Visual Distress Signal Equipment

Distress signals are an important component of any boat’s emergency supplies, as they may be the only way to signal to other boaters and emergency personnel when your vessel is stranded or in danger. All recreational boats operating on coastal waters and adjoining rivers 2 miles or more wide at the mouth, and up to the first point the river narrows to less than 2 miles, are required to carry visual distress signal (VDS) equipment. Boats that are owned in the United States and that operate on the high seas must also be fitted with U.S. Coast Guard-approved VDS equipment.

The following boats and watercraft are required to carry night signals when operating from sunset to sunrise, but are not required to carry day signals.

  • Manually-propelled boats
  • Recreational boats that measure less than 16 feet long
  • Open sailboats that are not equipped with propulsion machinery and are less than 26 feet long
  • Boats that are participating in organized events

Boat operators should choose the appropriate distress signals for the conditions under which their boat travels most often. Pyrotechnics are well-known as excellent distress signals, but they do carry a potential for injury or damage if they are not handled correctly. All distress signals have distinct advantages and disadvantages of use that should be considered when choosing between them. Boaters should also ensure that chosen devices are accepted and approved by their governing state or local agency.

Below is an overview of approved pyrotechnic and non-pyrotechnic visual distress signals.

Pyrotechnic Distress Signals / Flares 

Boaters who choose to carry pyrotechnic devices as visual distress symbols must carry at least three signals for day use and three signals for night use. Some pyrotechnic devices, such as combination flairs, are appropriate for both day and night use requirements. Each pyrotechnic distress signal should be U.S. Coast Guard-approved and in serviceable condition. Expired devices can be carried as extra, but do not count toward the requirement.

Pyrotechnic visual distress signals that have been approved for use by the U.S. Coast Guard include:

  • Pyrotechnic orange smoke devices for day use only (hand-held or floating)
  • Pyrotechnic red flares for day and night use (hand-held or aerial)
  • Launchers for aerial red meteors or parachute flares


Pyrotechnic Orange Smoke Devices

Buoyant and hand smoke signals emit a dense orange smoke that is highly visible. Buoyant smoke signals produce smoke at a uniform rate for 3 minutes or more while floating in calm water. Hand smoke signals produce smoke for about 50 seconds.

Because no light or flame is emitted with the smoke, the buoyant and hand smoke signals are only effective when used in daylight. Operators should position smoke signals downwind and should follow all manufacturer instructions carefully.

Pyrotechnic Red Flares

Rocket Parachute Flare

The rocket parachute flare produces a single bright red star that shoots about 300 meters into the sky and falls slowly back down by means of a parachute that is ejected at or near the top of its trajectory. This type of flare is easily seen from the ground and will burn for a period of at least 40 seconds.


Type C- Hand Flare

Hand flares are red-colored flame torches that are designed for the non-burning end to be held in a person’s hand while burning. Although they have less visibility from the ground, they burn for at least one full minute and remain on the vessel while burning, making them the best method for location during an air search.

Operators should hold the flare away from the boat and downwind when lighting and should avoid looking directly at the flare while it is burning.

Proper Storage

Pyrotechnic devices should be kept in a watertight container that is red or orange and prominently marked as distress signals or flairs.

Non-Pyrotechnic Devices

All non-pyrotechnic devices carried on board should be certified as complying with U.S. Coast Guard requirements and must be in serviceable condition. Approved non-pyrotechnic devices include:

·         Orange distress flag– The orange distress flag is used as a day-signal only and must be at least 3-feet wide by 3-feet tall. The symbol will include a black square and ball on an orange background. This flag will also be marked with indication that it meets U.S. Coast Guard requirements in 46 CFR 160 072. 

·         Electric distress light– The electric distress light is acceptable only for night-usage. It automatically flashes the international SOS distress signal and must be marked with an indication that it meets U.S. Coast Guard requirements in 46 CFR 161 013.

Display of visual distress signals, except when assistance is needed, is strictly prohibited.