Distress signals for vessels in Canada

Store pyrotechnics in a cool, dry place in a watertight container. To dispose of outdated flares, call the nearest police, Coast Guard or fire department.

Signal Types

Type A: Parachute Type B: Multi-star
  • seen from surface or air
  • 2 second delay after pulling pin
  • burns at least 40 seconds
  • seen from surface or air
  • burns 5 seconds
  • if single-star, you need twice as many
Type C: Hand held Type D: Buoyant or hand held
  • limited surface visibility
  • visible from airplane
  • smoke flare for day signal only
  • burns 3 minutes

Other distress signals

  • orange cloth with large black square and circle
  • any ball shape over/under any square flag/cloth
  • International code flag "N" over "C"
  • raise & lower out-stretched arms repeatedly (not near helicopters!)
  • dye marker in the water
  • SOS sound signal or flashlight (3 short, 3 long, 3 short, pause, repeat)
  • Marine radio Channel 16 (156.8 MHz)
  • 2182 kHz
  • CB channel 9 (not monitored by Coast Guard)

Calling for Help in an Emergency

Cell Phone Users: Call *OPP (*677) to reach the nearest OPP detachment in Ontario.

Search and Rescue: Call *16 to have your call routed to the nearest Canadian Coast Guard radio station. Their Rescue Co-ordination Centre in Trenton, Ontario is toll-free 1-800-267-7270.

CB Radio Users: Channel 9 is monitored by various agencies for emergency assistance.

VHF Radio Users: The Coast Guard monitors VHF Channel 16 (156.8 MHz) on a 24 hour basis. See the VHF page for marine radio information and the MAYDAY procedures in particular. The following is a summary.

Radio procedure for imminent to life with assistance required:
  • "MAYDAY...MAYDAY...MAYDAY...
  • This is the pleasure craft.....[name of vessel].
  • We are at.....[give exact location].
  • We are.....[nature of distress] and require.....[assistance required]."
  • (Pause to see if you get an answer and repeat.
Radio procedure for no imminent danger but assistance is required:
    "PAN...PAN...PAN"... and give the same information as above.

Sound Signals

Signal International Great Lakes
1 SHORT BLAST i AM ALTERING COURSE TO STARBOARD
  I intend to leave you on my port side
2 short blasts I am altering course to port
  I intend to leave you on my starboard
3 short blasts I am operating astern propulsion
  (same meaning)
5 short blasts Danger of Message not understood
  (same meaning)

Short blast is a blast of one second duration. A prolonged blast is two to four seconds.

When a vessel in a narrow channel or tidal stream is meeting another vessel, the vessel that is heading with the current makes 1 short blast if altering to starboard (the norm) and 2 short blasts if altering to port. The vessel that must "give way" to the first vessel replies WITH THE SAME SIGNAL if in agreement or with the danger signal (5 short blasts) if in doubt.

Pleasure boats do not generally use these signals when passing normally (port to port) but if a large ship signals you, be sure to answer back and get out of his way -- you must always give way to large ships!

When approaching a lockstation, you must use a slightly different sound signal. 3 long blasts means you wish to lock through. 4 long blasts means you need both gates opened (don't do this if you are in a small cruiser unless it's your first lock!). You don't need to signal if there are already other boats waiting -- in the heritage canals, the approach dock is usually "blue".


See Pat's cruising hints which contains information on navigation equipment and plotting.

Definitions & Mnemonics for Power Boaters & Sailors includes lights,sound signals, navigation formulas, rules of the "road", weather.

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