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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.

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. VDSs are not in serviceable condition if they are older than the expiration date.

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
  • Vessels competing in any organized marine parade, regatta, race, or similar event on coastal waters.

If pyrotechnic VDSs are used, a minimum of three must be carried in the vessel.

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.

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 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

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