Visual Distress Signals

Ian Fortey by Ian Fortey Updated on May 8, 2021. In nauticalknowhow

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Visual Distress Signals

The most common method that a mariner uses to notify the Coast Guard that they are in distress is via their marine VHF-FM radio. I strongly encourage all boaters to have a radio on board their vessel, especially if their boating activities take them offshore. During the past year Coast Guard Station Fort Pierce has responded to at least 75 cases in which the boat and crew were reported overdue. These vessels would have been able to call for and obtain help a lot sooner if they had a radio on board. In one case the vessel with its two occupants were drifting north at four knots in the Gulf Stream. They were very lucky that we were able to locate their speck of a vessel on the vast expanse of the ocean.

Annex IV of the Coast Guard’s Navigation Rules publication lists many of the additional marine visual distress signals that can be used to attract attention. They include a gun fired at intervals of one minute (extreme care must be used when firing weapons), a continuous sounding of a fog signaling apparatus, red flares, SOS morse code, the words Mayday spoken over the radio telephone, the international call letters N.C. (November, Charlie), a visual signal consisting of a square boat distress flag having above or below it a ball or any thing resembling a ball, flames on a vessel, orange smoke, slowly and repeatedly raising and lowering arms outstretched to each side, emergency positioning indicating radio beacon (EPIRB), in inland waters only a high intensity white light flashing at 50 to 70 times a minute.

The Coast Guard requires that recreational vessels carry three day and three night visual distress signals. The exceptions to this regulation are powered vessels under 16 feet and open sailing vessels under 26 feet without motors. These two exceptions are required to carry them if operated at night on coastal waters. Coastal waters are defined as:

  1. The territorial sea (ocean)
  2. Great Lakes
  3. Bays, or Sounds which empty into (1) and (2) above
  4. Rivers over two miles across at their mouths and upstream to where the river narrows to two miles

The Coast Guard requires that the three required day night signals be Coast Guard Approved. Table (1) below, provides a list of the required signals, and describes whether they are a pyrotechnic signal and whether they are approved as day, or a day and night signal. The electric distress light must be able to automatically flash the signal SOS, three short, three long, three short.

At the present time the serviceable life of a pyrotechnic device is rated at 42 months from its date of manufacture. Pyrotechnics beyond this 42 month date should be replaced with new devices. I strongly encourage that you carefully check the expiration date before purchasing pyrotechnics. The disposal of expired pyrotechnic devices should be done in accordance with local county and state hazardous waste regulations. Please check with these local authorities to obtain the correct disposal procedures.

USCG Approved Visual Distress Signals


Table 1: Visual Distress Signals
Orange smoke Pyrotechnic Visual Distress Signals Launchers
CG Approval Number Description Use
Hand-Held Flare
Floating Orange Smoke
Pistol Parachute Red Flare
Hand-Held Parachute Red Flare
Hand-Held Orange Smoke
Floating Orange Smoke
Red Aerial Pyrotechnic Flare
Day Only
Day Only
Day Only
Distress flag Non-Pyrotechnic Visual Distress Signals Distress signal
Orange Flag
Electric Distress Light
Day Only
Night Only


Extreme care should be exercised when using pyrotechnic devices. They burn with an intense heat which can cause severe burns if they are improperly used. Before using be sure to read all manufacturers instructions.

If you are in the unfortunate situation of being in distress it would not usually be wise to fire off all of your flares at once and then be left with no means of signaling an approaching search vessel. If no one is in sight, fire off one in an attempt to draw attention from someone beyond your line of sight over the horizon. Await a visual response of some kind i.e., an approaching vessels lights. As the vessel approaches your vicinity fire off another signal, thereby, assisting the vessel to zero in on your position. It is not uncommon for the Coast Guard search vessel to energize the law enforcement blue light in an attempt to draw a flare from the vessel or people that are in distress. Therefore, if you are in distress and see the flashing blue light in the distance you may want to signal the Coast Guard search vessel with a flare.

If pyrotechnic visual distress signals can’t be used, then an orange flag can be used in the day time, or an electric orange light can be used at night. Both of these are Coast Guard approved visual distress signals.

If you are a boater who observes a flare, your knowledge of specific information that the Coast Guard needs to respond may save a life. The first thing we need to know is your position. Latitude and longitude is preferred, but we can work with a geographic position if that is all that is available. Next we would like to obtain a magnetic bearing from your vessel. You can obtain this by looking over the top of your vessels compass toward the direction of the flare. You may be able to just point your vessel in that direction and read the compass. With your information and that of another reporting source we will be able to cross the bearings and obtain an estimated position in which to center our search efforts

Often there is only one reporting source with a position and magnetic bearing, in this case we need to obtain the angle which the flare rose above the horizon from your position. The simplest way for you to determine this is by stretching your hand out in front of you and making a fist. Line the bottom of your fist up with the horizon. Each finger in your fist is equal to about two degrees when compared with the horizon. All we need to know is how many fingers the flare rose above the horizon. We will also request to know if the flare rose and fell at an equal speed (meteor flare) or rose quickly and descended slowly (parachute flare). This description will help us determine the elevation that the flare rose. With all of this information we can now estimate how far the flare was fired from your position and support our efforts to narrow down the ocean to a more manageable search area so that we can quickly locate those in distress,

To learn more complete a USCG Auxiliary Boating Skills and Seamanship Course. Also, I encourage that you have your local Coast Guard Auxiliary Flotilla conduct a free courtesy marine examination of your vessel. For answers to these and many more questions please call the Coast Guard’s Boating Safety Hotline at 1-800-368-5647.

For more information on distress signals, see Graphic Chart of Visual Distress Signals for Boats.

Visual Distress Signals


Red Star
Fog Horn
f Continuous
Flames on
A Vessel
Gun Fired at Intervals of One Minute
Black Ball &
SOS “Mayday”
by Radio
Red Flare
Dye Marker
(any color)
Code Flags
Square Flag
and Ball
Epirb Smoke

If in doubt, always remember the answer to this question:

“What is the international emergency signal for distress?”

The internationally recognized signal for distress focuses on the number 3. Three bursts of any signal, such as three whistles, three flashes of a light, or three bursts of sound. In open areas, a large X is generally seen as a distress signal: a large X drawn on the ground, as big as you can make it, will attract attention.

About Ian

My grandfather first took me fishing when I was too young to actually hold up a rod on my own. As an avid camper, hiker, and nature enthusiast I'm always looking for a new adventure.


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