The U.S. Coast Guard requires recreational vessels to carry three day and three night visual distress signals. (Powered vessels under 16 feet, open sailing vessels less than 26 feet without motors and manually propelled boats are only required to carry visual distress signals when operating at night on coastal waters.)
The visual distress signals must be Coast Guard-approved. Approved pyrotechnic devices carry a USCG approval number and an expiration date, which is 42 months from the manufacture date.
Expired devices don’t fulfill carriage requirements and should be replaced. If you are planning to get a vessel safety examination, check the expiration date on your flares and replace as needed.
Day signals usually generate some type of smoke signal, but some may include a visual component as well. These combination day signals typically leave a smoke trail after being fired. Night signals are always red.
Some typical visual distress signal flares include hand-held flares, pistol parachute flares and aerial flares.
Many boaters carry hand-held flares. When using these flares, hold them over the side of the boat, so no burning material can drip in or on the boat.
Pistol parachute flares come with a pistol, and the shells look like shotgun shells. When firing, point the gun up in the air, avoiding helicopters and planes.
Aerial flares look like cigar tubes with a small metal tab at the bottom; you pull the tab to release the firing mechanism. Pointing the tube up and away from you, pull down on the firing mechanism to fire the flare.
If you plan on making any blue-water passages, you may want to purchase SOLAS (Safety of Life at Sea) flares. Although considerably more expensive, they operate higher and for longer periods.
If you see a visual distress signal, take immediate and positive action. Notify the nearest Coast Guard station or state authority by radio or cell phone.
Dispose of expired pyrotechnic devices in accordance with local, county and state hazardous waste regulations. If you keep expired flares aboard as extras, store them separately from unexpired flares.
To learn more about visual distress signals, download the U.S. Coast Guard’s Boater’s Guide to the Federal Requirements for Recreational Boats.