Chapter 4: The Legal Requirements of Boating
Visual Distress Signals
Visual Distress Signals (VDSs) allow vessel operators to signal
for help in the event of an emergency. VDSs are classified as day
signals (visible in bright sunlight), night signals (visible at
night), or both day and night signals. VDSs are either pyrotechnic
(smoke and flames) or non-pyrotechnic (non-combustible).
Vessels on federally controlled
waters must be equipped with U.S. Coast Guard–approved
visual distress signals. All vessels, regardless of length or
type, are required to carry night signals when operating between
sunset and sunrise. Most vessels must carry day signals also;
exceptions to the requirement for day signals are:
- Recreational vessels that are less than 16 feet in length
- Non-motorized open sailboats that are less than 26 feet in
- Manually propelled vessels
VDSs must be U.S. Coast Guard–approved, in serviceable
condition, and readily accessible.
If pyrotechnic VDSs are used, a minimum of three must be carried in the vessel. Also, pyrotechnic VDSs must be dated and may not be carried past their expiration date.
The following combinations of signals are examples of VDSs that
could be carried on board to satisfy U.S. Coast Guard requirements:
- Three handheld red flares (day and night)
- One handheld red flare and two red meteors (day and night)
- One handheld orange smoke signal (day), two floating orange
smoke signals (day), and one electric light (night only)
It is prohibited to display visual distress signals while on
the water unless assistance is required to prevent immediate or
potential danger to persons on board a vessel.
U. S. Coast Guard-Approved Visual Distress Signals
Pyrotechnic Visual Distress Signals
Day and Night Signal
Day and Night Signal
- Pyrotechnics are excellent distress signals. However, there
is potential for injury and property damage if not handled properly.
These devices produce a very hot flame, and the residue can cause
burns and ignite flammable materials.
- Pistol-launched and handheld parachute flares and meteors
have many characteristics of a firearm and must be handled with
caution. In some states, they are considered a firearm and are
prohibited from use.
- Pyrotechnic devices should be stored in a cool, dry, and prominently marked
Non-Pyrotechnic Visual Distress Signals
Although this signal does not meet VDS equipment requirements, wave your arms to summon help if you do not have other distress signals on board.
- The distress flag is a day signal only. It must be at least
3 x 3 feet with a black square and ball on an orange background.
- The electric distress light is accepted for night use only
and must flash the international SOS distress signal automatically.
Federally Controlled Waters
Waters on which vessels must observe federal requirements, including
VDS requirements; these waters include:
- Coastal waters
- The Great Lakes
- Territorial seas
- Bodies of water connected directly to one of the above, up
to a point where the body of water is less than two miles wide
In periods of reduced visibility or whenever a vessel operator
needs to signal his or her intentions or position, a sound-producing
device is essential. The navigation
rules for meeting head-on, crossing, and overtaking situations
described in Chapter 3 are examples of when sound signals
- Vessels less than 65.6 feet (20 meters) in length, which includes
PWCs, are required to carry on board a whistle or horn or some
other means to make an efficient sound signal audible for at
least one-half mile.
- Vessels that are 65.6 feet (20 meters) or more in length are
required to carry on board a whistle or horn, and a
bell that are audible for at least one mile.
Common Sound Signals
Some common sound signals that you should be familiar with as a recreational boater are as follows.
- A short blast lasts one second.
- A prolonged blast lasts 4-6 seconds.
- One short blast tells other boaters "I intend to pass you on my port (left) side."
- Two short blasts tell other boaters "I intend to pass you on my starboard (right) side."
- Three short blasts tell other boaters "I am backing up."
- One prolonged blast at intervals of not more than two minutes is the signal used by power-driven vessels when underway.
- One prolonged blast plus two short blasts at intervals of not more than two minutes is the signal used by sailing vessels.
- One prolonged blast is a warning signal (for example, used when coming around a blind bend or exiting a slip).
- Five (or more) short, rapid blasts signal danger or signal that you do not understand or that you disagree with the other boater's intentions.