For the most part, the US Coast Guard (USCG), requires any vessel powered vessel over 16 feet in overall length to carry readily accessible, serviceable and well- maintained visual distress signals (VDS) on board for both daytime and nighttime uses. Which means that any boat large enough to be classified as a luxury motor yacht, will certainly have to comply with this boating safety requirement.

Visual Distress Signals include both pyrotechnic and non-pyrotechnic devices, such as flags, flares and lights.

Choosing the Right Visual Distress Signals

While they are required to have on board any vessel of appreciable size, visual distress signal devices should never be considered a substitute for sending out a mayday or distress call via your marine VHS radio. However, in times when you are out power, or effective radio range, they could be a life saver!

There are many VDS on the market today, not all are USCG approved. The following list of visual distress signals appeared in Boating Magazine, and was prepared with the help of Marty Jackson, a USCG engineer, who works for the Office of Design and Engineering Standards, Lifesaving and Fire Safety Division.

Non-pyrotechnic VDS


The USCG approved flag for daytime use only is consist of a 3-foot by 3-foot orange background displaying a black square and a black circle. Deploy this flag by tying it to a mast, antenna, boat structure, boathook, fishing rod, etc. These flags are inexpensive, stow well and never go out of date.

VDS flag


There is only one USCG approved signal light, and it is for nighttime use only: the Weems and Plath SOS Distress Light. You must carry a distress flag or other approved daytime signal for the light to be compliant. It has the advantage of a long-lasting signal over short-lived and possibly dangerous pyrotechnics. However, this bright-white flasher might not grab the attention of boaters who are more attuned to looking for a burning red flare as a distress signal. Therefore, while this light fulfills your nighttime-carriage requirement, Mr. Jackson recommends using it in conjunction with pyrotechnics.


Pyrotechnic VDS

Pyrotechnic visual distress signals are commonly known as signal flares, or emergency flares. They fall into three classifications: floating, handheld and aerial (meteor and parachute). Floating and handheld red-smoke flares are approved for daytime use only. Red flares, whether handheld or aerial, are for daytime and nighttime uses. The notable difference among them is the distance from which they are visible to a rescuer at sea level.

All these pyrotechnics have the advantages of economy, reliability and high visibility, as well as recognition as the traditional distress signals, however, when used improperly, they can cause injuries, and have even been known to cause onboard fires when not properly ignited or handled.

Visual Distress Flare

As effective as flares and smoke signals can be, you need to understand that they have a limited shelf life, and must be replaced periodically to meet USCG requirements. Disposing of outdated flares is difficult because local ordinances vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. Check your local EPA office or the nearest Coast Guard facility for current rules.

Other Ways to Signal Distress from a Vessel

You may have heard, or seen in the movies of “other” methods to signal distress, such as, flying a national flag upside down, displaying international code flags C and N (“Charlie” and “November”), three shots from a gun, or a prolonged horn blast. While these may be known methods of signaling distress to other boaters, they do not meet USCG requirements, and should not be considered a substitute for properly approved USCG visual distress signals.


USCG Approved Signal Flares

USCG Approved Signal Flares


On Demand Yachting Provides Peace of Mind

Our On Demand yachting solution includes providing for all of your yacht’s safety and maintenance needs. When it comes to making sure you and all of your guests are as safe as possible, having the right crew is only part of the equation. You must make sure you have all of the right safety gear on board, such as your required VDS, and that it is all where it should be and functioning properly. That means, in the unlikely event that they are ever needed, your visual distress signals, along with all PFDs, fire extinguishers, smoke and CO detectors, etc., are all serviced and maintained as necessary. You never want a piece of safety gear to fail, when you need it most!

Maintaining your yacht’s safety gear at operational readiness is just one of the services you can count on from our On Demand Yachting Solution.




Operating a motor yacht can be costly. You can reduce your expenses, and avoid costly repairs by keeping her well maintained. On Demand yachting from FYM can help. If you would like to learn more, or if you have any questions or comments about this blog post, do not hesitate to contact our Yacht Management specialists, or call us at (954) 900-9968.