Visual Distress Signals (VDS) are an integral part of every vessel’s safety equipment, regardless of boat size or purpose. Simply stated, a visual distress signal is a device utilized by boaters to summon help when an immediate emergency occurs or a potentially dangerous situation exists. Boaters are responsible for ensuring that whatever the type, all required VDS equipment is on board and in good working order. Critical VDS issues include when and how to use them and, most importantly, what to do when distress signals are observed while underway, all topics presented in this article.

While it may seem obvious, distress signal use is effective only when someone in a nearby vessel or aircraft or on land is in a position to observe the signals. The devices (especially pyrotechnic types) should be used only when it is reasonable that the signal can be observed.

Here is our guide to everything you need to know about Visual Distress Signals:

Laws for Visual Distress Signals

Federal law requires that all vessels sailing U.S. coastal waters, the Great Lakes, territorial seas, and the waters directly connected to these water bodies be equipped with U.S. Coast Guard-approved visual distress signals. Also, U.S. flagged vessels operating in international waters anywhere in the world must be equipped with the same USCG-approved signaling equipment as those required on territorial waters, with some exceptions. International Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) regulations require more robust visual distress signaling equipment aboard commercial vessels and cruise ships and recreational (pleasure yacht) vessels and offshore racing sailboats over a certain length.

  • All vessels must be able to signal for help and to have onboard at least three unexpired, CG-approved day and night or combination day/night signals.
  • Displaying visual distress signals is prohibited except when a distress situation exists that endangers passengers or the vessel.
  • Signaling devices must be in serviceable condition and be readily accessible.
  • On manually propelled boats operating from sunset to sunrise (including non-powered watercraft), visual distress signals are required.

Common visual distress signals are listed below:

Pyrotechnic Signaling Devices

  • Red Handheld Flare (day and night)
  • Parachute Flare (day and night)
  • Red Meteor (day and night)
  • Orange Smoke Signal (handheld/day only)
  • Floating Orange Smoke Signal (day only)

Non-Pyrotechnic Signaling Devices

  • Orange Signal Flag (day only)
  • Electric Distress Light (night only)

For a detailed explanation of federal visual distress signal types, requirements, and exceptions, read the Boater’s Guide to Federal Requirements for Recreational Boats.

Tips for Visual Distress Signals

  • Before boating, check federal and state VDS requirements (type and number) for the intended vessel. Boat length is usually the determining factor for distress signals required on board.
  • Read and understand flare use instructions and safety precautions.
  • Note flare expiration dates and replace as necessary.
  • Pistol launchers and handheld parachute flares have many characteristics of a firearm; some states regulate, restrict, or ban their use. Check for specific state requirements.
  • Store on-board pyrotechnic devices in a cool, dry location in watertight locking freezer bags or containers to protect them from the elements.
  • Salt and lake water, the sun, mildew, mold, and other environmental factors can corrode pyrotechnic signals, which can cause them not to work as intended.
  • Check VDS and other signaling gear as part of every pre-departure check. Brief passengers on where distress signals are stored and demonstrate use.
  • Aerial flares burn for only 45-50 seconds; handheld flare burn time is usually more than three minutes, considerations when deciding what flare type to purchase.
  • Road flares should never be substituted for USCG-approved marine flares.

Using Pistol-Launched and Hand-Held Flares

Pistol-Launched Flares

Before using a pistol-launched signal, consider wind direction and strength, passenger safety, the potential for vessel damage, and proximity to other boats.

  • Open the launcher and place the flare cartridge in the barrel, taking extreme care not to trigger the device. While loading, point the launcher outside the boat.
  • After loading the cartridge, close the barrel and carefully cock the trigger while aiming the launcher over the gunwale. Pull the trigger with a steady motion.
  • When firing in calm winds, the arm should be aimed outside the vessel, at about 60 degrees above the horizon, with the wind at the shooter’s back.
  • Pistol-launched flares should never be fired straight up or pointed in a way that may endanger others.
  • After firing, remove the cartridge, store it safely, and dispose responsibly on land.

Hand-Held Flares

  • Remove the top (usually black) and the striker; hold the flare in one hand, using the other hand to strike the friction pad with the striker in a movement away from the body, avoiding passengers and gear.
  • Once ignited, position the flare away from the body and over the gunwale, downwind, level with the shoulder, and perpendicular to the gunwale.
  • Handheld flares should never be raised above the shoulder, as the slag can burn the arm and hand of the flare holder.
  • When expended, douse the flare in water outside the boat before bringing it on the boat. Check that the flare is cool before storing and dispose responsibly on land.

What To Do When Sighting a Flare on Water

Federal law requires that boaters sighting flares must immediately report the sighting to the Coast Guard. The most efficient method for notifying the CG is via Marine VHF-FM radio Channel 16. Time is critical to the CG when a flare is sighted. Before reporting the sighting, boaters should write down basic details before making contact rather than guessing at answers during a radio or cell phone call. The CG will ask several questions to gather the data they need to start a response, including:

  • For aerial flare sightings: the CG must know your boat’s location at the time the flare was sighted. Use latitude/longitude coordinates, specific waterbody name, a location description, or a landmark and distance. Other details are the direction from which the flare was observed from your vessel and how long the flare was able to be seen.
  • For surface flare sightings: questions may include: your proximity to the distressed vessel, a vessel description (power/sail, hull type/color, length, boat name, registration number, etc.), if the nature of the distress can be determined (fire or collision, etc.), and if persons are in the water, in addition to location details noted above.
  • After receiving the information to establish the distressed vessel’s approximate position based on the provided data, the CG will make an emergency broadcast on Channel 16, requesting any nearby vessel to render assistance. A response unit may be dispatched, or a commercial towing firm vessel may respond.
  • If in visual contact with the distressed vessel, you must lend assistance, but not to endanger yourself, your vessel, or passengers in doing so. The Good Samaritan Rule protects boaters who render assistance to distressed vessels.
  • If near the scene, you should remain until a response unit has arrived and the situation is under control. The responding agency will likely ask for your contact information and a description of the incident.

Visual distress signals are an integral part of every vessel’s safety equipment and are utilized by boaters to summon help during an emergency. It can also signal a potentially dangerous situation. Boaters are responsible for ensuring that whatever the type, all required VDS equipment is on board and in good working order and used only when there is a good chance that another boater or someone on land sees the signal and reports the sighting to the Coast Guard. If your boat is properly equipped and you are aware of the usage, everyone can boat safely.