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Signaling for Help on the Water

Knowing the proper way to signal for help can make all the difference during an emergency.
Boating Safety

The minimum VDS requirement for sunrise to sunset is:

•    Three daytime-use pyrotechnic items in any combination


•    One distress flag (a flag at least three by three feet in size, in international orange with a black circle and square.

All distress signals have distinct advantages and disadvantages. No single device is ideal under all conditions or suitable for all purposes.  But the importance of having required Visual Distress Signals onboard cannot be stressed enough, especially as boaters weather these cold months when few others are out on the lakes and waterways to provide assistance. While there may be circumstances where VDS are not required by law, emergencies can arise suddenly and unexpectedly. That being the case, it’s always better to have them and not need them, than to need them and not have them.


An advantage to non-pyrotechnic Visual Distress Signals is that they can operate for a long period of time in an emergency. But they must be in serviceable condition, readily accessible, and certified by the manufacturer as complying with U.S. Coast Guard requirements.

Orange Distress Flag.

•    Used as a day signal only. Must be at least 3 x 3 feet with a black circle and square on an orange background. Must be marked with an indication that it meets U.S. Coast Guard requirements.
•    Most visible when attached and waved on a paddle or boat hook, or flown from a mast.
•    May be incorporated into devices designed to attract attention in an emergency, such as balloons, kites, or floating streamers.

Electric Distress Light

•    Acceptable for night use only
•    Automatically flashes the international SOS distress signal ( …---… )
•    Must be marked with an indication that it meets U.S. Coast Guard requirements.

Under Inland Navigation Rules, any high intensity white light flashing at regular intervals from 50-70 times per minute is considered a distress signal. Such devices do NOT count toward meeting the Visual Distress Signal requirement, however.


Pyrotechnics are excellent distress signals, but carry the potential for injury and property damage if not handled properly. If children are aboard, non-pyrotechnic devices may be a better choice for obvious reasons.

U.S. Coast Guard-approved pyrotechnic Visual Distress Signals and associated devices include:

•    Pyrotechnic red flares, hand-held or aerial
•    Pyrotechnic orange smoke, hand-held or floating
•    Launchers for aerial red meteors or parachute flares

Each of these devices has a different operating/burning time.  Check the label to see how long each device will remain illuminated, then choose one best suited to the conditions in the area where your vessel is typically used.  Store in a cool, dry place. A watertight container painted red or orange and prominently marked "DISTRESS SIGNALS" or FLARES" is recommended.

May 5, 2012

I am a U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary Instructor, and Public Affairs Officer. I conduct annual "Vessel Safety Day" within my AOR, where we demonstrate all the different VDS, and afterwards allow the participants (after signing a waiver) to fire off their own VDS under our supervision. If any Flotilla wants more info, contact me @

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