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Neuse Sailing Association

Emergency Signaling Devices 

Many methods of emergency signaling

Notes from NSA Seminar Aug 5th 2017
By: NSA member Jim Nixon

Cell phone

Satellite messenger (SPOT)
Satellite phone

VHF radio (w DSC capability)
HF radio


Visual distress signals are the ONLY ONES that are USCG required!

Visual distress signals can only be effective when someone is in a position to see

You MUST carry USCG approved visual distress signals, day and night, on your boat if you are:

      • Operating on coastal waters, Great Lakes, territorial seas or waters connected to them up to the point where the (opening for the) body of water is less than 2 miles wide (If the opening to the body of water is less than 2 miles wide, no visual distress signals are required by the Coast Guard, for example Pamlico Sound.  On Chesapeake Bay however, you would be required to have them.)
      •  Operating a boat owned in the US on the high seas

UNLESS you are:

      •      Less than 16’ long, or
      •      Participating in an organized event such as a race, regatta, or marine parade, or
      •      An open sailboat less than 26’ long not equipped with propulsion machinery, or
      •      Manually propelled ·

(These vessels are not required to carry day signals but must carry night signals when operating from sunset to sunrise.)

Coast Guard Approved Visual Distress Signals (required in an onboard inspection)

Non-pyrotechnic devices
Orange distress flag

      •        Day use only
      •        At least 3’X3’ with a black square and ball on an orange background
      •        Must be marked with an indication that it meets Coast Guard requirements in 46 CFR160.072
      •        Can be attached to a paddle, boathook  or flown from the mast
      •        Can be incorporated as part of devices to attract attention in an emergency such as balloons, kites, or floating streamers

Electric distress light

      •        Night use only
      •        Automatically flashes the SOS signal (… --- …)
      •        Must be marked with an indication that it meets Coast Guard requirements in 46 CFR161.013

High intensity white light flashing at regular intervals of 50-70 times per minute

      •        Inland Navigation rules only
      •        Does NOT count toward visual signaling requirements for your vessel

Signaling mirror

No longer an approved Coast Guard signaling device

      •        Day use only (although can be used to reflect spotlights back to searching assets at night)

Pyrotechnic devices
Must be Coast Guard approved, in serviceable condition, and readily accessible Include:

      • Pyrotechnic red flares, hand held or aerial (meteors, parachute flares)
      • Day and night use
      • Pyrotechnic orange smoke, hand held or floating
      • Day use only
      • Launchers for aerial red meteors or parachute flares
      • Day and night use

If pyrotechnic devices are carried, a minimum of three are required, three signals for day use, and three for night use.  Some devices meet both requirements and will count toward both.

Must be marked with an expiration date (good for a period of 42 months from date of manufacture) (Expired devices can be carried as extra equipment but do not count toward meeting the visual signal requirements)

Launchers manufactured before 1/1/81, intended for use with approved signals, are not required to be Coast Guard approved

Should be stored in a cool, dry, location, if possible

A watertight container painted red or orange and prominently marked “DISTRESS SIGNALS” or ”FLARES” is recommended

Pyrotechnic devices that are used by the military (mil spec) are not approved and will be confiscated by the Coast Guard if found aboard a civilian vessel.

Distress Signals that are not Coast Guard Approved
(But that are recognized by the ‘72 COLREGS)


      •        Flames on a vessel (hopefully in a bucket!)
      •        Dye marker in the water (any color)
      •        "N’’ (November) “C” (Charlie) code flags flown                                                                                        
      •        Black square flag over a black ball flag flown (two separate flags)
      •        Person waving arms

Non visual

      •        Continuously sounding a fog horn
      •        Firing a gun continuously at intervals of 1 minute
      •        S-O-S (…---…) by any means
      •        “Mayday” by radio
      •        Any radio transmitted alarm (verbal or by DSC)
      •        An alarm transmitted by radio position indicating beacon (EPIRB) (Not necessarily recognized by ‘72 COLREGS, but by convention as identified by Chapman’s)
      •        Red/orange flag any size waved side to side
      •        US National or yacht ensign flown upside down

You are looking for a signaling device that identifies you as being in trouble or suitably distinguishes your vessel from others in the area and will maximize the chances that your vessel will be sighted by assets looking for you (cars, boats, ships, airplanes, helicopters).

All distress signals have advantages and disadvantages, no single device is ideal for all conditions or suitable for all situations.  Carrying a variety of devices suitable to your boating environment, location, weather, and expense account is recommended.

Pyrotechnics are universally accepted as excellent distress signals.  However, there is potential for personal injury and property damage if not handled properly.  They produce a hot flame and burning residue that can cause burns and ignite flammable materials.

Pistol launched and hand held meteors and parachute flares have many characteristics of firearms and should be handled with caution. In some states and countries, they are considered a firearm and are subject to more stringent requirements, or prohibited from use entirely. 




Electric distress light

(night use only)

Very bright focused light beam
50,000 c.p.
10 mi visibility
60 hour duration

Not as effective as pyrotechnics

Distress flag

(day only)


Totally passive

Not nearly as effective as smoke

Smoke flares

Very effective for attracting attention in daylight
Variable burn time (60-240 sec.)
Floating smoke (SOLAS) will not ignite oil or fuel on water

Invisible at night
Daylight visibility dependent on weather, wind, humidity.
Variable burn time (60-240 sec.)

Burns, gets hot, fire hazard

Hand held flares

Long duration (60-180 sec.)
Variable brilliance (700-15,000 c.p.)
Best used for location

Difficult to see in daylight
Variable brilliance (700-15,000 c.p.)
Poor to attract attention
Hot burning slag
Hot to hold

Meteor/aerial flares

Go up (250-500’ altitude)
Variable brilliance (16,000-35,000 c.p.)
Some are hand launched


Difficult to see in daylight
Short duration (6-8 secs.)
Go up (250-500’ altitude)
Fall quickly
Height attained dependent of boat motion, wind, angle of shot
Usually launched in pairs for effective attraction, one to attract, one to confirm
Some require launcher
Some launched with potentially dangerous firearm

Parachute flares

Medium duration (29-40 secs.)
High altitude (1000’)
Very bright (17,000-30,000 c.p.)
Good to attract attention
Visible for great distances
SOLAS have self-contained launchers

Difficult to see in daylight
Height attained dependent of boat motion, wind, angle of shot
Non-SOLAS require a launcher
Some launched with potentially dangerous firearm


The purpose of signaling devices is for you to be seen, especially when and where people aren’t looking for you.

Appropriately suited for your type of boating and where you boat

Daylight use:    Smoke for best attraction/location

Nighttime use:  Multiple aerial/meteor or parachute flares for attraction

Hand held flares for location

Near-shore and coastal: burn time and brightness are most important
Offshore: Height is paramount

*As identified by info provided by both BoatU.S. and West Marine in articles referenced:
Original September 1998 Boat U.S. Magazine article, “Flare Tests Enlightening”
Updated November 2008 Boat U.S. Magazine article, “Flare Tests Enlightening”
Updated June 2012 "Pyrotechnic/Visual Distress Signals"

You are prohibited from displaying visual distress signals under any circumstances except when assistance is required to prevent immediate or potential danger to persons onboard a vessel.

The unwritten law of the sea requires that a mariner come to the aid of a
mariner in distress. Therefore, should you see a distress signal, immediate and positive action should be taken. Notify the nearest Coast Guard station or State authority by radio. Channel 9 on CB and Channel 16 on VHF marine radio (156.8 MHz) are recognized distress channels. If you can assist the stricken vessel without endangering yourself, you should. The Federal Boat Safety Act of 1971 contains a "Good Samaritan" clause stating: "Any person ....who gratuitously and in good faith renders assistance at the scene of a vessel collision, accident, or other casualty without objection of any person assisted, shall not be held liable for any act or omission in providing or arranging salvage, towage, medical treatment, or other assistance where the assisting person acts as an ordinary, reasonably prudent man or woman would have acted under the same or similar circumstances."

Visual Signaling Devices  

Prices (from 2016 Boat U.S. catalogue)





Sirius Signal SOS Distress Light with Distress Flag

(night only)

Flashes SOS (…---…)

Visible up to 10 mi.

Approved USCG (46 CFR 161.013).



Distress flag

(day only)

3’ square





Orange hand held smoke signal

(day only)

Visible up to 5 mi.

60 sec. burn time


3 pack



SOLAS Orange floating smoke signal

(day only)

4 min burn time




Red hand held flares


Visible up to 5 mi.

Almost 3 min burn time

700 c.p.

4 pack


SOLAS red hand held flare


1 min burn time

15,000 c.p.



Anti-collision white hand held flare

Not USCG or SOLAS approved

1 min burn time

10,000 c.p.




“Pocket” aerial flare

Self-contained, water-proof, buoyant

7 sec burn time

16,000 c.p

4 pack


12-ga. red aerial flare

(used with 12-ga. gun launcher) (day/night)

7 second burn time

16,000 c.p.

4 pack


12-ga. red aerial flares w gun

1 gun

4 flares


25 mm red aerial meteor (flare)

(used with 25 mm gun launcher)


Visible up to 27 mi.

Burn time 6 sec.

33,000 c.p.

Rises to 375’

4 pack


25 mm flare gun

1 gun



25 mm red aerial parachute flare

(used with 25 mm gun launcher)


Burn time 29 sec.

17,000 c.p.

Rises to 1,000’

SOLAS red parachute flare

Self-contained, hand launched (day/night)

Burn time 40 sec.

30,000 c.p.

Rises to 1,000’



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