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The Value of Signaling Devices



Having a variety of signaling devices to choose from may seem unnecessary, but different devices are suitable for different situations. With that in mind, it may be a good idea to have more than one option on your boat. Also, be sure to know your state’s or area’s requirements before making your final purchase. While you may have a VHF radio on your boat, you cannot always rely on that to signal for help. If your emergency is related to the boat’s battery power, your radio may be rendered useless. When looking for signaling devices, consider the following:


1) Flares - The most common type of signaling device, flares are approved for both day and night use, but work best at night. There are several versions to choose from. It’s always a good idea to have more than one flare. That way if someone thinks they saw it, but is unsure, a second or third sighting may confirm what they saw and prompt them to seek help. There are several versions of flares to choose from:

  • A handheld flare lasts longer but cannot be seen as easily because it is not high in the air.
  • A meteor or gun flare goes up higher and can be seen from farther distances.
  • Parachute flares go up in the air and the parachute deploys at about 1,000 feet, then floats down over about a 30 second period giving you added visibility.


2) Smoke Flares – Smoke flares, or canisters, are most visible in the day and are not approved for nighttime use. The benefit is that they last longer – about a minute. Throwing them into the water downwind of your boat will cause the smoke to dissipate more slowly and therefore is more likely to be noticed. 


3) Flag – This often comes with signaling kits, but because flags are not very noticeable from long distances, they are the least effective of the options. 


4) Battery-Powered Light – New Coast Guard approved battery-powered distress signals are beneficial because they do not expire and can easily be kept up to date with new batteries. Their signals last longer than flares, but like flares, may not be as visible in the daylight. 


5) Air Horn – If your boat does not have a built-in horn, you should invest in an air horn to alert boats in close proximity of your distress. 


6) Whistle – A whistle is another beneficial device that can send a distress alert to boaters near you. While you’re picking up a whistle, go ahead and get a few more to put on your life jackets. Should someone go overboard in the night, it’s another way of successfully locating them. 


7) EPIRB (Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon) – This is a must have for boaters who travel long distances offshore. It notifies the international search and rescue satellite system which then transmits your location to the nearest ground station and continues to ping them until you are found. If you are in a situation where the boat is taking on water, or you have zero power to call for help, this device is a real lifesaver.


For additional information, visit United States Coast Guard Boating Safety, Boating Magazine, or Discover Boating.