|Signaling for Help|
Table of Contents:
By Mike Baron
Boat owners and operators should know the federal and state requirements for visual distress signals (VDS) and how to use signaling devices in an emergency.
Federal regulations state that vessels operating on U.S. coastal waters, the Great Lakes and territorial seas—as well as on directly connected rivers, bays and other waterways up to a point where the waterway is less than two miles wide—must be equipped with U.S. Coast Guard-approved visual distress signals. Boats owned in the United States and operating on the high seas must also be equipped with VDS.
As with most regulations, however, there are exceptions. Boaters are exempt from carrying daytime VDS if their boat is less than 16 feet long, manually propelled, a sailboat of completely open construction that is not equipped with propulsion machinery and is under 26 feet in length, or competing in an organized marine parade, regatta, race or similar event. Every boat operating between sunset and sunrise must carry VDS suitable for night use, however.
That sounds a little confusing, but the excluded boats typically operate during daylight hours and even then usually do not venture very far offshore. So if you are out at night on waterways covered by federal regulations you must have nighttime VDS aboard regardless of the size or propulsion of your boat.
VDS can be pyrotechnic (giving off smoke and/or flame; flares, for example) or non-pyrotechnic (flags or electronic equipment). If you choose pyrotechnic devices, you’ll need a minimum of three signals for day and three for night, or just three pyrotechnic VDS approved for both day and night use.
Other combinations of pyrotechnic and non-pyrotechnic will meet federal requirements as well. For example:
The minimum VDS requirement for sunset to sunrise is:
The minimum VDS requirement for sunrise to sunset is:
All distress signals have distinct advantages and disadvantages. No single device is ideal under all conditions or suitable for all purposes. But the importance of having required visual distress signals onboard cannot be stressed enough. While there may be circumstances where VDS are not required by law, emergencies can arise suddenly and unexpectedly.
TYPES OF VISUAL DISTRESS SIGNALS
An advantage to non-pyrotechnic visual distress signals is that they can operate for a long period of time in an emergency. But they must be in serviceable condition, readily accessible and certified by the manufacturer as complying with U.S. Coast Guard requirements.
Under Inland Navigation Rules, any high intensity white light flashing at regular intervals from 50 to 70 times per minute is considered a distress signal. Such devices do NOT count toward meeting the visual distress signal requirement, however.
Pyrotechnics are excellent distress signals, but carry the potential for injury and property damage if not handled properly. If children are aboard, non-pyrotechnic devices may be a better choice for obvious reasons.
U.S. Coast Guard-approved pyrotechnic visual distress signals and associated devices include: