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Safe at Sea: Visual Distress Signals required on most vessels

By Staff | Feb 11, 2020


Federal law requires that all boats must be equipped with U.S. Coast Guard-approved Visual Distress Signals – VDS – on coastal waters, on the Great Lakes, and on those waters connected directly to coastal waters or the Great Lakes up to a point where the body of water is less than two miles wide.

With those guidelines in mind and, in particular, with our local waters in mind, virtually all boats should be well-equipped with VDSs that are in serviceable condition and easily accessible.

The law, though, states that the following vessels are not required to carry day signals, but must carry night signals when operating from sunset to sunrise:

– Recreational boats less than 16 feet in length

– Open sailboats less than 26 feet in length, not equipped with motors


– Manually propelled boats, like kayaks and canoes

In today’s electronic world, the most invaluable distress signal device would be a VHF marine radio, calling on Channel 16. That said, a safe boat captain will never depend on the VHF exclusively and will have other VDSs on board.

Basically, there are two types of VSDs: pyrotechnic and non-pyrotechnic.

Pyrotechnic signals are similar to fireworks. They include red flares, both hand-held and pistol-fired, and orange smoke flares (hand-held or floating). Two cautions with pyrotecnic signals: their “shelf life” expires; and their length of use on the water is short term. (Thus, do not use all your flares at once.)

Non-pyrotechnic signals include orange distress flags, which consist of a black square and a black ball displayed on a field of orange; mirrors; and dye markers.


Within the last few years, the U.S. Coast Guard approved an electronic, which serves as an alternative to the traditional flare. Caution: you still need batteries and spare batteries; and in order to be acceptable, all electronic VDSs must be legibly marked with the statement – “Night visual distress signal for boats complies with U.S. Coast Guard requirements in 46 CFR 161.013. For emergency use only” – and must be marked with the manufacturer’s name, replacement battery type and lamp size.

Truly safety-minded captains will equip their boats with both a pyrotechnic VSD and a non-pyrotechnic VSD. Thus, they are always prepared for the one of Murphy’s Rules: “If something can go wrong (i.e. dead batteries of all kinds), it will!”

Pat Schmidt 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.