The only visual distress signal permissible for use at night and no other time is the electric distress light, also known as an SOS distress light.
Many approved visual distress signals may be used at night since they are significantly less visible during the day. The electric distress light is the only visual distress signal for exclusive night-time use.
Other distress signals, such as pyrotechnic devices (flares), are preferable and effective for night-time use but may also be used during the daytime, although perhaps less effective in comparison.
In this article, I will explore the other visual distress signals that are effective for night-time use and the SOS light. And the effectiveness and appropriate and safe use of each of these.
🚨 The Workings Of The Electric Distress Light
This light is switched on manually; after that, it emits flashes of light, representing the international SOS distress code.
This signal will flash continuously at about four to six times per minute. This would look like three short flashes, three long flashes, and, again, three short flashes.
The flashing of this light is a signal most boaters are familiar with. A substitute light being flashed in the same manner may not have the desired impact as the brightness will be less than that of the electric distress light.
Electric distress lights are the only visual distress signal used only at night. This light flashes the international SOS code repeatedly, can be seen for up to ten nautical miles, and can flash for up to 60 hours. These lights come in different sizes with varying candle power relative to their size.
🙋♂️ When Should You Use A Distress Signal?
Visual distress signals follow the same protocol as a “mayday” distress call. They should only be used when the boat or passenger(s) are in serious and immediate danger.
These distress signals are intended to gain assistance from nearby vessels, so your time window for using them is important.
Boaterexam.com lists when and how to use visual distress signals when out at sea. Misuse of these signals could add danger to your situation and is also illegal.
👀 Can Other Distress Signals Apart From Electric Distress Lights Be Used At Night?
Numerous visual distress signals are appropriate for night-time usage. These Include:
- Flares from a flare gun (pyrotechnic visual distress signals)
- Handheld flares (pyrotechnic visual distress signals)
- Burning barrel of oil (not ideal, only use if there are no other options)
- Flashing lights (non-pyrotechnic visual distress)
🧨 How To Use Flares
Flares are often assumed to be the most common form of communicating distress at sea. They are a popular choice and come in many forms. For example:
- White flares – these are not to be used for emergency situations and are mainly used for sporting events
- Red flares- fired from a flare gun, with the bright red color as an indication of distress
- Handheld flares- bright red or orange in color, held in a person’s hand and waved around to attract attention
- Parachute flares- fired from a flare gun, illuminates a larger area and will spend longer in the air. Brightest of all the flares.
- Red aerial pyrotechnic flare- similar to the parachute flare but half as bright
Each of these flares will have its own set of instructions provided by the manufacturer, which should be followed strictly to avoid further distress. Flare guns are similar to most pistols in terms of structure and discharge.
Tips For Using A Flare Gun:
- Use your flares wisely. If you can wait until you are sure there are vessels in the vicinity that can see them.
- Fire two flares in quick succession, as this will allow your location to be determined more accurately.
- The gun should be aimed vertically into the air when firing. This will allow for a more precise idea of your location.
❌ What Happens If You Set Off A Visual Distress Signal And You Are Not In Distress?
The discharge of flares in non-emergency situations is illegal. If you have accidentally set off a visual distress signal and it is seen and responded to by nearby boats, you would be liable to a fine.
If this is the case, sending out a VHF radio message to nearby vessels to alert them to the mistake would be good etiquette. Dye markers are another example.
For more information about how these distress signals are tested and an official list of approved visual distress equipment, You can visit the official page of The United States Coast Guard.
These packets of dye are dispersed into the ocean, making the surrounding water a bright and obvious color visible to overhead aircraft.
⚖️ Comparison Of Day Signals And Night Signals
It goes without saying that certain forms of distress signaling are reserved for the day and other for the night. Daytime distress signals need to emit brightness and color as opposed to light.
Night-time distress signals must be visible in the darkest conditions and emit more light. For example, smoke flares would be used during the day as they produce bright red plumes of smoke easily visible in even the brightest conditions.
For a better understanding of all the types of visual distress signals (both day and night), Boat U.S’s website has a complete guide. Including a visual of the various flags that can be used (daytime) for specific situations.
🎆 When Is The Appropriate Time To Use Distress Signals At Night?
“Night-time” is a relative term and can leave room for interpretation. When using distress signals, night-time would be anytime between sunset and sunrise when there is no visible ambient light.
What Are Non-Visual Night-Time Distress Signals?
If you are out on the water at night, being clued up on the non-visual distress signals that do not come from a mayday call could help you greatly assist those in distress.
Examples Of Non-Visual Distress Signals Are:
- Sounding the horn of the ship continuously
- Firing a gun at two-minute intervals (extremely dangerous and should be avoided if possible)
This YouTube video posted by Sail Skills shows an animation of what an electric distress light and horn sounding would look like out at sea.
🗝️ Key Takeaways
Electric distress lights or SOS lights are the only visual distress signals used at night exclusively. Most vessels should meet Coast Guard requirements and be equipped with one of these lights per the safety guideline of the USCG.
If you are at sea after dark, you should carry night signals. Before setting off on a night-time voyage, ensuring that your light is in full working order is good practice. This can be done by shielding the light from visible to nearby boats and turning it on briefly.
A safe seafarer knows the flare carriage requirements ahead of leaving the dock. If you need a good quality electric distress light for your boat, then check my recommendation below:
Flashes US Coast Guard spec SOS and infrared signal. An orange distress flag fulfills the daytime signal requirement, and a quality marine whistle complies with USCG audible signal requirements. Included storage mount is easy to install and keeps your distress signal within easy reach.
- USCG approved
- Meets distress signal requirements
- Float ring included