The Principles of Signalling

The Principles of Signalling

The purpose of distress signalling is simple: (i) to attract attention, and (ii), to pinpoint your location to guide the responding party to your craft. Remember, nothing can happen until someone’s attention is attracted. The most effective distress signals for attracting someone’s attention are aerial flares because they are moving, spectacular and cover a large sighting area. Once help is on the way, hand-held red signal flares, orange smoke signals and orange distress flags serve as beacons for rescuers to pinpoint your position and keep them on course. Also, please remember that flares present unique hazards because they burn at a very high temperature and are manufactured with energetic chemicals.


If you are in a signalling situation:

  1. Conserve your signals until you are reasonably sure of being detected. Wait until you see or hear a vessel or aircraft before using “one-time” signals.
  2. Stay with the boat if it is safe to do so. A boat is easier to spot than a swimmer.
  3. Above all, familiarize yourself with your signals before you leave shore. Time is important in any emergency and shouldn’t be spent reading instructions!

Replacement & Disposal Instructions:

Marine distress signals are date coded and must be replaced every 42 months to meet Coast Guard requirements. If your flares or smoke signals have expired (or will expire) during the boating season, you must replace them. To dispose of expired marine pyrotechnic distress signals, we recommends the following methods:

  • Donate expired flares to Coast Guard Auxiliary for use in their training classes.
  • Ignite hand-held signal flares on land in a safe area, much the same as highway flares would be ignited
  • Contact a local law enforcement or fire protection agency for their advice on proper visual distress signal (VDS) disposal.
  • Retain flares for back-up use to expand signalling time in the event of an emergency
  • Never activate marine flares in non-emergency situations over regulated waters.
  • Never dispose of flares in household trash.

Annual Signal Inspection:

Before each boating season, check the dates and the condition of your signalling equipment as instructed below. If signals are expired or will expire during the season, replace them immediately! To test your launcher:

  2. Open the barrel and insert a 12-Gauge or 25 mm Olin, as applicable, signal into the barrel.
  3. Be sure that the signal is fully inserted into the barrel.
  4. Close the launcher barrel.


Instructions for Loading, Launching, and Handling