Sound Producing Devices

Chris Riley by Chris Riley Updated on June 28, 2020. In nauticalknowhow

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Chapter IV – Legal Requirements

Section 2e – Required Equipment

Sound Producing Devices

Illustration of signaling devices, including bell, aerasol air horn, electric-powered air horn, and whistle.The navigation rules require sound signals to be made under certain circumstances. Meeting, crossing and overtaking situations described in the Navigation Rules section are examples of when sound signals are required. Recreational vessels are also required to sound signals during periods of reduced visibility.

When operating on Inland Waters of the United States, vessels 39.4 feet/12 meters or more in length are required to carry on board a whistle or horn, and a bell.

Note: The requirement to carry a bell on board no longer applies to vessels operating on International Waters.

Any vessel less than 39.4 feet/12 meters in length may carry a whistle or horn, or some other means to make an efficient sound signal to signal your intentions and to signal your position in periods of reduced visibility.

Therefore, any vessel less than 39.4 feet/12 meters in length is required to make an efficient sound signal to signal your intentions and to signal your position in periods of reduced visibility.

Visual Distress Signals

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 less than two miles wide, must be equipped with U.S.C.G. Approved visual distress signals. Vessels owned in the United States operating on the high seas must be equipped with U.S.C.G. Approved visual distress signals.

Illustration showing where visual distress signals must be used on waters directly connected to coastal waters, the Great Lakes, and territorial seas

Graphic courtesy of USCG

These vessels are not required to carry day signals but must carry night signals when operating from sunset to sunrise:

  • Recreational boats less than 16 feet in length
  • Boats participating in organized events such as races, regattas, or marine parades.
  • Open sailboats less than 26 feet in length not equipped with propulsion machinery.
  • Manually propelled boats.

These signaling devices must be in serviceable condition, stowed where readily accessible and marked with a date showing serviceable life. Make sure they have not expired. (Distress flares, smoke flares and meteor rockets have expiration dates 42 months after the date of manufacture.)

The U. S. Coast Guard regulations prohibit display of distress signals except when a distress actually exists. You should only use distress signals when help is close enough to see the signal. The U. S. Coast Guard recognizes both pyrotechnic and non-pyrotechnic devices.

A minimum of three pyrotechnic devices must be carried. Pyrotechnic VDSs must be U. S. Coast Guard-approved, in serviceable condition, and readily accessible.

The following combinations of signals are examples of Pyrotechnic VDSs that could be carried onboard to satisfy U. S. Coast Guard requirements:

  • Three hand-held red flares (day and night)
  • One hand-held red flare and two red meteors (day and night).
  • One hand-held orange smoke signal (day), two floating orange smoke signals (day) and one electric light (night only).


boating safety course Orange distress flag Pyrotechnic red flares, hand-held or aerial

boating safety course Launchers

Launchers for aerial red meteors or parachute flares
boating safety course Orange smoke Pyrotechnic orange smoke, hand-held or floating
Non-Pyrotechnic Devices Include:
boating safety course distress flag Orange distress flag
boating safety course distress signals Electric distress signal


General Information about flares

  • Read and understand the instructions
  • Note expiration date and replace as necessary
  • Hold lighted flares downwind and away from the boat
  • Do not point them at anyone and hold away from your body
  • Store in a watertight container such as a zip-lock bag
  • Store where readily accessible and ready to use
  • Use only in case of an emergency

About Chris

Outdoors, I’m in my element, especially in the water. I know the importance of being geared up for anything. I do the deep digital dive, researching gear, boats and knowhow and love keeping my readership at the helm of their passions.


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