As much as we love being at sea, it can be dangerous. And if you ever need help, you want to be as visible as possible. This means visual distress signals are essential to have on board.
But these distress signals all have their different uses. For example, orange smoke signals are only acceptable for daylight use because you cannot see the smoke at night.
One thing I’ve learned from volunteering in the maritime rescue environment is that it is difficult to spot a small boat on a big sea.
Using the correct distress signal will increase your chances that a rescuer sees you. In this article, we’ll look at the following:
🚤 Which Distress Signals Must Be Carried?
As you already know, maritime regulations to meet Coast Guard requirements can be a bit of a rat maze. So, it can be difficult to understand what you need to have with you.
Fortunately, the US Coast Guard regulations on this are also self-explanatory. For example, commercial vessels must always carry daytime and night-time distress signals onboard.
The rules change a bit for private vessels, such as recreational boats. If you want to go to sea at night, you must have distress signals for night-time use. Such as an electric distress light.
Yet, if your vessel is only licensed for daytime use, you do not need to carry nighttime signals. But you still should have a day signal on board.
These are basically the same in all countries. But there may be specific requirement differences regarding what signals you need to have and how many of each. So, you must check your local regulations and ensure you comply.
☀️ Visual Distress Signals That Are Acceptable Only For Daylight Use
When you are first diving into the world of distress signals and aids, it can get a little overwhelming.
Knowing which one to use is pretty obvious if you take the time to stop and think about it. For example, some signals are only acceptable for daytime use. This is because you cannot see them at night.
Use Orange Smoke Only In Daylight
One of the pyrotechnic signals is orange smoke. These can be either hand-held smokers or floating smokers.
When triggered, they send out a large plume of bright orange smoke. Larger orange smoke canisters will continue to expel smoke for up to 15 minutes, which is excellent.
The bright orange smoke is especially useful if you are trying to attract the attention of a helicopter. This is because the smoke plume is three-dimensional.
In other words, the smoke turns your little boat into a larger target from all angles. It is also a great wind indicator for the pilot!
But smokers have three critical shortcomings. For one, the smoke dissipates relatively quickly, so far-off rescuers cannot spot it.
Secondly, as any wildland firefighter will tell you, you can’t see smoke at night. Especially such a small amount with no light source underneath the smoke. Under the blanket of a dark night, no one will be able to tell that you’ve activated a smoker.
The last fatal shortcoming is that they aren’t any good in fog either because the fog completely hides the smoke.
You Cannot See Orange Tarps And Flags At Night.
Another standard visual distress signal is an orange flag that is at least one-square-meter big. In some countries, vessels are required to carry a sizeable orange tarp.
Both of these are understood as international SOS distress signals. But neither of these will make your boat any easier to spot at night.
They aren’t the best day signals to start with and only slightly increase your chances of being spotted. So, take the sun out of the equation, and they really become useless at night.
Handheld Mirrors Need The Sun To Work
This should be absolutely obvious but is worth mentioning, nonetheless. Handheld mirrors reflect the sun’s light in the direction of another boat to get their attention.
This means that they don’t work at night. And if you have a light source on your boat, then you’re pointing that light at the other ship.
🌑 Visual Distress Signals Acceptable For Night-time Use
When signaling for help in the daytime, you have several options. These include smokers, tarps, flags, and flares. All these are designed to draw attention in various ways.
But the only thing you need from a visual distress signal at night is for it to pierce the darkness. This means that night signals are made to emit a lot of light.
Distress Flares Work Better At Night
One plus side of the darkness is that your pyrotechnic devices become more effective. To understand this, think about a candle. If you light a candle during the day and place it across the street, chances are you won’t see it.
Light the same candle in complete darkness, and it becomes significantly more visible. Of course, this applies to your pyrotechnic flares as well.
Parachute flares, which reach a height of 1000 feet, can now be spotted well over the horizon. Handheld distress flares become visible from twice as far away at night. In the daylight, they have a visibility range of around five miles, which increases to ten miles at night.
Distress Lights Are Only Acceptable At Night
Distress signaling lights are only acceptable for the night. Just as orange smoker flares are only used during the day.
There are various types of these signals. The most used ones include a strobing light and an SOS beacon light. The latter constantly blinks out the universally understood SOS morse signal.
Unfortunately, these signals are completely nullified by the power of sunlight and cannot be seen during the day.
🗣️ Final Words On Daytime Distress Signals
Orange smokers can be an effective visual distress signal during the daytime. But, because you cannot see the smoke in the dark, they are not acceptable for nighttime use. Other daytime signals include an orange flag and a handheld mirror.
At night, you can use signals that emit a lot of light, such as parachute distress flares. Find out which distress signal is appropriate for night use only as part of your pyrotechnics education.