This information is directed primarily to recreational boaters, but the requirements discussed also apply
operators of vessels engaged in the carrying of six or fewer passengers. The Visual Distress Signal
requirements for most commercial vessels are in Title 46 of the Code of Federal Regulations.
The requirement to carry visual distress signals became effective on January 1, 1981. This regulation
requires all boats when used on coastal waters, which includes the Great Lakes, the territorial seas
and those waters directly connected to the Great Lakes and the territorial seas, up to a point where the
waters are less than two miles wide, and boats owned in the United States when operating on the high
seas to be equipped with visual distress signals.
The only exceptions are during daytime (sunrise to sunset) for:
These boats only need to carry night signals when used on these waters at night.
- Recreational boats less than 16 feet in length
- Boats participating in organized events such as races, regattas or marine parades
- Open sailboats not equipped with propulsion machinery and less than 26 feet in length
- Manually propelled boats