Visual Distress Signals (VDSs)

Visual Distress Signals (VDSs) allow vessel operators to signal for help in the event of an emergency.

Vessels used on Washington's coastal waters on the Strait of Juan de Fuca east to Puget Sound, and on the Puget Sound/San Juan Island area of the state must be equipped with visual distress signals that are U.S. Coast Guard–approved, in serviceable condition, and readily accessible.

Requirements

All vessels on coastal waters, regardless of length or type, are required to carry night signals when operating between sunset and sunrise. Most vessels on coastal waters must carry day signals also.

Exceptions to the day signals requirement

VDSs are not required to be carried on Washington's inland waters, but they are strongly recommended.

If pyrotechnic VDSs are used, a minimum of three must be carried in the vessel. Pyrotechnic devices have an expiration date and may not be used after that date.

U.S. Coast Guard Requirements

The following combinations of signals are examples of VDSs that could be carried on board to satisfy U.S. Coast Guard requirements:

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.

VDS Requirements for the Puget Sound/San Juan Island Area

Because the Puget Sound/San Juan Island area includes numerous islands and narrow inlets, more specific information regarding VDS requirements has been provided by the U.S. Coast Guard.

Pyrotechnic Visual Distress Signals

Orange smoke

Orange smoke
Day signal

Red meteor

Red meteor
Day and night signal

Red flare

Red flare
Day and night signal

Non-Pyrotechnic Visual Distress Signals

Electric light

Electric light
Night signal

Orange flag

Orange flag
Day signal

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.

Definition: Coastal Waters