Selecting Visual Distress Signals

By Tom Burden, Last updated: 5/6/2021

At some time, it is likely that most boaters may face a situation where you need assistance, if you run aground, have an engine failure, fire, leak or an injury to a member of your crew. Boaters use visual distress signals to attract attention in an emergency, either in the daytime or at night. Of course, using a VHF radio is another very effective way to communicate your situation to potential rescuers, but if your batteries are dead, visual distress signals may be your best hope.

The Regulations: Coastal Waters and the Great Lakes

All vessels used on coastal waters or the Great Lakes on any body of water with a passageway to the sea at least two miles wide are required to carry Coast Guard Approved visual distress signals. These can be either pyrotechnic devices (flares) or non-pyrotechnic devices (distress flags or signal lights like the Weems & Plath SOS Distress Light). If you use pyrotechnics, then you’ll need at least three daytime signals and three that are approved for night use for a total of six. Or three that are approved for both day and night signaling. If you use non-pyrotechnic signals, you only need one approved for daytime and one night signal.

These boats are NOT required to carry visual distress signals (but in many cases it is still a good idea to do so):

  • Boats participating in organized events like races, regattas or marine parades
  • Open sailboats less than 26 feet in length that are not equipped with mechanical engine propulsion
  • Manually-propelled boats

Day Signals vs. Night Signals

Boaters may select any group or combination as long as it meets the specific requirements for their boat:

Number on deviceDescriptionAccepted use forNumber required to be carried
160.021Handheld red flare distress signals (500 candela)Day and night3
160.022Floating orange smoke distress signalsDay only3
160.028Pistol-launched parachute red flare distress signalsDay and night3
160.036Handheld Rocket-propelled Parachute Red (20,000 candela)Day and night3
160.037Handheld orange smoke distress signals (50 seconds)Day only3
160.057Floating orange smoke distress signals (15 minutes)Day only3
160.066Distress signal for boats, red aerial pyrotechnic flare (10,000 candela) Day and night3
160.072Distress signal for boats, orange flagDay only1
161.013Electric distress light for boatsNight only1

Alert Signals vs. Locate Signals

Pyrotechnic Devices

Must be Coast Guard Approved, in serviceable condition and readily accessible. If they meet the day/night requirement, you need three flares, minimum. In a real emergency, you’ll be glad if you chose to carry more than that quantity. They’re stamped with an “expiration date” of 42 months (3 1/2 years from the date they were manufactured). You can keep them after they’re expired as extra equipment because they usually will still work, but you can’t count them as part of the Coast Guard’s requirements in a Vessel Safety Check inspection. We recommend storing the flares in a container like the Orion Flare Canister.

Alert Signals

Alert signals draw attention to your emergency. Meteor flares are propelled by black powder and launched from a pistol-shaped handheld holder. They reach an altitude of 375' to 500' and burn for 7-8 seconds. Rocket-propelled SOLAS parachute flares rise to 1,000' and burn for 40 seconds. Fire aerial flares after you have sighted or heard a potential rescue vessel. To attract their attention to your distress situation, the U.S. Coast Guard recommends that you fire two aerial flares - one immediately after the other - so rescuers can confirm the sighting and the direction of the signal.

Locate Signals

Locate signals are usually handheld flares and burn for one to two minutes. Orange SOLAS smoke flares are for daytime use only and are the best way for offshore boaters to show their location to rescuers searching in a Coast Guard helicopter. They float on the water’s surface and emit a dense orange cloud for three to four minutes. Handheld signal flares are intended as homing signals to pinpoint your position. The surface-to-surface sighting range on water is approximately three to five miles, depending on boat elevation. If a rescuer is five miles away and running at 20 miles per hour, it will take 15 minutes to reach you. Therefore, you should have at least 12 minutes (total burn time) of signals onboard to maintain a strong homing signal until help arrives.

Signal Kits Include Both Alert and Locate Flares

We carry a selection of Signal Kits geared for different types of boating—inland, coastal or offshore—that are packaged in waterproof storage cases and are much more economical than buying the items individually.

Weems and Plath SOS distress light

The Weems & Plath SOS Distress Light is a Coast Guard approved alternative to pyrotechnic flares.

Non-pyrotechnic Devices

An orange distress flag is 3' x 3' square with a black square and ball on an orange background. It’s for daytime use only and is less effective at catching attention than a flare, except that it is not limited by a short burning time. An electric distress signal is approved for night only, and must carry the marking: “Night Visual Distress Signal for Boats Complies with U. S. Coast Guard Requirements in 46 CFR 161.013. For Emergency Use Only.” To meet the requirements for both day and night use, the SOS Distress Light is packaged with an orange distress flag. What are the pros and cons of the non-pyrotechnic alternative?

Electronic Non-pyrotechnic Device Pros

  • No expiration date
  • Family safe so even your kids can operate it in an emergency
  • Easier to operate with a simple on/off switch; or unfold and display the distress flag
  • Visible up to 10+ nautical miles
  • Powered by replaceable “C” cell alkaline batteries that are available worldwide
  • Environmentally safe with no hazardous material disposal issues
  • Buoyant, so even if you drop it in the water, it’s still active
  • One time purchase so it’s less expensive in the long run

Electronic Non-pyrotechnic Device Cons

  • Only approved for night use, and flares may be much more visible than a distress flag in the daytime
  • More expensive one-time purchase
  • Uses batteries that can leak, corrode or fail

Should You Upgrade to SOLAS Signals?

Some categories of offshore boating activity have more rigorous requirements  (commercial vessels and participants in offshore sailing races). A good source for offshore outfitting information is the World Sailing (WS) Offshore Special Regulations, which sailboat racers use to equip their boats for offshore racing. The WS requires many more flares than USCG minimum requirements, all of which must meet SOLAS requirements.

We advise offshore fishing vessels, cruisers, and any vessel that operates in open water to use the WS guidelines for distress signals. WS requirements, for races from local and protected (Category 4) to “Round the World” (Category 0) are:

Race Category:Red ParachuteRed HandheldOrange Smoke
0 Trans-oceanic642
1 Long distance / well offshore642
2 Shorelines / lg. unprotected bays/ lakes442
3 Relatively protected / close to shorelines442
4 Monohull / Close to shore / relatively warm or protected waters042
4 Multihull / Close to shore / relatively warm or protected waters242

SOLAS flares (SOLAS stands for Safety Of Life At Sea) are a step up from conventional Coast Guard Approved pyrotechnic signals. They meet stricter standards set by an international safety organization. SOLAS parachute flares ascend to 1,000' and burn at a dazzling 30,000 candela for 40 seconds.

Handheld SOLAS flares are waterproof and very bright, burning for one minute at 15,000 candela (compared to 700 candela for regular Coast Guard Approved flares). They also do not spray out molten material, unlike standard flares, so they’re safer to use, especially onboard a life raft.

In some instances, SOLAS flares must be carried instead of conventional Coast Guard-approved flares. As mentioned above, sailboats participating in races organized under the International Sailing Federation must carry them and commercial fishing boats that venture more than 50 miles offshore must also carry a modest inventory of SOLAS flares, including three parachute flares, six handheld red flares and three smoke flares. Vessels operating from 3–50 miles offshore aren’t required to have SOLAS-grade flares, but we sure think it’s a good idea.

Number of Signals We Recommend

Carry double the number of meteor or hand flares required: they’re cheap, and you’ll be grateful if you ever need to attract attention.