Boating Distress Signals That We Must Know

Spending time out on the open water is very fun and fulfilling, but in some situations, it can also be very dangerous. It’s very important that every boating enthusiast be aware of the visual boating distress signals to be used in the event of an emergency, or that might indicate that a nearby boat is in trouble.

Being aware of these visual distress signals before heading out on the water will prepare you to take action and maybe even save someone’s life in the event of an emergency. Here are the most important boating distress signals to know, when they’re appropriate for use, and what you should do if you see them out on the water.

Boating Distress Signal Basics

There are a variety of different types of accepted boating distress signals. The accepted US distress signals are listed in the Coast Guard’s Navigation rule 37, which states that boats shall use accepted distress signals to communicate to others that they require assistance.

Boating Distress Signals
Boating Distress Signals

Most are dependent on the specific situation you’re in – for example, there are some signals that are only to be used at night, and some that are only for use on inland bodies of water. However, under no circumstances should you use a distress signal unless it’s actually an emergency. False alarms not only come with legal penalties, but they also can be very dangerous for other boaters.

In many places around the world, all boats are required to be equipped with the necessary materials to put out visual distress signals. In the US, boats must have distress signals when sailing in bodies of water more than two miles wide, or when sailing in international waters.

There are some exceptions for smaller boats during daytime hours. For example, in the US, boats under 16 feet long are only required to carry night signals, not day signals. Having the appropriate distress signals on hand is essential for sailing safety – you never know when an emergency could happen.

Pyrotechnic Distress Signals

Pyrotechnic distress signals are one of the most commonly known types of distress signals. This type of distress signal is so effective because it can help others find your boat quickly.

In the US, the three types of pyrotechnic flares used are parachute flares, orange smoke flares, and red flares. These flares can either be launched or handheld. It’s important that they are in good condition so that they can be used safely. In some cases, a gun fired at intervals of one minute are also acceptable distress signals.

You should always carry at least three pyrotechnic signals that can be used during the day and three that can be used at night. Any combination of the aforementioned pyrotechnic distress signals will work.

Generally, smoke flares are more effective during the day, while red flares and parachute flares are for use at night. In the event of an emergency, you’ll likely need to set off more than one flare to catch the attention of another boat.

Other Types of Distress Signals

There are a variety of other types of distress signals that can be used to indicate an emergency. One of the most common is distress signal flags, which can be put up to indicate to passing boats that you are in distress. This flag usually features a square and ball pattern, although there are a few types of approved flags for distress signals. These are crucial to have on hand because they are very easy to use.

Another type of distress signal is a continuous foghorn sound. This distress signal is often used in large bodies of water because the sound of a foghorn will carry very far and have a good chance of attracting other boats.

In inland waters, you can also use a flashing white light to indicate distress. The light should blink approximately 50 to 70 times per minute and should be very intense to be effective.

Another good distress signal that can be used in combination with other distress signals is water dye. This is released into the water around your boat and turns it a different color, making it easier for aerial search vehicles to find you.

Communicating your distress via radio or morse code is another way to indicate to nearby boats that you need help. Of course, in many cases, you may not be able to send out a radio signal, but if you can, this is one of the first things you should do.

You can send out a radio signal saying ‘mayday’ or an SOS via morse code. Some radio systems have a distress alarm built in. If all else fails, waving your arms to a passing boat is typically an accepted indication of distress.

Where to Buy And Store Your Distress Signals

Distress signals can be purchased from a variety of different retailers, such as sporting goods stores and online shops. It’s important when purchasing your distress signals to make sure they are Coast Guard approved if you are in the United States, or approved by wherever you will be sailing. It’s also important to make sure they are good quality and durable, as they will likely stay in your boat for a long time.

Your distress signals need to be stored onboard in a safe place that is still accessible. It should be far enough out of the way that others won’t accidentally move them or open them, but they should still be easy to reach in the event of an emergency. They should be stored in a hard box that is clearly labeled distress signals. Be sure to keep them far out of reach of any children that may be on board.

When To Use Distress Signals

Distress signals at sea

There are many instances in which you may need to use boating distress signals. In general, any situation where you immediately need assistance from another boat will warrant the use of distress signals. It’s better to put out a distress signal right away as opposed to waiting until the problem has gotten worse because your chances of receiving help are greater.

Medical emergencies typically warrant the use of distress signals, as do technical issues with your boat. It’s important to set off distress signals in a place where others are most likely to hear or see them. For example, if you are setting off a flare, look for aircraft flying overhead and try to time your flare so they will see it. You will also want to use radar and look for other boats nearby to try and catch their attention.

It’s important to be very cautious when setting off pyrotechnic distress signals because they can be very dangerous if not used correctly. Since they are so hot, they should be shot off at an angle where they won’t ignite your boat or any other nearby boats.

It’s important to remember that each pyrotechnic signal can be used only once, so your timing is absolutely critical. Frequent boat users should be trained in the safest ways to set off a pyrotechnic signal, so you won’t have to waste time trying to figure out how to set off the flares and can instead deal with the situation at hand.

It’s also important to keep in mind the weather when setting off a distress signal. For example, smoke signals work very well on clear days with light to moderate winds, but if winds are heavy, the smoke will disperse faster and won’t catch the attention of other boats as effectively.

If it’s raining, you may also find that the visibility will make it difficult for others to see flares and flags. In these cases, audio distress signals such as a foghorn or a radio signal will be much more effective. For radio communications, we can use Marine VHF radios or marine stereos.

If you are inland, you may find that an intense flashing light will be most effective, because it can cut through fog or rain and catch the attention of other boats.

What To Do When You See A Distress Signal

It’s important to be prepared to help if you see another boat in distress. Familiarizing yourself with the accepted distress signals will not only help you in an emergency, but it can also help you save someone’s life. The first thing to do when you see another boat in distress is to alert the Coast Guard right away, making sure to give the exact location of the boat to speed up the rescue process.

You can also put out an alert on either CB channel 9 or VHF marine radio channel 16. These are used as distress channels. This is why a quality marine VHF radio is always important. Then, you should determine if you can assist the other boat. If you can help them by providing resources or transportation back to shore, you should. However, you should also take care not to put yourself and others on your boat in danger. Use your best judgment to help others.


Familiarizing yourself with distress signals is an important part of sailing, and definitely not one to be neglected. Every sailor, whether professional or recreational, should know how to keep themselves safe on the water with distress signals. It is an important boating safety tip from all experts.

Even though it’s unlikely you’ll experience an emergency, being prepared with a proper life jacket on is always helpful. If you are sailing and do not have good sailing knives for your own safety, you may face an ugly situation for not remembering a small thing. Please make a small checklist before you touch the water.

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