Distress Signals – Use and Identification

Previously we talked about the proper use of the ship’s radio for both standard communications and in emergency situations. However, emergencies can occur at times when neither radios nor cell phones can be used due to power outages, reception quality, or a lack of network connectivity. In these situations, distress signals are the next option.


Distress signals come in a variety of forms. The most popular are orange colored signal flares, smoke markers, and die markers. Rocket flares have the greatest visibility due to the altitude they achieve. Hand held flares are highly visible as well, but can be blocked by points of land or high waves when viewed from a distance. Flares can be seen during daylight and at times when visibility is restricted. Dye markers are best seen by air rescue vehicles in daylight.


In addition to pyrotechnic and dye options, audio signals and light signals are available. A continuous sounding of a boat’s fog horn is an effective audio signal. You can improve horn signals by using the horn to sound an SOS blast (short, short, short; prolonged, prolonged, prolonged; short, short, short). Megaphones and Loud Hailers also send distress signals and; while not common, firing a gun at one minute intervals is an audio distress signal.


At night a powerful flash light can be used to attract attention by flashing an SOS signal. Recently, battery operated floating strobe lights that flash an SOS signal have been approved. These work well at night, but during daylight they can be confused with the sun’s reflections off of a choppy sea. Lastly, a burning barrel of oil on deck is a lighted distress signal. While recreational boats won’t have a barrel of oil on board, a charcoal or gas fired BBQ can be lit up.


Manual distress signals can attract the attention of a passing vessel. Extending your arms from side to side while waving them upward and downward is in fact a distress signal. You can also fly the code flag November above the code flag Charlie as a distress signal. If you don’t have code flags you can fly a distress cloth. A distress cloth is a rectangular piece of orange vinyl showing a black square and a black ball. This signal is most often used to help air rescue vehicles spot your boat. To properly display this distress signal tie it down on the bow, the Bimini, or hardtop.


Lastly, we have electronic options. These distress signals come in 3 varieties. An Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB) is commonly known. EPIRBs are carried on ships. In an emergency the EPIRB will automatically send a distress signal to a dedicated satellite network. This device broadcasts its location and identifies the vessel to which it is registered. An Emergency Locator Transmitter (ELT) is used on aircraft and performs the same function as an EPIRB does for a ship. A Personal Locator Beacon (PLB) is carried by an individual. When activated a PLB identifies its location and identifies the person to whom it is registered. Beacons equipped with GPS can pinpoint a location within a 100 meter radius. Units without GPS achieve a radius of 3 nautical miles.


While at sea, if you come upon a vessel in distress you are required to lend assistance so long as doing so does not put your vessel, its crew, or passengers at risk. In addition you should be properly equipped and trained to render the assistance needed. A best practice is to call the Coast Guard and stand by to assist in recovering persons in the water if the distressed vessel sinks. Never try to board a vessel on fire!

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