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Signaling for Help on the Water

Knowing the proper way to signal for help can make all the difference during an emergency.
Boating Safety

Boat owners and operators should know the federal and state requirements for Visual Distress Signals (VDS) and how to use signaling devices in an emergency, especially during the off season when inclement weather and frigid temperatures often require a fast rescue.

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.

As with most regulations, however, there are exceptions. Boaters are exempt from carrying daytime VDS if their boat is less than 16 feet long, manually propelled, a sailboat of completely open construction that is not equipped with propulsion machinery and is under 26 feet in length, or competing in an organized marine parade, regatta, race, or similar event.  Every boat operating between sunset and sunrise must carry VDS suitable for night use, however.

That sounds a little confusing, but when you think about it the excluded boats typically operate during daylight hours and even then usually do not venture very far offshore. Bottom line: if you are out at night on waterways covered by federal regulations you must have nighttime VDS aboard regardless of the size or propulsion of your boat.

VDS can be pyrotechnic (giving off smoke and/or flame; flares, for example) or non-pyrotechnic (flags or electronic equipment). If you choose pyrotechnic devices, you’ll need a minimum of three signals for day and three for night, or just three pyrotechnic VDS approved for both day and night use.

Other combinations of pyrotechnic and non-pyrotechnic will meet federal requirements as well.  For example:

The minimum VDS requirement for sunset to sunrise is:

•    Three nighttime-use pyrotechnic items in any combination


•    One electric distress light that automatically flashes SOS in Morse code

May 5, 2012

I am a U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary Instructor, and Public Affairs Officer. I conduct annual "Vessel Safety Day" within my AOR, where we demonstrate all the different VDS, and afterwards allow the participants (after signing a waiver) to fire off their own VDS under our supervision. If any Flotilla wants more info, contact me @

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