreational Boaters

All vessels used on coastal waters, the Great Lakes, territorial seas, and those waters connected directly to them, up to a point where a body of water is less than two miles wide must be equipped with U.S.C.G. Approved visual distress signals. Vessels owned in the United States operating on the high seas must be equipped with U.S.C.G. Approved visual distress signals.

The following vessels are not required to carry day signals but must carry night signals when operating from sunset to sunrise:

  • Recreational boats less than 16 feet in length.
  • Boats participating in organized events such as races, regattas, or marine parades.
  • Open sailboats less than 26 feet in length not equipped with propulsion machinery.
  • Manually propelled boats.

    Pyrotechnic Devices
    Pyrotechnic Visual Distress Signals must be Coast Guard Approved, in working condition, and readily accessible. They are marked with a date showing the service life, which must not have expired. Launchers manufactured before January 1, 1981 intended for use with approved signals are not required to be Coast Guard Approved. If pyrotechnic devices are selected, a minimum of three are required. That is, three signals for day use and three signals for night.

    Some pyrotechnic signals meet both day and night use requirements such as Red Hand Held Flares, Red Parachute Flares and combination Smoke / Flare Signals. Pyrotechnic devices should be stored in a cool, dry location. A watertight container painted red or orange and prominently marked "DISTRESS SIGNALS" is recommended.

    Some pyrotechnic signals meet only day use requirements. Such as orange smoke, hand-held or floating.

    Non-Pyrotechnic Devices
    Non-Pyrotechnic Visual Distress Signals must be in serviceable condition, readily accessible, and certified by the manufacturer as complying with U.S.C.G. requirements. They include the Orange Distress Flag and the Electric Distress Light.

    The distress flag is a day signal only. It must be at least 3 x 3 feet with a black square and ball on an orange background. It is most distinctive when attached and waved on a paddle, boat hook or flown from a mast.

    The electric distress light is accepted for night use only and must automatically flash the international SOS distress signal (... - - - ...).

    Regulations prohibit display of visual distress signals on the water under any circumstances except when assistance is required to prevent immediate or potential danger to persons on board a vessel.

    All distress signals have distinct advantages and disadvantages. No single device is ideal under all conditions or suitable for all purposes. Pyrotechnics are universally recognized as excellent distress signals. However, there is potential for injury and property damage if not properly handled. These devices produce a very hot flame and the residue can cause burns and ignite flammable material.

    Hand-held pyrotechnic devices, such as flares and smoke signals, may expel ash and slag as they burn. Even though these particles cool quickly, they can cause painful burns or ignite materials that burn easily. The flare itself is very hot and can start a fire if it is dropped. Therefore, these devices when burning should be held over the side and in such a way that hot slag can not drip on the hand.

    Pistol launched and hand-held parachute flares and meteors have many characteristics of a firearm and must be handled with caution. In some states they are considered a firearm and prohibited from use.

    Whenever a pistol or hand-held rocket propelled distress signal is used, the wind must be taken into account. In calm winds keep your arm at approximately 60 degrees above the horizon with the wind at your back when firing the device. As the wind increases, increase the angle of the arm up to but no more than about 80 to 85 degrees. No pyrotechnic device should be fired straight up or in such a direction that it may land on your boat or another boat or on land and cause a fire.

    The following illustrates the variety and combination of devices which can be carried in order to meet the requirements:

  • Three hand-held red flares (day and night).
  • One hand-held red flare and two parachute flares (day and night).
  • One hand-held orange smoke signal, two floating orange smoke signals (day), and one electric distress light (night only).

  • All boaters should be able to signal for help. For the CME, boaters must have current dated U.S.C.G. Approved day and night signals for all boats operating on coastal and open bodies of water. The Auxiliary also requires some method of emergency signals for inland water. This may be a signal flag for day and a flashlight for night.


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    Distress Signaling
    Distress Signaling