Knowing what to do in the event of an emergency is integral to having a safe and fun recreational boating experience. Maintaining up-to-date nautical charts and keeping an eye on the weather can help you avoid major incidents, but no amount of preparation can take the place of emergency signaling equipment like flags and flares.
Boaters of all experience levels should carry emergency distress signals on board. That way, if you run into danger, you’ll have everything you need on hand to get help.
U.S. COAST GUARD SAFETY REGULATIONS
Having visual distress signals on your boat isn’t just a good idea – it’s the law. The U.S. Coast Guard has a guide outlining which signals are approved for use by day or night, as well as for recreational vs. commercial vessels.
Some vessels, such as kayaks, rowboats, and some sailboats, are exempt from these rules during daytime hours, but all vessels must have appropriate signals at night. The rules apply on all bodies of water greater than 2 miles wide, including coastal waters.
TYPES OF EMERGENCY DISTRESS SIGNALS
If you’re operating a vessel that’s longer than 16 feet, you’re required to have at least three daytime signals and three nighttime signals – or three signals that can be used either in the daytime or at night. Visual distress signals can be broken down into two categories: pyrotechnic and non-pyrotechnic.
Pyrotechnic Visual Distress Signals: Pyrotechnic distress signals include handheld and parachute flares, and other devices that create light, flame, smoke, or sound. Aerial flares are designed to travel as high as 375 to 500 feet into the air, making it easier for rescuers to locate you, while parachute flares are designed to descend slowly and burn for up to 40 seconds.
Other pyrotechnic options include floating smoke signals that release orange smoke for anywhere from 5 to 15 minutes. You may need a combination of several different types of flares before your rescuer can successfully locate you.
Non-pyrotechnic Visual Distress Signals: Non-pyrotechnic distress signals include a wider range of equipment, including marker dyes, SOS distress lights, flags, and signal mirrors. These types of devices last longer than pyrotechnic devices but may not be as visible. Here’s a brief run-down of each of these options:
- Marker dyes are used to dye the water around your vessel (up to 150 sq. ft.) and are most useful when an aerial search has already begun.
- SOS distress lights are LED devices that can last for up to 60 hours and can be seen for up to 10 nautical miles. They flash the international SOS signal.
- Signal mirrors are handheld mirrors that allow you to reflect sunlight over great distances. They usually have a small hole in them to help you aim.
- A distress flag is a visual signaling device that can be effective during daytime hours. It should be 3 x 3 feet in size, with a black circle and square on an orange background. Wave it from a paddle or mast for the most visibility.
Other distress signals include non-visual devices such as EPIRBs (Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacons), radio signals, airhorns, and other noisemakers.
TIPS FOR USING EMERGENCY DISTRESS SIGNALS
Since you only have a limited number of devices on your boat, it’s important to use them wisely. Remember that even after you’ve signaled for help, your rescuers still need to be able to locate you, and it may take minutes or hours for them to get to you.
Your first step should be to fire your red distress flare, and then another one right after it, so your rescuers can determine your position. Even if a rescue boat sees your flare, you may continue to drift on the water, and they may not be able to see you over the horizon until they’re within 3 to 5 miles of your boat.
That means you should use your additional flares strategically, and only when the signal is likely to be seen by another vessel. Smoke signals, handheld flares, and marker dyes all work better in some weather conditions than others.
Finally, always be careful when using pyrotechnic devices. They’re essentially fireworks, so you should wear gloves and point them away from people and objects.
Of course, the best scenario is one in which you don’t need to use emergency distress signals at all. At OceanGrafix, you can search for up-to-date nautical charts by region, or view our Light Lists for guides to buoys, beacons, and other navigational aids.