Having visual distress signals on your boat isn’t just a good idea—it’s the law.
The U.S. Coast Guard’s boater’s guide outlines which signals are approved for use by day or night, for both recreational and commercial vessels.
Some vessels, such as kayaks, rowboats, and some sailboats, are exempt from these rules during daytime hours, but all vessels must have appropriate signals at night. The rules apply on all bodies of water greater than two miles wide, including coastal waters.
Vessels longer than 16 feet are required to have at least three daytime signals and three nighttime signals—or three signals that can be used both in the daytime or at night. Visual distress signals can be broken down into two categories: pyrotechnic and non-pyrotechnic.
Pyrotechnic distress signals are devices that create light, flame, smoke, or sound, and are designed to make it easier for rescuers to locate troubled vessels.
Non-pyrotechnic distress signals include a wider range of equipment like marker dyes, SOS distress lights, flags, and signal mirrors. These types of devices last longer than pyrotechnic devices but may not be as immediately visible.