Study Topics
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Visual Distress Signals
Non-pyrotechnic Visual Distress Signal Usage

Day Use Only

Hand Held Orange Smoke Distress Signals

Flat Bottom

Floating Orange Smoke Distress Signals
These come in two varieties, one lasting
approximately 5 minutes, one lasting
15 minutes.

Orange Distress Signal Flag for Boats

The distress flag must be at least 3 x 3 feet with
a black square and ball on an orange background. It is accepted as a day signal only and is especially effective in bright sunlight. The flag is most distinctive when waved on something such as
a paddle or a boat hook or flown from a mast.

Sea-marker Dye

is useful when air search has been initiated. Comes in several colors, and should be used
when chances of being spotted are high.

Signal Mirror
Although not recognized by USCG as a carriage requirement, a well-handled signal mirror can be very effective in calling attention to oneself. It is low in cost and has an unlimited shelf life.

Night Use Only

Electric Distress Light for Boats
The electric distress light is accepted for night use only and must automatically flash the international SOS distress signal, which is three short flashes, three long flashes, and three short flashes. Flashed four to six times each minute, this is an unmistakable distress signal, well known to most boaters. The device can be checked any time for serviceability if shielded from view.

NOTE: An ordinary flashlight is not acceptable since it must be manually flashed and does not normally produce enough candle power. The Regulation States: "No person in-a boat shall display a visual distress signal on water to which this subpart applies under any circumstances except a situation where assistance is needed because of immediate or potential danger to the persons aboard."

Day and Night Use

  • Hand Held Flare Distress Signal
  • Parachute Red Flare Distress Signals - (25 mm or larger) These signals require use in combination with a suitable launching device.
  • Hand Held Rocket-Propelled Parachute Red Flare Distress Signals
  • Distress Signal for Boats, Red Aerial
  • Pyrotechnic Flare - These devices may be either meteor or parachute assisted type. Some of
    these signals may require use in combination
    with a suitable launching device.

In some states the pistol launcher for meteors and parachute flares may be considered a firearm. Therefore, check
with your state authorities before
acquiring such launcher.

Visual Distress Signals: When and
How to Use Them

Visual distress signals are part of your boat's safety equipment. Check them before you leave harbor. Their intended purpose is to summon help should the need arise. Visual distress signals can only be effective when someone is in a position to see them. Therefore, when employing pyrotechnic devices, do so only when you see or hear a boat or airplane or you are reasonably sure that someone on shore is in position to see your signal and take action. Good judgment is an essential part of successful use of visual distress signals.

All distress signaling devices have both advantages and disadvantages. The most popular, because of cost, are probably the smaller pyrotechnic devices. Pyrotechnics make excellent distress signals, universally recognized as such, but they have the drawback that they can be used only once. Additionally, there is a potential for both injury and property damage if not properly handled.

Pyrotechnics devices have a very hot flame, and the ash and slag can cause burns and ignite material that burns easily. Projected devices, such as pistol launched and hand-held parachute flares and meteors, have many of the same characteristics of a firearm and must be handled with the same caution and respect.

The hand-held and the floating orange smoke signaling devices are excellent (if not the best) day signals, especially on clear days. Both signals are most effective with light to moderate winds because higher winds tend to keep the smoke close to the water and disperse it which makes it hard to see.

Red hand-held flares can be used by day, but are
most effective at night or in restricted visibility such
as fog or haze. Only Coast Guard or SOLAS flares
are acceptable for use on recreational boats. When
selecting such flares look for the Coast Guard approval number and date of manufacture. Make sure that the device does not carry the marking: "Not approved for
use on recreational boats," and that no more than
3 years have passed since manufacture.

What if you see a Visual Distress Signal given off by another vessel?

The unwritten law of the sea requires that a mariner come to the aid of a mariner in distress. Therefore, should
you see a distress signal, immediate and positive action should be taken. Notify the nearest Coast Guard station or State authority by radio. Channel 9 on CB and Channel 16 on VHF marine radio (156.8 MHz) are recognized distress channels. If you can assist the stricken vessel without endangering yourself, you should. The Federal Boat Safety Act
of 1971 contains a "Good Samaritan" clause stating: "Any person ....who gratuitously and in good faith renders assistance at the scene of a vessel collision, accident, or other casualty without objection of any person assisted,
shall not be held liable for any act or omission in providing or arranging salvage, towage, medical treatment, or other assistance where the assisting person acts as an ordinary, reasonably prudent man or woman would have acted under the same or similar circumstances."