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PA Boating Handbook
Sound-producing Devices / Visual Distress Signals

Motorboats less than 40 feet in length must carry some mechanical means of making a sound signal. This device may be hand-, mouth- or power-operated. An athletic coach’s whistle is an acceptable device for small motorboats. Larger motorboats, more than 40 feet in length, must carry a whistle and a bell. Operators of unpowered boats (canoes, kayaks, rowboats, paddleboards) are required to carry a device capable of sounding a prolonged blast for 4-6 seconds that can be heard by another boat operator in time to avoid a collision. An athletic coach’s whistle is acceptable.

Visual Distress Signals (VDS)
According to U.S. Coast Guard navigation rules/emergency preparedness, boat operators are required to render assistance to a boat in distress to the extent they are able. When operating on federally controlled waters, boaters must carry VDS devices. This includes vessels navigating on federal waters such as coastal waters, the Great Lakes (including Lake Erie), territorial seas and bodies of water connected directly to any of these up to the point where the body of water is less than two miles wide.

In Pennsylvania, VDS devices are required only for boats operating on Lake Erie. Between the hours of sunset and sunrise, boats less than 16 feet in length must carry VDS suitable for use at night. Boats 16 feet and over in length must, at all times, carry devices suitable for day use and devices suitable for night use or devices suitable for use both day and night.

Approved day-use-only devices include orange smoke (hand-held or floating) and orange signal flags. Flares are approved for both day and night use. If flares are selected, a minimum of three must be carried. Three day/night signaling devices meet both requirements.

All VDS must be USCG approved, have legible approval numbers, be in serviceable condition and be readily accessible. VDS are not acceptable if the expiration date has passed. Though only required on Lake Erie, VDS are practical safety items for all boaters to carry.

Flares are of short duration. Use them only when another vessel is in sight. When igniting a flare, hold it over the water on the downwind (leeward) side. Flares are not toys. Use them only in an emergency!

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