Guide to Marine Visual Distress Signals
Although you hope you’ll never need to use safety and survival equipment, you should always have visual distress signals (VDS) on your boat to signal for help during an emergency.
Carrying VDS onboard ensures you can signal to others that you urgently need emergency assistance, as well as help rescuers find you quickly. Here’s a guide to marine visual distress signals you should have onboard your boat.
USCG Requirements for VDS
The US Coast Guard requires that all boats on coastal waters, the Great Lakes, territorial seas, and on all bodies of water directly connected to those waters that are at least two miles wide be equipped with USCG-approved VDS.
The exceptions to this requirement are that during daytime hours (between sunrise and sunset), the following don’t have to carry visual distress signals:
- Boats of 16 feet and under in length
- Vessels participating in organized events, such as regattas and parades
- Open sailboats of 26 feet in length and under not equipped with an engine
- Manually propelled boats such as kayaks and canoes
NOTE: These exemptions are for daytime hours only, and all boats must carry VDS at night.
The US Coast Guard also requires that all pyrotechnic VDS are:
- Clearly marked as USCG-approved
- In serviceable condition
- Within their expiration date (if applicable)
- Stored where they’re readily accessible
NOTE: The first two requirements also apply to non-pyrotechnic VDS.
Marine Visual Distress Signal Types
USCG-approved visual distress signals are either pyrotechnic or non-pyrotechnic, and are classed as suitable for either daytime use, nighttime use or both.
Combustible devices such as red flares, orange smoke signals, parachute flares and their launchers.
Non-combustible devices such as orange distress flags and electric distress lights.
NOTE: Pyrotechnic devices have expiration dates of 3 1/2 years from their manufacture date, and are no longer USCG-approved once the expiration date has passed, even if they’re still usable.
Orange distress flags, and handheld or floating orange smoke signals.
Nighttime VDS: Electric distress lights
Both: Handheld or aerial red flares.
Onboard Requirements for VDS
Because pyrotechnic devices are quickly expended, you must have at least three in total if you choose to carry them. Non-pyrotechnic devices, on the other hand, are non-expendable and you only need one.
The combination will vary depending on the types of VDS you prefer, but they must satisfy at least one of these requirements:
- Three aerial red flares (daytime and nighttime)
- One orange distress flag (daytime) and one electric distress light (nighttime)
- Two floating orange smoke signals and one handheld orange smoke signal (daytime), plus one electric distress light (nighttime)
Because VDS types are designed for varying conditions, it’s recommended you carry an assortment onboard. Aerial devices for long range visibility and handheld devices for short-range visibility are recommended.
Choosing Boat Visual Distress Signals
The most common boat visual distress signals are:
Red aerial flare
Visible from long distances both day and night, but has short duration and an expiration date.
Orange smoke signal
Visible from long distances, but only during the day.
Orange distress flag
Non-consumable and universally recognized, but not visible at night.
Electric distress light
Long-lasting, doesn’t expire and visible from long distances at night.
Cheap, compact and doesn’t expire, but not USCG-approved and only useful during the day.
Compact, doesn’t expire and good for aerial searches, but not USCG-approved and only useful during the day.
Using Boat Visual Distress Signals
It’s against the law to use a visual distress signal unless there’s a real emergency or imminent danger. Misuse of VDS can also lead to hefty fines.
If you have to use visual distress signals, choose them wisely. Only use VDS that can be seen by others, and if possible, don’t use them all up at once. Read the instructions and use extra caution when using pyrotechnic VDS. Finally, store pyrotechnic VDS somewhere cool and dry where there’s no chance they’ll accidentally ignite.