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Campfire Collective Apr 11th, 2019

Distress Equipment and Signals

Parachute distress flare. Illustration.

Sound Signal Devices

Sound signals are used to attract the attention of other boaters and to aid with navigation. A sound signalling device can be a whistle, a bell, a horn or a gong. All of these devices must be capable of sounding a four second-long blast.

The bell or gong may be replaced by other sound equipment that has the same sound characteristics, such as a horn.

Additionally, you must know the difference between a ’short blast’ and a ‘prolonged blast’:

  • A ‘short blast’ = a duration of one second.
  • A ‘prolonged blast’ = a duration of four to six seconds.

Sound signals are also used to signal your distress to other boaters during an emergency. The ‘S.O.S.’ emergency sound signal is three prolonged whistle blasts—then three short blasts—then three prolonged blasts—then pause and repeat.

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Boating License

The Official Transport Canada Boating
Course, Test & License.

Sound Signal Device Requirements

If your boat is:

12 meters or less: You must carry at least one mechanical sound signaling device, like a whistle or a horn (personal watercraft are included in this category). The device used for boats of this size must be audible for a ½ mile.

12 meters or more: All boats of this size must carry a whistle or a horn and a bell. The required device for boats of this size must be audible for ½ mile.

Visual Distress Signals

You must be able to recognize when other boaters are in trouble. You are also responsible for knowing how to properly use visual distress signals if YOU are in trouble. Like your other boating equipment, your visual distress signal must be maintained, stowed in a readily accessible place and be Coast Guard-approved.

All boats operating on federal waters are required to carry visual distress signals onboard. Federal waters include: U.S. coastal waters, the Great Lakes and territorial seas and those waters connected directly to the Great Lakes or territorial seas, up to a point where the waters are less than two miles wide.

Additionally, boats owned in the United States and operating on the high seas must be equipped with visual distress signal devices.

Hand Signals

By slowly waving your outstretched hands above your head, you will be signaling distress to others.

Code Flags

Code flags can be used to signal distress. Use either of the following:

  • The International Signal for Distress: Code Flag ‘N’ (November) flown above Code Flag ‘C’ (Charlie).
  • An orange distress cloth (or flag), displaying a black square and a black circle, identifiable from the air.

Dye Marker

You can release a dye marker in the water around your boat to stain the water a bright orange or green colour.

Orange Smoke Handheld or Floating Device 

Once activated, this handheld or floating device will produce a bright orange smoke that will be visible during the daytime.

Always raise the device above your head for your safety and for greater visibility—the orange smoke will be visible to other boaters and to those on shore.

Day and Night Use VDS (Pyrotechnic)

A pyrotechnic visual distress signal must be within the expiration date, it must be Coast Guard-approved and it must be easy to locate on your boat. Always remember to read and follow the manufacturer’s instructions for your pyrotechnic device.

Red Flare (Hand-Held):

  • This pyrotechnic device will be visible both at night and during the day.
  • Hold the flare above your head to release red smoke into the air above your boat.

Red Meteor/Parachute Flare:

  • The Red Meteor and Parachute Flare are both launched using pistol launchers (they function like handguns).
  • In some states, pistol launchers are considered to be firearms and are prohibited from use (check your state-specific regulations).
  • Any launcher made before January 1st, 1981, and that is meant to be used with a Coast Guard- approved visual distress signal, does not require Coast Guard-approval.

Night-Only Use

Electric Distress Light:

  • An Electric Distress Light automatically flashes the international distress signal (S.O.S).
  • The distress light must be turned on manually and can only be used at night.
  • The light must have a sticker on it that indicates it’s Coast Guard approval.

Safe Boating Tip:

In an emergency, you can create an S.O.S. signal using your flashlight. To do this, use three short flashes, then three long flashes, followed by three short flashes. The light pattern would look like this: (• • • – – – • • •).

Visual Distress Signal Requirements

Your boat’s carrying requirements for visual distress signals depend on the boat’s size and whether the boat is powered, sail-powered or human-powered.

The following boats do not require day signals but must carry night signals if they’re on the water between sunset and sunrise:

  • Human-powered boats.
  • Recreational boats less than 16 feet in length.
  • Wind-powered sailboats that are less than 26 feet in length.
  • Boats that are part of an organized event (like a race).

For all other boats, the following combinations of visual distress signals can be carried onboard to meet Coast Guard requirements:

Watertight Flashlights

Certain distress equipment is required to be carried onboard at all times. This is so that you have it in the event of an emergency situation like a collision, a medical emergency or a mechanical breakdown. Situations like these, where you may require the use of a flare, are often unexpected, but if they happen to you, you’ll be happy to have the distress equipment when you need it most.

Most craft are required to carry one watertight flashlight onboard at all times. In an emergency, a flashlight can be used for illumination or to send a distress signal. To be approved, the batteries must be in good condition. A watertight flashlight qualifies as navigation lights on non-powered vessels less than 7 m in length.

Safe Boating Tip
You can signal your need for help by flashing S.O.S.: three short flashes, then three long flashes, followed by three short flashes.


Flares and pyrotechnic devices are used to signal distress and need of assistance. They should always be stored in a watertight container and located in a cool, dry, accessible area. You may be required to carry certain types of flares onboard your boat depending on:

  • The size and type of boat
  • The body of water on which you are operating

For example:

  • You are required to carry flares if operating on any ocean or if operating on a waterway where you may be further than 1 nautical mile from shore
  • You are not required to carry flares if you are operating on a river, canal or lake on which at no time your boat can be more than 1 nautical mile from shore

Types of Approved Flares

There are four types of flares approved to signal your need for help:

1) Type A: Parachute Flare

  • Easily seen from water, land and air
  • Must emit a red light

2) Type B: Multi-Star Flare

  • Easily seen from water, land and air
  • Must emit a red light

3) Type C: Hand-Held Flare

  • Not as easily seen from afar but effective for pinpointing your position
  • Must emit a red light

4) Type D: Smoke Flare

  • Highly visible during daylight hours
  • Must give off orange smoke

Using Flares

All flares and pyrotechnic distress signals must be approved for use by Transport Canada or Coast Guard and are valid for only four years from their date of manufacture. Flares or other pyrotechnic devices should always be used with caution and kept out of the reach of children. Always follow the manufacturer’s instructions located on the packaging or casing before using a flare.

It is illegal to test or discharge a flare if it is not being used for an emergency situation and you should only dispose of flares in an approved manner. Contact your manufacturer, local law enforcement agency, fire department or the Canadian Coast Guard for proper disposal procedures.

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