Signal device requirements and use

Signal device requirements and use

by Conrad & Judy Kreuter

Q: Dear Boat Talk: Could you educate me on the necessity for signaling devices on my boat? PT Huntington Station NY.

A: Dear PT: 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 United States Coast guard approved visual distress signals. Vessels owned in the United States, operating on the high seas must also be equipped as well.

The following 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 then 26 feet in length not equipped with propulsion machinery
  • Manually propelled boats

To meet the Coast Guard visual distress requirements, a minimum of three visual distress signals must be carried. Any combination of signals may be carried so long as they add up to three signals for day use and three signals for night use. Search and rescue experts recommend that you carry at least six signals on board.

Pyrotechnic signaling devices (including aerial and hand held signals) expire 42 months after the date of manufacture in accordance with the Coast Guard requirements. This means that you must replace your flares every three boating seasons. The Coast Guard regulations require that each pyrotechnic device must be stamped with the expiration date. Only non-expired signals comply with Coast Guard requirements.

The Coast Guard may impose a civil penalty up to $1,100.00 for failure to comply with equipment requirements.

The purpose of distress signaling is simple: first, to attract attention, and second, to pinpoint your location to guide the responding party to your craft. Remember nothing can happen until someone’s attention is attracted!

Only visual distress signals marked with a US Coast Guard approval or certification number meet the Coast Guard requirements. The most commonly used and recommended marine distress signals for meeting the Coast Guard signal requirements are:

  • Red parachute aerial flares- accepted day or night use
  • Red aerial flares- accepted day or night use
  • Hand held red signal flares- accepted day or night use
  • Hand held orange smoke signal- accepted day use only
  • Three by three- foot orange distress flag- accepted day use only

If you are in a signaling situation:

  1. Conserve your signals until you are reasonably sure of being detected. Wait until you see or hear a vessel or aircraft before using “one-time” signals.
  2. Stay with the boat if it is safe to do so. A boat is easier to spot than a swimmer.
  3. US Coast Guard approved marine signals improve your chances or rescue, but anything that works is good. Shout, flash your running lights, wave a piece of clothing, use your windshield as a mirror flash, use a flashlight, anything that is available to attract attention.
  4. Above all, familiarize yourself with your signals before you leave shore. Time is important in any emergency and shouldn’t be spent reading instructions!

The most effective signal for attracting someone’s attention are aerial flares and parachute flares, because they are moving, spectacular, and cover a large sighting area. Once help is on the way, hand held red signal flares, orange smoke signals and orange distress flare serve as beacons for rescuers to pinpoint your position and keep them on course.

Pistol launched and hand held parachute flares and meteors have many characteristics of a firearm and must be handled with caution. In some states, they are considered a firearm and prohibited from use. To load the 12-gauge launcher, break the launcher open, insert 12-gauge aerial flare and close launcher. For most effective use, fire only after sighting a potential rescue vessel. Hold the launcher above eye level, point straight up, cock the hammer and squeeze the trigger. The US Coast Guard recommends your fire two aerial flares, one immediately after the other so rescuers can confirm the sighting and/or direction of the signal. Therefore you should repeat firing when the first flare has burned out.

Whenever a pistol or hand held rocket propelled distress signal is used; the wind must be taken into account. In calm winds, keep your arm at approximately 60 degrees above the horizon with the wind at your back when firing the device. As the wind increases, increase the angle of your arm, but no more than about 80-85 degrees. No pyrotechnic device should be fired straight up or in such a direction that it may land on your boat or another boat, or on land, and cause a fire.

To set off hand held red signal flares and orange smoke signal flares, grasp the bottom of the signal firmly below the holding line on the label. Point is away from face and body and aim downward. Remove the back lid on the cap; twist the cap and remove and save to ignite the signal. For most effective use, ignite after sighting a potential rescue vessel. Strike the igniter button on top of the signal with the abrasive surface on the cap. Hold the burning signal over the side of the boat and aim downward. Do not wave the signal overhead.

The orange distress flag must be at least three by three feet with a black-square and ball on an orange background. It is most distinctive when attached and waved on a paddle, boat hook or flown from a mast. The SOS flag may also be incorporated as part of the devices designed to attract attention in an emergency such as balloons, kites, or floating streamers.

Expired pyrotechnic signals can be used as backup as their potency is about six years. They can also be donated to local Coast Guard auxiliary or Power Squadron chapters for use in their training classes.

Regulations prohibit the display of visual distress signals on the water under any circumstances except when assistance is required to prevent immediate or potential danger to persons on board a vessel.