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It's the Law

Visual Distress Signals (VDSs)

Vessels on federally controlled waters must be equipped with visual distress signals (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 ft. in length
  • Non-motorized open sailboats less than 26 ft. 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 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

Orange Smoke—Handheld
Orange Smoke—Floating
Day Signal
Red Meteor 
Day and Night Signal 
Red Flare 
Day and Night Signal

Non-Pyrotechnic VDSs

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