Boating can be an exciting adventure, offering the chance to explore uncharted waters and enjoy stunning vistas. However, it also comes with its share of risks, and safety should always be a top priority. One crucial safety measure that often gets overlooked is the use of Pyrotechnic Visual Distress Signals (VDS). These devices are essentially marine flares designed to catch attention in case of an emergency.
In this article, we will delve into the world of Pyrotechnic Visual Distress Signals, exploring their importance, how they work, and the best practices for their use. Whether you’re a seasoned sailor or a boating novice, understanding the role of VDS could mean the difference between life and death in a dire situation. So, let’s set sail on this enlightening journey and learn more about these lifesaving tools.
What Are the Pyrotechnic Distress Signals?
Merriam Webster defines pyrotechnic as relating to fireworks, any of various similar devices for igniting a rocket, or producing an explosion, and a combustible substance used in a firework. Pyr is the Greek word for fire. There are two types of visual distress signals, pyrotechnic visual distress signals (VDS) and non-pyrotechnic devices.
Pyrotechnic visual distress signals are basically flares. They have a 42-month expiration date. You light them by removing the plastic cap and holding it in one hand. You strike the end of the cap against the striker tip of the flare and keep it pointed away from you, the boat, and other equipment.
There are three different types of pyrotechnic VDS. Models include handheld orange smoke flares and floating orange smoke flares for day use. Day and night use models are red meteors or red flares. The pistol-launched, handheld parachute flares, and meteors have characteristics akin to a firearm and need to be handled like a firearm. Some states consider pyrotechnic VDS firearms and prohibit their use.
Non-pyrotechnic VDS for night use are electric distress lights that flash the international SOS distress signal automatically or orange distress flags for day use. All VDS must be approved by the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG). Even though there are certain vessels that must have approved, unexpired VDS, it is advised for all boaters to carry VDS.
Are Pyrotechnic Visual Distress Signals Required?
Not all boats on all water bodies are required to have VDS. Captains on the oceans and the Great Lakes or on a water body close to the ocean are required to carry VDS, but they do not have to be pyrotechnic VDS. The VDS flag must be 3 X 3 feet with a black square on top and a black circle on the bottom on an orange background field. Boaters should check with their local and state requirements on lakes.
No. The following vessels must carry VDS. They can be pyrotechnic or non-pyrotechnic. Vessels on ocean coastal waters, on the Great Lakes, or on any body of water from three to 50 miles from the ocean must carry Coast Guard approved visual distress signals.
Boats that are not required to carry visual distress signals are boats participating in organized events like races, regattas, or marine parades, open sailboats less than 26 feet in length that are not equipped with mechanical engine propulsion, and manually propelled boats. Again, it is potentially a life-saving precaution to carry VDS on every boat.
How Many VDS Must You Carry on Board Your Vessel?
There are specific requirements for the various VDS models and vessels. Title 46 of the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) sets the limits for vessel requirements, which is the source we mined for this information. With all the different terrains of all the lakes and coasts of the U.S., there are also local and state requirements put in place for safety precautions. And, there are international requirements in different countries.
This answer depends on the type of VDS you choose. If you purchase pyrotechnic VDS, you are required to carry at least three unexpired flares within a 50 mile range off the coast of an ocean and 12 various types of VDS if you are more than 50 miles off of the coast. The Great Lakes require ten VDS.
The International Maritime Organization approves VDS for commercial use on the ocean with a SOLAS (Safety of Life At Sea) rating. These VDS supposedly surpass the Coast Guard standards for luminosity. Some boat operators and captains choose the more expensive SOLAS VDS.
Several independent boating organizations have conducted usage tests of SOLAS versus USCG VDS. The reviews of the results are mixed on whether the SOLAS devices are best. The following are approval series numbers stamped on the VDS.
- 160.021 Hand Red Flare: 500 Candela
- 160.028 Signal Pistol For Red Parachute Flare
- 160.036 Hand Held Red Parachute Flare
- 160.066 Red Aerial Pyrotechnic Flare
- 160.121 Hand Red Flare Distress Signal: 15,000 Candela (Solas)
- 160.136 Red Parachute Flare: 30,000 Candela (Solas)
- 160.022 Floating Orange Smoke Signal
- 160.037 Hand Orange Smoke Signal: 50 Seconds
- 160.057 Floating Orange Smoke Distress Signal: 15 Minute
- 160.122 Floating Orange Smoke Signal: 3 Minute (Solas)
- 160.157 Floating Orange Smoke Signal: 15 Minute (Solas)
- 160.072 Distress Signal for Boats, Orange Flag
- 161.013 Electric S-O-S Distress Light
Title 46 of the Code of Federal Regulations 28.145 Distress Signal Requirements
|Ocean, more than 50 miles from coastline||3 parachute flares, approval series 160.136; plus 6 hand flares, approval series 160.121; plus 3 smoke signals, approval series 160.122.|
|Ocean, 3–50 miles from the coastline; or more than 3 miles from the coastline on the Great Lakes||3 parachute flares, approval series 160.136, or 160.036; plus 6 hand flares, approval series 160.121 or 160.021; plus 3 smoke signals, approval series 160.122, 160.022, or 160.037|
|Coastal waters, excluding the Great Lakes; or within 3 miles of the coastline on the Great Lakes||Night visual distress signals consisting of one electric distress light, approval series 161.013 or 3 approved flares; plus Day visual distress signals consisting of one distress flag, approval series 160.072, or 3 approved flares, or 3 approved|
What Is the Correct Time of Day to Use VDS?
The question is not, “What is the correct time of day to use a VDS?” The question is, “What type of VDS do boaters need to use during the day as opposed to nighttime?” It makes a significant difference, because rescue vessels cannot see some types of distress signals at night.
You must use a USCG approved VDS approved for day use during the day and one approved for night use. A boating emergency can happen at any time of the day or night.
Which VDS Is Approved for Use at Night?
The electric SOS distress signals and pyrotechnic flares, meteors, and pistols are for night use.
What Is a Non-Pyrotechnic VDS that Is Approved for Use During the Day?
An orange distress flag with a black square and a black circle on it and moving your arms from the sides of your legs to above your head in a perpendicular motion.
Are Red Flares for Day or Night?
Red Flares are for night.
What Is the Maximum Length of Time That Distress Flares Are Approved For?
It is the pyrotechnic VDS that has an expiration date. If your electric VDS uses batteries, you have to make sure you have fresh batteries and carry extras for an emergency.
The USCG requires that all pyrotechnic signaling devices expire 42 months after the date of manufacture. That is three and a half years, so every three boating seasons you need to replace them. But don’t throw them away, they will usually work after their expiration date, and you will have extras.