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Visual Distress Signals

Information from the Code of Federal Regulations Title 33 Part 175.101

Vessels operating on U.S. coastal waters, the Great Lakes, and territorial seas, as well as those waters connected directly, up to a point where the waterway is less than two nautical miles wide, must be equipped with U.S. Coast Guard approved visual distress signals (VDS). Vessels owned in the United States and operating on the high seas must also be equipped with U.S. Coast Guard 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 that are not equipped with propulsion machinery.
  • Manually propelled boats.

Pyrotechnic Devices

Pyrotechnic visual distress signals must be U.S. Coast Guard approved, in serviceable condition, and readily accessible.

If the date is expired, they may still be carried as extra equipment, but cannot be counted toward meeting the visual distress signal requirement. Launchers manufactured before January 1, 1981, and intended for use with approved signals, are not required to be U.S. Coast Guard approved as long as they remain in serviceable condition.

If choosing to use pyrotechnic devices, a minimum of three signals are required for day use and three signals for night use. Some pyrotechnic signals meet both day and night use requirements (combination flares).

Pyrotechnic devices should be stored in a cool, dry place, if possible. A watertight container painted red or orange and prominently marked “DISTRESS SIGNALS” or “FLARES” is recommended.

U.S. Coast Guard approved pyrotechnic visual distress signals and associated devices include:

  • Pyrotechnic red flares, hand-held or aerial (day/night use).
  • Pyrotechnic orange smoke, hand-held or floating (day use).
  • Launchers for aerial red meteors or parachute flares.

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. Coast Guard requirements. These signals include:

  • Used as a day signal only.
  • Must be at least 3 x 3 feet with a black square and ball on an orange background.
  • Must be marked with an indication that it meets U.S. Coast Guard requirements in 46 CFR 160.072.
  • Most visible when attached and waved on a paddle or boat hook, or flown from a mast.
  • May be incorporated into devices designed to attract attention in an emergency, such as balloons, kites, or floating streamer.

Electric Distress Light

  • Acceptable for night use only.
  • Automatically flashes the international SOS distress signal (•••—•••).
  • Must be marked with an indication that it meets U.S. Coast Guard requirements in 46 CFR 161.013.

Under Inland Navigation Rules, a high-intensity white light flashing at regular intervals from 50-70 times per minute is considered a distress signal. Such devices, however, DO NOT meet the Visual Distress Signals carriage requirement.

Regulations prohibit display of visual distress signals on the water under any circumstances, except where assistance is needed because of immediate or potential danger to persons on board a vessel.

The following are just a few of the many combinations of devices that will meet the requirements:

  • 3 hand-held red flares that are approved for day/night use.
  • 1 hand-held flare and 2 parachute flares for day/night use.
  • 1 hand-held orange smoke signal and 2 floating orange smoke signals for day, and 1 electric distress light for night.

Reference: A Boater’s Guide to the Federal Requirements for Recreational Boats and Safety tips


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