Distress Signal


Definition of Distress Signal

A distress signal is a universally recognized sign that shows you’re in an emergency and need immediate assistance.

All boats operating in coastal waters, the Great Lakes, or on the high seas are required to carry any combination of three signals for day use and three for night use.

marine visual distress signals

Here’s a table breaking down the types of visual distress signals and when they’re used.

Distress Signal Type Visibility Burntime Usage
Red handheld flare 7 miles — clear night 60 seconds
  • Night and daytime
  • Held overboard, downwind and away from operator
Parachute flare 28 miles — clear night 40 seconds
  • Night and daytime
  • Fire downwind, 15° from vertical
  • Fire second parachute after the first
Orange buoyant smoke 3 miles — in daylight 3 minutes
  • Daytime only
  • Throw it out on the leeward side of the boat
  • Deploy when land or other vessel is in sight
Orange handheld smoke 3 miles — in daylight 50 seconds
  • Daytime only
  • Held overboard, downwind and away from operator
  • Deploy when land or other vessel is in sight
LED flare or electric distress light 3 miles — clear night 6 hours on one battery
  • Night time only
  • Hold above eye level

The Hella Halogen Twin Beam Hand Held Search Light is a good handheld alternative for the electric distress light as its trigger switch allows for morse code transmission.

Sound signaling equipment is typically used at the same time as the visual distress signal to send out a continuous S.O.S. in Morse code, as pictured below.

Morse Code for S.O.S

Example of Distress Signal in a Sentence

"The marina officials spotted the yacht’s orange smoke distress signal and alerted the U.S. Coast Guard."

Related Terms for Distress Signal