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Distress signals, flares and emergency beacons

If you are in an emergency on the water and need help, you can use distress signals, flares, PLBs and EPIRBs to show you are in distress.

Distress signals

Distress signals are used to show that you need help and require immediate assistance. The signals are internationally recognised and must only be used if you are in distress.

  1. Use your marine radio/signalling
    1. 'mayday, mayday, mayday' in emergencies only
    2. 'pan pan, pan pan, pan pan' for urgent messages that aren't emergencies
    3. SOS in Morse code (using marine radio or another signalling method).
  2. If other boats or aircraft are in the area, let off an orange smoke flare (daylight) or a red hand-held flare (night).
  3. picture indicating how a flare should be held
  4. A v-sheet should be displayed to attract the attention of other boats or overpassing aircraft.
  5. picture of a V-sheet
  6. Slowly and repeatedly raise and lower your arms outstretched to each side.
  7. figure of a person raising and lowering arms to indicate distress
  8. Continuously use sound signalling equipment for SOS.
  9. image showing the sequence of dots and dashes used to signal an sos
  10. Display international code flags N over C.
  11. image of international code flags N and C
  12. An EPIRB or PLB should be used as a last resort. Keep it turned on until help arrives.
  13. EPIRB


Use flares to get the attention of other boats or aircraft in the area if you need assistance. Flares that are in date must be carried on all 

picture of flares boats and personal watercraft (PWC) that operate beyond smooth water limits, except tenders that don’t need registration. Both orange smoke and red hand flares are needed as part of the safety equipment for these boats. 

Your flares must be in date. Flares have a life span of 3 years and must be replaced before they expire. The expiry date is printed on the flare.

Always read the instructions and make sure you understand the manufacturer’s directions before storing your flares on board your boat.

Flares should be stored in a dry place where they will be easily accessible in an emergency.

There are 3 types of flares that are designed for day or night use. Effective ranges of flare in conditions of good visibility are:

Flare type At night During the day
Parachute flare 25 to 35 nautical miles Are red in colour and can be used during the day. 
Red hand flare 5 to 10 nautical miles Are red in colour and can be used during the day.
Orange smoke flare Not suitable  Very limited—visibility up to 1.4 nautical miles (nm) but better from the air.

There are severe penalties for misuse of flares including—the cost of labour, risk incurred or loss sustained as a result of misusing flares.

Make sure you dispose of expired flares correctly.

Emergency beacons—EPIRBs and PLBs

An Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB) is a small electronic device that, when activated in an emergency, can help search and rescue authorities pinpoint your position.

Once activated, EPIRBs continuously send out a signal for at least 48 hours. Search and rescue authorities respond to all EPIRB activations—you must only activate the EPIRB in an emergency and you must tell them immediately if you no longer need help.

All boats operating beyond smooth and partially smooth waters or more than 2nm from land in open waters must carry a 406MHz digital EPIRB.

Operators of lightweight craft have a choice if they want to carry an EPIRB or a Personal Locator Beacon (PLB). If you chose to carry a PLB in place of an EPIRB it must comply with the following;

  • GPS enabled
  • float
  • be worn by the operator
  • comply with AS/NZ 4280.20
  • be registered with AMSA
  • in service

Lightweight craft means off the beach type craft, human powered canoe and kayak, small sailing vessels (less than 6m in length) and personal watercraft.

EPIRBs and PLBs must:

Do not dispose of old beacons in general waste as it will end up in landfill and could be accidentally activated. Contact your local battery store to check whether they disconnect and dispose of beacons. A small fee may apply. 

Quick safety tips

  • Keep flares and beacons in good condition and accessible at all times on your boat. You should clearly sign where safety equipment is kept on your boat.
  • Make sure you know how to use flares and beacons before you go out on your boat so you’re ready in an emergency.
  • Check the expiry dates on safety equipment regularly and replace them before they expire.
  • Wear your PLB on your person.
Last updated
10 March 2020