Visual Distress Signals

If your boat gets into trouble and you require assistance, you will probably have to signal to other vessels or aid at the shore. Today, most distress signals get transmitted via modern communication systems. However, knowing “classic” visual distress signals is still a fundamental skill that every sailor should master. In this article, I list the most important ones.

In case of an emergency for which you require assistance, you will have to call for aid. There are many ways of doing this, and visual distress signals are still common with small dinghies. The simplest and most straight-forward signal requires a person. Stand in an upright position and face the direction from which you hope to find aid (for example, a passing ship).

Slowly raise and lower your arms until you receive a confirmation from the aid that they noticed your signal. This signal is internationally valid and every sailor receiving it is required by law to come to your assistance. Another simple distress signal is “SOS”.

It is normally transmitted via communication systems, but you can easily signal “SOS” with a torch: “…---…” Read this as “three times short light, three times long light, three times short light” in the direction of the potential helper. Every time the signal is finished, wait a few seconds, then repeat it until you receive a confirmation that your SOS was received.

Distress Signals that Require Tools

Code flags are not very common among dinghy sailors, but cruisers often carry them. The code flag V signals a request for assistance; code flag N over C reads as distress and a request for assistance; and code flag W signals a request for medical assistance. Again, these signals are internationally valid and lead to a legal obligation to assist (or at least approach and contact) the signaling vessel.

A bit easier than code flags is the visual cue of “black square over black ball”. It means “distress” and can be formed with pretty much any rectangular and spherical object that you can find – as long as it’s black.

Finally, flares provide you with more drama than flags or waving arms. There are plenty of different kinds of flares and you should consider the application and conditions in which you might have to use them before you chose any particular one. If you are going on a cruise, you should get a range of different flares. They should match with a variety of weather conditions for which they might suit better or worse.

Flares for different uses

In terms of hand-held flares, the color matters for the message. A white flare is not a distress signal, but simply warns other vessels of you being there. Similar to a horn, I would say. Colored flares, however, do signal distress. Hand-held flares in red or orange typically burn for a bit less than a minute and help to localize you with high precision. They are also easily detectable at daylight.

An alternative are rocket flares, normally red or orange, too. They come in different sizes, which correlates with the amount of time for which they burn. They can shoot as high as 300 meters and burn typically for not quite a minute. They do a particularly good job in clear nights. In cloudy conditions, the cloud cover might “swallow” the flare. In that case, try buoyant smoke flares.

They are launched from a buoy that is meant to be released leeward of the vessel. They burn for much longer than rocket flares, up to several minutes. Rather than a point-size flare, they emit a dense, strongly colored smoke. They are very useful at daylight and very useless in darkness. Smoke flares are ideal for drawing attention from planes.

Further Reading

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Wikipedia on Distress Signals

Wikipedia on the International Code of Signals

Department of State's Travel advice - crucial information for your safety

Display of all International Maritime Signal Flags