Distress signaling devices for your boat
Do you know what distress signaling devices you have on your boat? Are you carrying the required type and number for your vessel? Don’t wait for an emergency to find out.
By federal law, boats must be equipped with U.S. Coast Guard-approved visual distress signals on coastal waters, the Great Lakes, and directly connected waters, up to a point where the body of water is less than 2 miles wide.
Distress signals must be kept in serviceable condition and readily accessible.
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, not equipped with motors
- open sailboats less than 26 feet in length, not equipped with motors
- manually propelled boats
While having a cellphone or VHF marine radio tuned to Channel 16 can help in an emergency, you should never depend solely on electronic equipment, which can malfunction or lose its signal. On the other hand, serviceable and accessible visual distress signals are always available to help you attract attention and get help in an emergency.
Types of visual distress signals
Visual distress signals come in two types: pyrotechnic and non-pyrotechnic.
Pyrotechnic signals resemble fireworks and include
- red flares, handheld or aerial meteor and parachute flares
- orange smoke, handheld or floating
In accordance with USCG requirements, flares expire 42 months after date of manufacture. However, you can keep them onboard as extra equipment.
Non-pyrotechnic signals must be in serviceable condition, readily accessible, and certified by the manufacturer as complying with USCG requirements. They include
- orange distress flags, which are a black square and ball displayed against an orange background at least 3 square feet (day signal only)
- mirror (effective in sunlight and requires no power; day signal only)
- dye markers mostly for offshore use (day signal only)
- Electric distress lights (for night use only) that automatically flash the S.O.S. international distress signal (light must meet USCG requirements).
Under Inland Navigation Rules, a high-intensity white light that flashes at regular intervals from 50 to 70 times per minute is considered a distress signal but doesn’t count toward meeting the visual distress signal requirement.
The international distress signal of slowly and repeatedly raising outstretched arms to each side is a simple attention-getter.
Visual distress signal requirements
The following signaling devices and device combinations meet the minimum requirements:
- three handheld red flares (day and night)
- one handheld red flare and two parachute flares (day and night)
- one handheld orange smoke signal, two floating orange smoke signals (day) and one electric distress signal (night only).
Use of visual distress signals
The use of visual distress signals is prohibited except for emergency situations. The USCG dispatches a vessel or aircraft each time a distress signal is reported.
Do not fire flares until you’re sure there’s a chance of being seen.
Keep flares in an easily accessible location.
Use pyrotechnic signals safely to prevent personal injury or property damage. Flares produce a hot flame, and the residue can cause burns and ignite flammable material.
Ignite the flare using the built-in striker top. Just as with a wooden match, strike the top against the flare’s surface to ignite.
Be aware that handheld flares burn for several minutes but are low in altitude. This gives them a limited range of typically a few miles.
Aerial flares often rise to heights of 500 to 1,000 feet and can be seen from great distances. However, meteor flares have a short, less than 30-second, illumination, so viewers need to be looking in the right direction to see them. Parachute flares take longer to return to earth, giving them longer illumination periods.
Pistol-launched and handheld parachute flares and meteors are similar to firearms; handle with caution.
To use a pistol-launched flare, open the launcher breech, load the flare, and point the muzzle away from people and your boat.
Consider wind direction when using a rocket-propelled distress signal. Aim downwind but reasonably high for maximum elevation.
Avoid starting a fire; never point a pyrotechnic device straight up or in any direction where it could land in your boat, another boat or on land.
Store pyrotechnic signals in a cool, dry location in a red or orange watertight container clearly marked “Distress Signals.”
Orange distress flag
Only use flags in daytime.
Fly the flags by hoisting to the highest possible point. The black square should be over the black dot.
Place the flag flat on the deck to attract aircraft.
Wave your arms up and down at the sides of your body.
Use a signal mirror; it takes practice. Sweep the mirror back and forth to get coverage and cause a flash at the viewer.
Except when assistance is required to prevent immediate or potential danger to persons onboard a boat, regulations prohibit display of visual distress signals on the water under any circumstances. For more information, download a copy of A Boater’s Guide to the Federal Requirements for Recreational Boats.
Prepare for any crisis
Learn how to handle any emergency while underway by taking our Emergencies Onboard seminar.