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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

  • 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 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:

  • Three handheld red flares (day and night)
  • One handheld red flare and two red meteors (day and night)
  • One handheld orange smoke signal (day), two floating orange smoke signals (day), and one electric light (night only)

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.

  • Although the USCG is not issuing citations for insufficient VDSs, carrying VDSs on board is highly recommended in these areas: from the northernmost tip of West Point on Whidbey Island, a line 274 degrees true to position 48-25.40N/123-06.85W on the U.S./Canada border; then along the U.S./Canada border to position 48-46.00N/123-00.50W; then a line 49 degrees true to Alden Point Light (Patos Island); then a line 91 degrees true to the western tip of Sandy Point; then along the eastern shoreline to include all of Puget Sound and those waters connected to it which lie south of a line from Point Wilson to Admiralty Head.
  • VDSs are required in all other areas of the Puget Sound/San Juan Island area.

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

  • The U.S. waters of the Great Lakes
  • The territorial seas of the United States
  • Waters (such as bays, sounds, harbors, rivers, inlets, etc.) which are more than two miles wide and are connected directly to one of the above