All vessels used on coastal waters, the Great Lakes, territorial seas and those waters connected directly to them up to a point where a body of water is greater than two miles wide, must be equipped with U.S.C.G.-approved visual distress signals. Vessels owned in the United States but operating on the high seas must be equipped with U.S.C.G.-approved visual distress signals.
Pyrotechnic visual distress signals must be Coast Guard-approved, in serviceable condition and readily accessible. This means that:
They are marked with an expiration date. Expired signals may be carried as extra equipment, but cannot be counted toward meeting the visual distress signal requirement, since they may be unreliable.
If pyrotechnic devices are selected, a minimum of three are required. That is, three signals for day use and three signals for night. Some pyrotechnic signals meet both day and night use requirements.
Pyrotechnic devices 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.
U.S.C.G.-approved pyrotechnic visual distress signals and associated devices include pyrotechnic red flares, hand-held or aerial; pyrotechnic orange smoke, hand-held or floating, or launchers for aerial red meteors or parachute flares.
Non-pyrotechnic devices may be allowed. These include an orange distress flag (day signal only) or an electric distress light (which is acceptable for night use). Use of these devices must still meet Coast Guard requirements, information for which is available online and from the Coast Guard.
Under Inland Navigation Rules, a 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. Regulations prohibit display of visual distress signals on the water under any circumstances except when assistance is required to prevent immediate or potential danger to persons on board a vessel.
All distress signals have distinct advantages. No single device is ideal under all conditions or suitable for all purposes. Pyrotechnics are universally recognized as excellent distress signals. However, there is potential for injury and property damage if not properly handled. Particular care should be used in stowage of pyrotechnics if children will be on board. These devices produce a very hot flame and the residue can cause burns and ignite flammable materials.
Check with local authorities regarding the best visual distress signal for use in the area in which you will be boating.