Emergency Distress Signal Equipment

When your vessel becomes stranded or in danger, distress signals can be the only way to notify other boaters and emergency personnel.

Boats operating in coastal waters and adjoining rivers with a mouth greater than 2 miles wide and up to the point at which the river narrows to less than 2 miles must carry a visual distress signal (VDS). It is also mandatory for US-owned boats operating on the high seas to be equipped with US Coast Guard-approved VDS equipment.

Boats and watercraft operating between sunset and sunrise are required to display night signals, not day signals.

  • A boat that is manually propelled.
  • A recreational boat that is less than 16 feet in length
  • A sailboat with no propulsion machinery and less than 26 feet in length is considered an open sailboat.
  • A boat that participates in an organized event

Boat operators must choose distress signals that are appropriate for the conditions in which their boats travel most frequently. Despite their reputation as excellent distress signals, pyrotechnics can cause injury or damage if not handled properly. It is crucial to consider the advantages and disadvantages of each distress signal when choosing between them. Additionally, boaters should ensure that their preferred devices are accepted and approved by their state or local governing body.

The following is a list of approved pyrotechnic and non-pyrotechnic visual distress signals. 

Pyrotechnic Distress Signals / Flares 

To meet the regulations, boaters who intend to carry pyrotechnic devices as visual distress signals must carry at least three daytime and nighttime signals. Several pyrotechnic devices, such as combination flares, are suitable for day and nighttime use. For pyrotechnic distress signals to be effective, they must be approved by the US Coast Guard and in a serviceable state. It is possible to carry expired devices as extras, but they will not be counted towards meeting the requirement. 

Some of the pyrotechnic visual distress signals that have been approved for use by the US Coast Guard include:

  • Orange smoke devices suitable for daytime use (hand-held or floating)
  • Pyrotechnic red flares for use during the day or at night (hand-held or aerial)
  • Aerial red meteoric launchers or parachute flare launchers

Pyrotechnic Orange Smoke Devices

person using orange smoke signal
blue can with orange smoke signal

The orange smoke from buoyant and hand smoke signals is evident. While floating in calm water, buoyant smoke signals produce smoke uniformly for at least three minutes. Meanwhile, a hand smoke signal produces smoke for approximately 50 seconds.

Since no smoke emits light or flame, buoyant and hand smoke signals are only effective in daylight. It is recommended that operators position smoke signals downwind and adhere to all manufacturer instructions.

Pyrotechnic Red Flares

Rocket Parachute Flare

red flare signals

Rocket parachute flares produce a single bright red star that shoots about 300 meters into the air and then falls slowly back down after being ejected by a parachute at or near the top of its trajectory. Flares of this type are easily visible from the ground and are expected to burn for at least 40 seconds.

Type C- Hand Flare

Type C- hand flare distress signal

Hand flares are red-colored flame torches made to be held in the hand while they are burning. Despite limited visibility from the ground, they burn for at least one minute and remain on the vessel while burning, making them the most effective method for locating a vessel during an air search.

The flare should be held away from the boat and pointed downwind as soon as it is lit. It should also be avoided to look directly at the flare while it is burning. 

Non-Pyrotechnic Devices

It is necessary to ensure that all non-pyrotechnic devices carried on board are in serviceable condition and comply with US Coast Guard requirements. Non-pyrotechnic devices that have been approved include:

  • Orange distress flag– This day signal must be at least 3 feet wide by 3 feet tall. It will contain a black square and a ball on an orange background. There will also be a marking on this flag indicating that it meets the requirements of 46 CFR 160 072 of the US Coast Guard. 

orange flag with black exclamation point in middle

  • Electric distress light– The electric distress light is only suitable at night. This device automatically emits the international SOS distress signal and must be marked according to 46 CFR 161 013, which specifies the requirements of the US Coast Guard. 

yellow light distress signal

IMPORTANT: It is strictly prohibited to display visual distress signals, except when assistance is needed.



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