Skip to main content

Visual Distress Signals Need Not Be Flares

Which distress signaling devices to carry is determined by local government and race authorities’ requirements, in what waters the vessel plans to sail, cost and personal choice.

In the US pyrotechnic flares are no longer necessary to satisfy USCG carriage requirements for Visual Distress Signals aboard recreational vessels.  An SOS Electric Distress Light marked with an indication that it meets USCG requirements in 46 CFR 161.013 is acceptable for night use and an Orange Distress Flag marked with an indication that it meets USCG requirements in 46 CFR 160.072 can be used as a day signal.

The offshore sailing world is also moving away from pyrotechnics at a rapid clip.  The World Sailing OSR Committee struck SOLAS Parachute Flares (but not hand-held flares) from the 2016 Offshore Special Regulations because of the relatively few rescues in which they were instrumental and the increasing number of electronic devices (e.g. Electric Distress Lights, DSC radios, mobile and satellite telephones and messaging devices) that work well for summoning help in some circumstances.  US Sailing is considering a similar change in their 2017 Safety Equipment Requirements (SERs) which may leave the determination of whether to require parachute flares to the individual Race Organizing Authorities and boat owners.

While these changes explain minimum requirements in the US, CCA recommends that boat owners and operators carry additional Visual Distress Signals and other distress signaling devices to support the type of boating they do. A recent demonstration by CCA illustrated that, in some circumstances, pyrotechnics may be the most effective way to attract attention. The entire subject of USCG Visual Distress Signals requirements, flare options and considerations is well covered in West Marine Advisor at, including a non-pyrotechnic device that meets the USCG requirements.

In other countries, government requirements may be different. In fact, in some countries, carrying some devices such as flare guns may be illegal without a proper license.

Prepared by in August 2016