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Safe at Sea: Boating S.O.S

By Staff | Jan 3, 2020


With the beginning of “peak season” boating in Florida waterways, this seems like a good time to give some thought to distress signals.

First, let us recall that if you operate a boat that has engine power or a sailboat with engine power on federal waterways, you are required to carry on board U.S. Coast Guard-approved visual distress signals. Knowing how to use them is obviously important to each skipper, but of equal importance is knowing how to recognize a distress signal in actual use if you see it while on or near the water.

We are familiar with three types of visual distress signals commonly approved by the United States Coast Guard. First is the pyrotechnic, which includes flares that may be hand held. Also included are rocket and parachute flares usually launched from a pistol device, and orange smoke discharge devices. These flare devices usually have an expiration date that is three years after the date of manufacture.

Because of their high burn temperatures, care must be taken in their use. With aerial flares, one must be careful in their discharge so the flare is not carried by wind or tidal drift directly over the position of the boat. Hand-held flares should be carefully discharged and held away from and beyond the side of the boat during and after discharge.

Non-pyrotechnic distress signals, principally valid only for daytime use, include a three-square-foot orange flag with a black square image and black ball image embedded on it, a mirror to be used for reflecting the rays of the sun, and dye markers that can be spread on the water to facilitate observation by aircraft.


The third and increasingly favorite device is the Orion SOS Electronic Beacon Locator. It is powered by two D cell batteries that will provide over 50 hours of use in flashing a very bright light “SOS” morse code distress signal. The device will float on the water, may be hand held or it may be suspended by its lanyard from a high point on the vessel. Its purchase package includes an appropriate orange and black flag as well and can be bought at most marine outlet stores for under $100.

Finally, we should all understand the universal international distress signal of slowly and repeatedly raising outstretched arms to each side. It is a simple and effective attention getter.

Bob Eidsvold is a member of America’s Boating Club of Sanibel-Captiva. For more about the chapter and the courses it offers, visit www.sancapboating.club or contact education@sanibelcaptivasps.org or 612-987-2125.