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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 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, such as the Great Lakes, 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 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.

An example of VDSs that could be carried on board to satisfy USCG requirements is 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.


Handheld Orange Smoke (Pyrotechnic)
Floating Orange Smoke (Pyrotechnic)
Orange Flag (Non-Pyrotechnic)


Electric Light (Non-Pyrotechnic)

Day and Night

Red Meteor (Pyrotechnic)
Red Flare (Pyrotechnic)

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 that are two miles wide or wider and are connected directly to one of the above