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The Visual Distress Signal (VDS)

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).

Requirements for Visual Distress Signals

Vessels on federally controlled waters (in Pennsylvania, Lake Erie) must be equipped with U.S. Coast Guard–approved visual distress signals. 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

VDSs must be U.S. Coast Guard–approved, in serviceable condition, and readily accessible.

If pyrotechnic VDSs are used, a minimum of three must be carried in the vessel. Also, pyrotechnic VDSs must be dated and may not be carried past their expiration date.

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)
Distress Signals Handheld Red Flares
  • One handheld red flare and two red meteors (day and night)
Distress Signals Handheld Red Flare and Meteors
  • One handheld orange smoke signal (day), two floating orange smoke signals (day), and one electric light (night only)
Distress Signals Floating and Handheld Orange Smoke and Electric Light

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 a vessel.

Requirements for Federally Controlled Waters

Waters on which vessels must observe federal requirements, including VDS requirements; these waters include:

  • Coastal waters
  • The Great Lakes (for example, Lake Erie)
  • Territorial seas
  • Bodies of water connected directly to one of the above, up to a point where the body of water is less than two miles wide