Lake Superior Boating Guide:
Visual Distress Signals

Lake Superior is the only body of water in Minnesota that requires U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) approved Visual Distress Signals (VDS), including pyrotechnics (smoke, hand held flares, aerial flares and parachute flares), electronic (flashing light that automatically signals "SOS") and flags. 

  • Pyrotechnic devices must be Coast Guard approved and in serviceable condition (make sure they have not expired). Pyrotechnics may be used during the day or night, and a minimum of three are required.
  • Non-pyrotechnic devices must be in serviceable condition, readily accessible and certified by the manufacturer as complying Coast Guard requirements.

They include:

  • Electronic devices, for night use, are basically a strobe light that automatically flashes the international distress signal of "SOS" ( . . . - - - . . . ).
  • The orange distress flag is good for day use.

VDS requirement by boat size and type:

Boats with no motors (regardless of length):

  • Day Use - none required
  • Night Use - three required

Boats less than 16 feet:

  • Day Use - none required
  • Night Use - three required

Open sailboats less than 26 feet (with no motor):

  • Day Use - none required
  • Night Use - three required

Boats over 16 feet need both day and night (even if only using boat during daylight hours):

  • Night Use - three required

VDS requirements are satisfied with:

Day Use

  • Any combination of three or more pyrotechnic or one orange distress flag (at least 3 x 3 with a black square and ball on an orange background) or
  • Three orange floating and/or hand-held smoke distress signals.

Night Use

  • One USCG approved electric distress light.

Meets both Day and Night requirement (any combination adding up to three)

  • Three red hand-held distress signals or
  • Three red parachute flare distress signals or
  • Three red hand-held rocket-propelled flare distress signal or
  • Three red aerial pyrotechnic flare distress signal (gun-type).


See also:

U.S. Coast Guard (Great Lakes)

Engine Breakdown


Cold water & hypothermia

Boat and water safety

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