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Boat Visual Distress Signal Types & Uses

Visual Distress Signals (VDS)

A Visual Distress Signal (VDS) is any device you can use to help others locate your boat quickly in the case of an emergency. Visual distress signals include day signals that are visible in sunlight, night signals that are visible in the dark, and anytime signals that can be used both day and night. VDS are either pyrotechnic, which use smoke and flame, or non-pyrotechnic, which are non-combustible. There are a wide variety of signals that can be carried to meet federal boating regulations.

The law states that no person may use a distress signal under any circumstances unless assistance is needed because of immediate or potential danger to the persons onboard.

In other words, never use a VDS unless it's an emergency. Breaking the law can come with serious penalties!

All recreational boats operating in U.S. Coastal Waters or the Great Lakes, or bodies of water directly connected to U.S. Coastal Waters or the Great Lakes - up to a point where those waters are less than 2 miles wide---are required by law to be equipped with visual distress signals.

U.S. owned boats must also carry visual distress signals when operating in international waters.

There are some exceptions. During daytime hours the following boats are not required to carry visual distress signals:

  • Boats less than 16 feet in length;
  • Boats participating in organized events, such as regattas;
  • Open sailboats that are less than 26 feet in length and not equipped with an engine;
  • And manually propelled boats, such as canoes.

These boats are only required to carry visual distress signals approved for nighttime use when operating at night in the above listed waters.

person on a sinking boat shooting a flare gun towards the sky

Visual Distress Signals: Pyrotechnic

One of the most common types of visual distress signals are pyrotechnic signals such as flares. Federal regulations require that all pyrotechnic distress signals be Coast Guard approved, in good condition, unexpired and readily accessible in case of an emergency. Launchers for visual distress signals that were produced before 1981 do not need to be Coast Guard approved.

U.S. Coast Guard-approved pyrotechnic VDS include:

  • Hand-held or aerial red flares;
  • Hand-held or aerial orange smoke flares;
  • Parachute flares or red meteor flares;
  • And any associated launchers of these signals.
pyrotechnic PVD; red flare, orange smoke flares, parachute flare

Non-Pyrotechnic Visual Distress Signals

To meet federal regulations, non-pyrotechnic visual distress signals must carry a manufacturer's certification that they meet Coast Guard requirements.

Like other types of emergency equipment, they must be kept in good condition and be stored in a readily accessible location.

red code flags visual distress signals

VDS Handling and Storage

The best way to keep these devices in good condition is to store them in a watertight container, like a surplus ammunition box. If possible, paint the box red or orange and mark it with the label “Distress Signals”.

If there will be young children on board, make sure to store your pyrotechnic distress signals in a safe place where they won't be tampered with.

red storage box labeled distress signals with 2 flares in front of the box

Acceptable Combinations of Visual Distress Signals

You may be wondering how many pyrotechnic visual distress signals you should carry on your boat. When selecting what visual distress signals to carry on board your boat, it's important to make sure that you have a minimum of 3 devices that can be used in either daytime or nighttime.

That means you can combine any type of pyrotechnic VDS's as long as they add up to three that can be used in the day and three that can be used at night.

Some acceptable combinations include:

three red visual distress signal flares
  • Three hand held red flares;
  • One electric distress light, and three hand held orange smoke distress signals;
  • One handheld red flare and two parachute flares; or
  • One handheld orange smoke signal and two floating orange smoke signals, and one electric distress light.

Sound confusing? Just remember that you need a minimum of three visual distress signals that you can use in either day or night. That may mean you need to carry more than three signals in total.