by Frank Lanier
A successful distress signal is designed to do two things: alert people you’re in trouble and help them find you. A properly registered emergency position indicating radio beacon (EPIRB) or personal locator beacon (PLB) is ideal when in distress, but what about the many boats without those? In most cases visual distress signals are used, and here is a look at some of the options they provide for rescue on the water.
Approved visual distress signals fall into two categories: pyrotechnic and non-pyrotechnic devices. Pyrotechnic devices include red flares (handheld or aerial), orange smoke canisters and launchers for aerial red meteors or parachute flares. Non-pyrotechnic would include any other type of visual distress signal (from signal mirrors to distress flags).
Red handheld and aerial flares are relatively inexpensive and a popular choice. Minimum U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) standards are fairly flexible, requiring any combination of pyrotechnic and/or non-pyrotechnic distress signals that totals three for daytime and three for night use—all of which have to be USCG or Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) approved. However, meeting the minimum requirements does not ensure you’ll have all the desired signaling devices onboard during an emergency. In my opinion, every vessel should carry at least double what law requires—more when coastal or offshore cruising.