The Massachusetts Boater Safety Handbook
The Official Boating Handbook of the Massachusetts Department of Natural Resources - Web Version
Table of Contents
Visual Distress Signals (VDSs) allow vessel operators to signal for help in the event of an emergency.
Vessels on federally controlled waters or on Massachusetts coastal waters must be equipped with visual distress signals that are U.S. Coast Guard–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 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.
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
Day and Night Signal
Day and Night Signal
Non-Pyrotechnic Visual Distress Signals
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
Massachusetts Coastal Waters
Any Massachusetts waters that are subject to the rise and fall of the tide out to three nautical miles from any Massachusetts land point and including all of Massachusetts Bay, Vineyard Sound, and Nantucket Sound