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It's the Law

Visual Distress Signals (VDSs)

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

VDSs are not required on Iowa state waters, but it is strongly recommended that you carry VDSs on your vessel.

Vessels on federally controlled waters must be equipped with visual distress signals that are U.S. Coast Guard–approved, in serviceable condition, and readily accessible. When operating on federally controlled waters, here are the requirements.

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 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.

Pyrotechnic Visual Distress Signals

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

Non-Pyrotechnic Visual Distress Signals

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.