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It's the Law

Visual Distress Signals

Visual distress signals (VDSs) allow vessel operators to signal for help in the event of an emergency.

Vessels on federally controlled waters must be equipped with VDSs that are USCG–approved, in serviceable condition, and readily accessible.

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 length
  • Manually propelled vessels

If pyrotechnic VDSs are used, they must be dated. Expired VDSs may be carried on board, but a minimum of three unexpired VDSs must be carried in the vessel.

The following combinations of signals are examples of VDSs that could be carried on board to satisfy USCG 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 VDSs while on the water unless assistance is required to prevent immediate or potential danger to persons on board.

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).

Pyrotechnic VDSs

Orange Smoke—Handheld 
Orange Smoke—Floating
Day Signal
Red Meteor 
Day and Night Signal  
Red Flare 
Day and Night Signal

Non-Pyrotechnic VDSs

Electric Light 
Night Signal  
Orange Flag 
Day Signal

Visual distress signal (VDS): arm signal

Arm Signal

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.

Federally Controlled Waters

Vessels must observe federal requirements on these waters:

  • Coastal waters
  • The Great Lakes
  • Territorial seas
  • Waters which are two miles wide or wider and are connected directly to one of the above