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Signaling for help on the water

Federal regulations state that vessels operating on U.S. coastal waters, the Great Lakes and territorial seas — as well as on directly connected rivers, bays, and other waterways up to a point where the waterway is less than two miles wide — must be equipped with U.S. Coast Guard-approved visual distress signals.

Boats owned in the United States and operating on the high seas must also be equipped with VDS.

Smoke can also aid rescuers looking for a person in the water.

Pyrotechnic vs. non-pyrotechnic

Consider the following when choosing the right visual distress signal.


An advantage to non-pyrotechnic Visual Distress Signals is they can operate for a long period of time, but they must be in serviceable condition, readily accessible and certified by the manufacturer as complying with U.S. Coast Guard requirements.

Orange Distress Flag

• Used as a day signal only. Must be at least three feet by three feet with a black circle and square on an orange background. Must be marked with an indication that it meets U.S. Coast Guard requirements.

• 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 streamers

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

Under Inland Navigation Rules, any high-intensity white light flashing at regular intervals from 50 to 70 times per minute is considered a distress signal. Such devices do NOT count toward meeting the Visual Distress Signal requirement, however.


Pyrotechnics are excellent distress signals, but carry the potential for injury and property damage if not handled properly. If children are aboard, non-pyrotechnic devices may be a better choice.

U.S. Coast Guard-approved pyrotechnic Visual Distress Signals and associated devices include:

• pyrotechnic red flares, hand-held or aerial

• pyrotechnic orange smoke, hand-held or floating

• launchers for aerial red meteors or parachute flares

Each of these devices has a different operating/burning time. Check the label to see how long each device will remain illuminated, then choose one best suited to the conditions in the area where your vessel is typically used. Store in a cool, dry place. A watertight container painted red or orange and prominently marked “DISTRESS SIGNALS” or FLARES” is recommended.

Proper use of pyrotechnic devices

To use pyrotechnic devices in an emergency situation, follow the manufacturer’s instructions. In fact, it’s a good idea to read the operating instructions before you actually need to use the device. Remember:

• Hold lit flares away from the body and over the gunwale downwind; the flames are very hot and ash and slag can burn skin.

Hold lit flares well away from the body.

• Never discharge flares near a fuel tank, upwind or in close proximity to another person.

• Never discharge flares if fuel fumes are detected.

• Hold a smoke signal over the gunwale downwind to avoid having the smoke blow back in your face.

• Only use flares that are certified for marine use (and only those that are Coast Guard-approved will satisfy Federal requirements).  Road flares are much more likely to start a fire on a boat than those specifically made for maritime use.

• Check the expiration date.

Proper disposal

If you need to dispose of unwanted or expired pyrotechnic devices, don’t toss them into the trash where they might ignite or cause other disposal problems. Instead, contact the local U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary flotilla or U.S. Power Squadrons and ask if they could use them for boating safety training.  You can also call the local fire department or town hazmat unit for instructions on proper disposal.

Mike Baron, U.S. Coast Guard, Boating Safety Division

This article originally appeared in the Home Waters section of the August 2009 issue.



Sirius Signal

Be seen with the brightest SOS Distress Lights Available