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VOL. 12 NO. 11
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Distress signals

What signaling devices do you need on your boat?

How to use your flare

Federal law requires that boats be equipped with serviceable and readily accessible U.S. Coast Guard-approved visual distress signals on coastal waters, the Great Lakes, and connected waters 2 miles wide or greater.

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, not equipped with motors
  • open sailboats less than 26 feet in length, not equipped with motors
  • manually propelled boats

Types of visual distress signals

There are two kinds of distress signals: pyrotechnic and non-pyrotechnic.

Pyrotechnic signals resemble fireworks and include

  • red flares, handheld or aerial meteor and parachute flares
  • orange smoke, handheld or floating

Flares are marked with an expiration date, typically three years after manufacture, beyond which they will not meet USCG requirements.

Non-pyrotechnic signals must be in serviceable condition, readily accessible, and certified by the manufacturer as complying with USCG requirements. They include

  • orange distress flags, a black square and ball displayed against an orange background at least 3 square feet (day signal only)
  • mirror ( effective in sunlight and requires no power; day signal only)
  • dye markers mostly for offshore use (day signal only)
  • electric distress lights (for night use only), which must automatically flash the S.O.S. international distress signal (light must meet USCG requirements).

Under Inland Navigation Rules, a high-intensity white light that flashes at regular intervals from 50 to 70 times per minute is considered a distress signal but doesn’t count toward meeting the visual distress signal requirement.

The international distress signal of slowly and repeatedly raising outstretched arms to each side is a simple attention-getter.

Visual distress signal requirements

The following are examples of the varieties and combinations of devices that meet the minimum requirements:

  • three handheld red flares (day and night)
  • one handheld red flare and two parachute flares (day and night)
  • one handheld orange smoke signal, two floating orange smoke signals (day) and one electric distress signal (night only).

Use of visual distress signals

The use of visual distress signals is prohibited except for in emergency situations. USCG dispatches a vessel or aircraft each time a distress signal is reported.

Do not fire flares until you’re sure there’s a chance of being seen.

Hand-held flares

Keep flares in an easily accessible location.

Use pyrotechnic signals safely to prevent personal injury or property damage. Flares produce a hot flame, and the residue can cause burns and ignite flammable material.

Ignite the flare using the built-in striker top. Just as with a wooden match, strike the top against the flare’s surface to ignite.

Be aware that handheld flares burn for several minutes but are low in altitude, giving them a limited range, typically a few miles.

Aerial pyrotechnics

Aerial flares often rise to heights of 500 to 1,000 feet and can be seen from great distances. However, meteor flares have a short, less than 30-second, illumination, so viewers need to be looking in the right direction to see them. Parachute flares take longer to return to earth, giving them longer illumination periods.

Pistol-launched and handheld parachute flares and meteors are similar to firearms and must be handled with caution.

To use a pistol-launched flare, open the launcher breech, load the flare, and point the muzzle away from people and your boat.

Consider wind direction when using a rocket-propelled distress signal. Aim downwind but reasonably high for maximum elevation.

Avoid starting a fire; never point a pyrotechnic device straight up or in any direction where it could land in your boat, another boat or on land.

Store pyrotechnic signals in a cool, dry location in a red or orange watertight container clearly marked “Distress Signals.”

Orange distress flag

Flags should be used only in daytime.

Fly the flags by hoisting to the highest possible point. The black square should be over the black dot.

Place the flag flat on the deck to attract aircraft.

Daytime alternative

Wave your arms up and down at the sides of your body.

Use a signal mirror; it takes practice. Sweep the mirror back and forth to get coverage and cause a flash at the viewer.

Follow restrictions

Regulations prohibit display of visual distress signals on the water under any circumstances except when assistance is required to prevent immediate or potential danger to persons onboard a boat.

To learn more about proper flare use, take our America’s Boating Course.
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