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It's the Law

Visual Distress Signals (VDSs)


Visual distress signals (VDSs) are not required on vessels on Tennessee waters.

Vessels on federally controlled waters 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 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, a minimum of three must be carried in the vessel. Expired VDSs may be carried on board, but a minimum pf three unexpired VDSs may be carried in the vessel.

The following examples satisfy USCG requirements:

  • Three handheld red flares (day and night)
  • Three orange smoke signals (day only) and one electric light (night only)

Pyrotechnic VDSs

Pyrotechnic visual distress signal (VDS): Orange smoke day signal; red meteor day and night signal; red flare day and night signal
Orange smoke day signal; red meteor day and night signal; red flare day and night signal

Non-Pyrotechnic VDSs

Non-pyrotechnic visual distress signal (VDS): electric light night signal; orange flag day signal
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.

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