Distress Signals

Visual Distress Signals (VDSs)

A visual distress signal (VDS) is any device that can alert and help others to locate your boat in the event of an emergency.

A VDS can’t be used unless there is an emergency and help is needed. Breaking the law can come with serious penalties.

All recreational boats operating in the coastal waters of the U.S., the Great Lakes or bodies of water connected to the U.S. coastal waters and Great Lakes, up to the point where the water is less than 2 miles wide, are required to be have a VDS on board.

Boats owned in the U.S. must carry VDSs when operating in international waters.

During daytime hours, the following vessels are not required to carry distress signals.

  • Boats less than 16 feet in length
  • Boats participating in regattas and other organized events
  • Open sailboats under 26 feet in length that are not equipped with an engine
  • Manually propelled boats like canoes and kayaks

Such boats are only required to carry nighttime VDSs when operating at night in the above-listed waters.

Types of VDSs

  • Day Signal: Visible in sunlight
  • Night Signal: Visible in the dark
  • Anytime Signal: Visible in daylight and at night
  • Pyrotechnic Device: Uses smoke and flame
  • Non-Pyrotechnic Device: Not combustible

Pyrotechnic VDSs

All pyrotechnic distress signals must be USCG–approved, in working condition, unexpired, and ready to use in an emergency.

There are four types of pyrotechnic VDSs.

  • Type A: Parachute flares
  • Type B: Multi-star flare
  • Type C: Handheld flare
  • Type D: Orange Smoke flare

USCG–approved pyrotechnic VDSs include the following.

  • Aerial or hand-held flares
  • Aerial or hand-held orange smoke flares
  • Red meteor or parachute flares
  • Associated launchers of these signals

Non-Pyrotechnic Visual Distress Signals

Non-pyrotechnic VDSs must carry a manufacturer’s certification that shows they meet USCG requirements.

These must be kept in working condition and in an easily accessible location.

Handling and Storage of VDSs

These devices should be kept in a watertight container (such as a surplus ammunition box) to ensure they stay in good working condition. Boxes should be painted red or orange and marked as “Distress Signals.” Ensure these are kept in a safe place and out of the reach of children.

Acceptable Combinations of Visual Distress Signals

Vessels should carry a minimum of three devices that can be used in either daytime or nighttime. Some acceptable combinations include the following.

  • Three handheld flares
  • One electric distress light and three handheld orange smoke distress signals
  • One handheld red flare and two parachute flares
  • One handheld orange smoke signal, two floating orange smoke signals, and one electric distress light

Other Signaling and Sound-Producing Devices

Anytime Use

Marine Radio
  • Channel 16, 156.8 MHz (VHF)
  • DSC alert, channel 70 (only for DSC-type radios and where the service is offered)
  • 21–82 KHz (MF)
                                                                                                                                                  Sound-Producing Device
  • Continuous sound (foghorn, bell, or whistle)
  • Gun or other explosive signal fired at one- minute intervals
  • Use alarm signal
  • Flash the S.O.S. signal (short-short-short long-long-long short-short-short)
Distress Cloth
  • Flown from the mast or laid on the roof
Dye Marker
  • Releases orange dye into the water that marks the water around the boat
Code Flags
  • Display a square over or under a circle or the letter N over the letter C
Arm Signal
  • Repeatedly raise and lower outstretched arms
VHF Radio

A VHF radio is not required to be carried by recreational boaters but is recommended for communication with other boaters, the USCG, commercial vessels, marinas, and lock operators.

Recreational boats under 20 meters in length are not required to have a station license to operate unless traveling to foreign ports or transmitting to foreign stations. VHF radio is enforced by the USCG.

Boats under 20 meters in length or vessels under 65 feet that are not traveling into foreign ports or transmitting on a foreign station are not required to have a station license to use a VHF radio.

The below chart shows all available channels for recreational boaters.

Channel NumberChannel Purpose/Use
6Inter-ship safety communications only
9Commercial and non-commercial inter-ship, ship-to-coast and alternate calling channel
13Ocean-going vessels, bridge tenders, tugs while towing, locks
16Distress safety and calling, calling USCG, establishing general contact
24-28,84-88Public telephone calls (to call the marine operator)
68,69,71 & 78Non-commercial inter-ship and ship-to-coast (recreational boat working channels)
72Non-commercial inter-ship only

Marine weather stations (WX-1, WX-2, and WX-3) broadcast the National Weather Service continuously. Forecasts are updated every six hours unless conditions require them to be more frequent.