Thursday, June 18, 2009

Visual Distress Signals for Small Boats

Visual Distress Signals (VDSs) allow vessel operators to signal for help in the event of an emergency. VDSs are day signals (visible in bright sunlight), night signals (visible at night), or both day and night signals. VDSs are either pyrotechnic (smoke and flames) or non-pyrotechnic (non-combustible).

Vessels on federally controlled waters must be equipped with U.S. Coast Guard approved visual distress signals. All vessels, regardless of length or type, are required to carry night signals when operating between sunset and sunrise.

Most vessels must carry day signals also, exceptions to the requirement for day signals are:

Recreational vessels that are less than 16 feet in length.
Non-motorized open sailboats that are less than 26 feet in length.
Manually propelled vessels.

VDSs must be U.S. Coast Guard approved, in serviceable condition, and readily accessible.

If pyrotechnic VDSs are used, a minimum of three must be carried in the vessel. Also, pyrotechnic VDSs must be dated and will not meet VDS equipment requirements if past their expiration date.

Here are a few examples of the combinations of VDSs that could be carried on board your boat:

Three handheld red flares (day and night)
One handheld red flare and two red meteors (day and night)
One handheld orange smoke signal (day), two floating orange smoke signals (day), and one electric light (night only)

It is prohibited to display visual distress signals while on the water unless assistance is required to prevent immediate or potential danger to persons on board a vessel.

U.S. Coast Guard-Approved Visual Distress Signals
Pyrotechnic Visual Distress Signals

Orange Smoke: Day Signal
Red Meteor: Day and Night Signal
Red Flare: Day and Night Signal

Pyrotechnic Devices
Pyrotechnics are excellent distress signals. However, there is potential for injury and property damage if not handled properly. These devices produce a very hot flame, and the residue can cause burns and ignite flammable materials. Pistol-launched and handheld parachute flares and meteors have many characteristics of a firearm and must be handled with caution.

In some states, they are considered a firearm and are prohibited from use. Pyrotechnic devices should be stored in a cool, dry, and prominently marked location.

Non-Pyrotechnic Visual Distress Signals
Electric Light, night signal
Orange Flag, day signal