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Chapter 3

Visual Distress Signal Equipment

The U.S. Coast Guard requires you to carry visual signaling devices if you are operating your boat on federally controlled waters, which include coastal waters and adjoining rivers two miles or more wide at the mouth and up to the first point the river narrows to less than two miles. These signals give you a way to let other boaters know that you or your boat is in distress and to help them find your location.

You may only use a distress signal in an emergency.

All boats must carry signals that can be seen at night, but the following boats do not have to carry day signals:

  • Recreational boats less than 16 feet long
  • Boats less than 26 feet long and without motorized propulsion, including sailboats and rowboats
  • Boats in organized events such as races or parades

Visual signaling devices are either pyrotechnic or non-pyrotechnic. If you are on coastal waters or the Great Lakes in boat that is longer than 16 feet, you must have either three day and three night pyrotechnic devices, one day non-pyrotechnic (flag) and one night pyrotechnic device (auto SOS light), or a combination of pyrotechnic and non-pyrotechnic devices. Boats less than 16 feet only need night visual distress signals when operating between sunset and sunrise.

Pyrotechnic Signaling Devices

Pyrotechnic devices are attention-getting devices that burn, sputter, smoke, or explode. You need to be very cautious if you have to use a pyrotechnic device. Because these devices produce a very hot flame, the residue can cause burns and ignite flammable materials. The pistol-launched and hand-held parachute flares and meteors are similar to firearms and are banned in some states, so check your state regulations before carrying these types of pyrotechnic devices on your boat (see Chapter 7).

If you decide to use pyrotechnic devices, you must carry at least three for day and night use. You can choose among a variety of red hand-held or aerial flares for day or night use, and devices that emit orange smoke for daytime use.

If you do need to use a pyrotechnic device, hold the lighted flare downwind and away from the boat. Hold it away from your body, and be careful not to point it at anyone.

Obviously, having a device that doesn't work won't do you any good, so check the condition of your devices before leaving. Also check the expiration date, which is 42 months after the date of manufacture for distress flares, smoke flares, and meteor rockets. Store your pyrotechnics in a dry, readily accessible place. They are commonly sold and stored in a red or orange watertight container marked "Distress Signals."

Non-pyrotechnic Signaling Devices

Non-pyrotechnic devices that you can use during the day include a three-foot-square orange signal flag, dye marker, signal mirror, or hand signals. However, signal mirrors are not U.S. Coast Guard approved. For nighttime use, you should have an electric distress light on board that can automatically flash the international SOS distress signal (• • • — — — • • •); this light must have a manufacturer's label stating that it meets USCG requirements. Flashlights or lanterns do not meet USCG requirements, as they must be manually flashed and are not bright enough to be seen at any great distance.


Signals to Attract Attention

If you need to attract the attention of another vessel, you can use lights or sounds that won't be mistaken for any signal authorized elsewhere in the Rules for Navigation. For example, you can shine your searchlight in the direction of the danger in a way that doesn't embarrass any vessel. If you use a light to attract the attention of another vessel, you have to do it in a way that won't be mistaken for any aid to navigation. Do not use a high-intensity intermittent or revolving light, such as a strobe light.

Distress Signals

If your vessel is in distress and you need assistance, use one of the following signals:


For inland waters only, you can also use a high-intensity white light flashing at regular intervals from 50 to 70 times per minute.


Chapter 3

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