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Federal laws require boats more than 16 feet long, used in U.S. waters, to be equipped with visual distress signals for both day and night. Sailboats without propulsion or any manually-propelled boats are exempt from day signals, but must carry night signals when operating from sunset to sunrise. Some states have their own regulations.

Acceptable non-pyrotechnic devices include orange distress flags, mirrors and SOS distress flashlights.

Pyrotechnic devices (flares) are far more effective in attracting attention from a distance. They include hand held flares and parachute flares. All pyrotechnic devices must carry a Coast Guard approval number and not exceed the stamped expiration date.

There are many pyrotechnic devices available. Here is a list to see what best meets your needs.

Hand-Held Flares
Hand-held flares can be seen for about 5 miles, which vary from daylight to darkness. They should be held as high as possible at an angle overboard of the vessel to avoid burns from dripping slag.

Twelve – Gauge Meteor Flares
Twelve – gauge meteor flares are approved for both day and night use. They are fired from a pistol-type launcher; handle with care. This flare has an approximate visual distance of 21 miles. When launched, point it upward at an 80º angle to avoid its dropping back into your boat.

25 mm Meteor Flares
25 mm meteor flares are approved for both day and night use. They can be launched to about 375 feet. Visibility extends to about 27 miles. Meteors are fired by self-contained launchers or by a pistol. Pistol-launched 25 mm meteors burn three times brighter and climb 50 percent higher than 12-gauge meteors, with comparable burn times of 5 to 8 seconds. Discharge at an angle with the wind to your back to prevent them from descending into your boat.

25 mm Parachute Flares
25 mm parachute flares are approved for both day and night use. They can reach heights of 1,000 feet and descend slowly, giving a longer burning time. These flares can be seen for about 41 miles.

An Orange Smoke Flare
An orange smoke flare is approved for day use only but is most effective for pinpointing the location of a distressed vessel once attention is attracted.

Remember to store flares in a cool, dry location and never leave them where children can play with them; they are dangerous and can cause a severe burn or death if not properly handled.

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5 Responses to Visual Distress Signals – What Best Meets Your Needs

  1. Great reminder about the requirements and different types of distress signals. I would reiterate your point about the expiration dates — like fire extinguishers and other safety equipment, these devices have a finite shelf lives and should be checked periodically. They absolutely need to work when you want them to. Thanks.

  2. Bud says:

    What is the proper way to dispose of flares that have exceeded their experation date?

    • Randy Troutman says:

      Hi Bud great question. We may not have the final answer so anyone that would like to comment please do so.

      We find that the laws vary from state to state but most police, sheriff, fire departments, and the USCG and USCG Aux will accept expired flares. NEVER DISCARD IN THE TRASH OR IGNITE TO BURN OFF.

  3. Brian Briggs says:

    Just read your article about pyrotechnic devices. For sure, hand-held flares are likely to damage gelcoat or upholstery. We live near the Ontario border, and have been told that Canadian authorities do not approve of launching devices. Your comments would be appreciated.

    • Randy Troutman says:

      Hi Brian thank you for your response. We reviewed safety information online and did find the use of launching devices. Some of the data was older so you may want to double check with the Canadian authorities

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