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Signaling Devices for Boaters in Distress

Signal aids are critical to help rescuers pinpoint your boat's exact location in an emergency.
Boating Safety

Bill Springer, CW's senior editor, hasn't had to fire a distress signal in an emergency, yet.

Signal Selection Guide

Equipping your boat according to the International Sailing Federation's distress-signal requirements is the best way to make sure that you'll be able to be seen when you really need to be seen. The ISAF minimum requirements, which exceed the U.S. Coast Guard's minimum guidelines and are also required to participate in US Sailing events, are broken down into several categories: In Category 4 are inland boats that sail and race in warm, protected waters only during daylight hours. Categories 2 and 3 include coastal boats that sail and race in open water relatively close to shore. Categories 0 and 1 encompass offshore boats that sail and race offshore for extended periods.               

Category 4
4 SOLAS red handheld flares
2 SOLAS orange smoke signals

Categories 2 and 3
4 SOLAS red parachute flares
4 SOLAS red handheld flares
2 SOLAS orange smoke signals

Categories 0 and 1
6 SOLAS red parachute flares
4 SOLAS red handheld flares
2 SOLAS orange smoke signals

U.S. Coast Guard Requirements

The U.S. Coast Guard requires that nearly all recreational boats over 16 feet be equipped with a minimum of three day-use and three night-use or three day/night combination pyrotechnic devices that are Coast Guard-approved. The required number of flares must also be replaced every 42 months and should be stored in a watertight container.   

Are "SOLAS-Approved" Flares Safer?
The International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea, or SOLAS, is a collection of safety requirements for all commercial shipping. According to Ron Trossbach, a moderator of US Sailing's Safety-At-Sea Seminars: "SOLAS flares are safer, brighter, and longer lasting than non-SOLAS or USCG approved, 'road' style flares, and are much more likely to draw attention both day and night. SOLAS handheld flares burn without the molten metal slag which falls from other flares and SOLAS rocket flares don't require a special launcher or flare pistol. We intentionally fire Non-SOLAS then SOLAS flares at our Safety-At-Sea Seminars so that our audiences can compare and see for themselves the vivid differences, which are self evident. This evidence justifies the additional cost of SOLAS flares."

More Flares Info
ISAF: +44 (0) 2380-635111,
Landfall Navigation: (800) 941-2219,
Orion Signals: (800) 851-5260,
PainsWessex: +44 (0) 1489 884130,
US Sailing: 800-877-2451,

Learn how to estimate the range and bearing to a flare here.

* * * * *

The U.S. Coast Guard is asking all boat owners and operators to help reduce fatalities, injuries, property damage, and associated healthcare costs related to recreational boating accidents by taking personal responsibility for their own safety and the safety of their passengers. Essential steps include: wearing a life jacket at all times and requiring passengers to do the same; never boating under the influence (BUI); successfully completing a boating safety course; and getting a Vessel Safety Check (VSC) annually from local U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary, United States Power Squadrons(r), or your state boating agency's Vessel Examiners. The U.S. Coast Guard reminds all boaters to "Boat Responsibly!" For more tips on boating safety, visit

Pat Roberson (not verified)
May 5, 2012

Good read, everyone has effective signaling mirrors available use any computer disk (CD), the silver finish reflects light easily and the hole is in the middle. Be careful not to look directly into sunlight using these devices.

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