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There are several occasions on a boat when you need to use sound signals. In particular, when visibility is limited, boat sound signals are of the utmost importance. Other boaters need to be aware of where you are and what you’re doing at all times. Learning what these sound signals mean and how to use them will keep you and other boaters safe. It will also greatly improve your boating experience. Safety is always key.
How are sounds and signals made on your boat?
There are two ways to alert other vessel with a sound producing device. You can either blast the horn or use a stroke of your bell. Depending on the situation you will need to use one or the other. Learning this is part of the rules of the road.
If your boat is less than 39.4 feet it must carry something able to produce an adequate sound. That could be a bell, a whistle, or an air horn. Remember, in an emergency situation, anything that makes a sound will do. As long as you and other vessels can hear each other. However, you should have the legal equipment on board and in good working order.
If your vessel is between 39.4 Ft and 65.6 feet you must have a whistle and a bell. The whistle has to be able to produce a sound that can be heard up to half a mile away. The mouth of the bell has to be at least 7.87 in in diameter. These are legal requirements and part of inland rules.
When do you make sound signals on your boat?
You only need to use a sound signal when you are in sight of another vessel. If you’re going to meet or cross at a distance of one another within 1/2 a mile you need to signal. These signals are not to be used when visibility is limited by fog. There are different signals to be used with restricted visibility.
When you are approaching another vessel and wish to get around them these are the maneuvering signals you should use. A short whistle blast is typically 1 second in duration.
One Short Blast: One short blast means you intend to pass a vessel on your port side.
Two Short Blasts: Two short blasts signals your intent to pass the vessel on your starboard side.
A handy tip or remembering which signal to use is 1 short blast for one syllable equals port. Two short blasts for two syllables equals starboard.
Three Short Blasts: 3 short blasts means you are backing up. You are operating astern propulsion now.
Five Short Horn Blasts: Danger. Or you do not understand the approaching boat’s intentions and they need to clarify. These need to be rapid blasts so they are not confused with prolonged blasts.
One Prolonged Blast: Warning. Use this to indicate when you are leaving a dock or berth. Can also be used as a warning when you are approaching an obstruction, or a blind to turn.
One Prolonged Blast Repeated Every 2 Minutes: Use this when you are in a power driven vessel with limited visibility. If you were travelling through fog, you would do this.
One Prolonged Blast Plus 2 Short Blasts Repeated Every 2 Minutes: This indicates you are in a sailing vessel in limited visibility.
Limited Visibility Signals
If conditions are such that you cannot see other boaters than use these signals.
2 Prolonged Blasts Repeated Every 2 Minutes: This warning signal is used when you are in a power driven vessel that has stopped. You are not anchored but you are not making way.
Five Seconds of Rapid Bell Ringing: When your vessel is at anchor, ring the bells rapidly for 5 seconds at intervals of 1 minute.
3 Bell Strokes + 5 Seconds of Rapid ringing + 3 Bell Strokes: When your vessel is aground, ring the bell three times then rapidly ring for 5 seconds, and ring three times again. This must be repeated every minute
Things to Remember
When you hear a warning from another boat you must respond accordingly. This is especially important when you are in limited visibility. If you’re unable to see each other but can hear the signals from the other vessel, slow down. Continue at a minimum speed and proceed with caution. Maintain a lookout until you are no longer in range of the other vessel. The rules of the road always favor safety. Your signals must be clear, especially when other boats are not in sight.
Always signal your intent when maneuvering a vessel. Remember that directions are based on the vessel making the signal. So when another boat sounds a short blast it means they intend to pass on their port side. Likewise, if your intent is to pass you will use one short blast to indicate your port side. Two blasts to indicate your starboard side. The same signals are needed when overtaking boats as well. That means from either the port side or the starboard side. Always make sure the other vessel knows how you are maneuvering.
Signals are a method of communication. When a boat signals a proposed maneuver, you need to respond. Reply with the same signal to indicate you have understood their intent. If you are unclear, reply with a danger signal of five or more short blasts so they know you do not understand. They should signal again to clarify.
When in doubt, sound the danger signal. It’s always better to be safe than sorry. Power driven vessels have a much longer reaction time. In limited visibility, you need to be as clear as possible. You can sound 5 short blasts any time to indicate you are unclear of another vessel’s intentions.
Sound signals of a vessel aground over 100 m in restricted visibility
- Description of scenario:Vessel aground of 100 m or more in length
Visibility: In or near an area of restricted visibility , weather by day or night
- Rule(s) to be applied:Rule 35 (Sound signals in restricted visibility )
- Applying the Rule(s) and comments:In accordance with Rule 35 (h) (Sound signals in restricted visibility ), a vessel aground shall give the bell signal and the gong signal prescribed in Rule 35 (g) (Sound signals in restricted visibility ) and shall, in addition, give three separate and distinct strokes on the bell immediately before and after the rapid ringing of the bell.
In accordance with Rule 35 (h) (Sound signals in restricted visibility ), a vessel aground may in addition sound an appropriate whistle signal.
A vessel aground of 100 m or more in length shall at intervals of not more than one minute give three separate and distinct strokes on the bell, followed by rapidly ringing on the bell for about 5 seconds and another three separate and distinct strokes on the bell at the forepart of the vessel and immediately after the ringing of the bell the gong shall be sounded rapidly for about 5 seconds in the after part of the vessel.
rapidly ringing bell every minute signals what
If there is one type of boating safety equipment you are unlikely to use until you need it in an emergency, it’s pyrotechnic/visual distress signals: flares, rockets, smoke signals, and other attention-getting devices that burn, sputter, smoke, or explode. The Coast Guard requires boaters to carry approved visual distress signals, and approves two types: pyrotechnic and non-pyrotechnic devices. The non-pyrotechnic approved device is a three foot orange flag for day use only. (Dye markers and signal mirrors, though useful to attract attention and often carried by boaters, are not Coast Guard approved.)
In the pyrotechnic category, the regulations are broad and how you fill the requirements for your particular type of boating is fairly flexible. The choices include a variety of red handheld or aerial flares for day and/or night use, and devices that emit orange smoke for daytime use. The Coast Guard sets a 42-month service life and expiration dates are stamped on the devices. The International Maritime Organization approves signals for commercial use on the high seas with a SOLAS (Safety of Life at Sea) rating. These devices far exceed Coast Guard standards for luminosity and many boaters use the more expensive SOLAS devices for the added margin of safety they provide.
The Cold Light of Day
Since so many boaters carry handheld and aerial flares that are approved for day/night use, we wanted to see just how effective these are in daytime conditions. They aren’t. Our shore crew found the Coast Guard-approved hand-helds very poor at attracting attention. SOLAS flares were only marginally better in daylight but burned only half as long. Luminosity ratings range from 500 candle power (c.p.) to 15,000 c.p. We found the lowest-rated flares virtually invisible in daylight and the highest rated flares only slightly more visible.
While all handhelds exceeded manufacturer specifications for burn time, beware: These devices generate considerable slag as they burn (hold them well overboard) and they get hot, especially SOLAS flares which burn inside a metal tube that gets really hot.
Rockets’ Red Glare
For nighttime distress signaling there are three factors to consider: brightness, burn time, and with aerials, altitude. In the textbook night rescue, your aerial flare, be it meteor or parachute, gets attention and the handheld flare is then used to guide the assisting vessel or aircraft to you.
Unless you are quite a distance from shore or from other help, altitude may not be as critical a factor as luminosity and burn time. In our tests, we found that the Coast Guard-approved parachute flares burned for an average of 25 seconds, while the SOLAS parachute burned for 43 seconds. Yet depending on where you go boating, on rivers, lakes, or other confined waters, for example, meteor flares could be just as effective. Remember they have a short (5-6 second) burn time but cost considerably less so you can stock up accordingly.
When it comes to buying visual distress signals, let’s face it, you are spending money on something you may never use. If you’ve been a boater for any length of time, you’ve probably got a pile of out-of-date hand-held flares and signal rockets aboard your boat. But to be in compliance, you must have unexpired units. Many boaters, however keep expired units aboard as back-up. Since this is such a common practice, we decided to test a variety of expired devices-some long out of date-to see if their performance had diminished.
The answer is yes. There really is a reason for those expiration dates. These devices use a variety of chemicals, all of which can deteriorate over time, either limiting burn time or altitude, or causing the device to fail altogether. We found expired hand-held flares that were very hard to ignite or didn’t seem to burn as brightly as they should, and meteor flares that didn’t fly as high or burn as long as advertised claims.
In considering which pyrotechnic devices to equip your boat with, remember the two-fold purpose of visual distress signals: to signal that you’re in trouble and to direct help to your location. From our experience, small boats in daylight near shore and with heavy boat traffic should consider carrying three hand-held smoke flares to guide assistance to them. Big boats on large bodies of water and night boaters may be best advised to carry aerial meteors or parachute flares to attract attention and handheld flares for help to home-in on. Think of it this way: Aerials give height (that is visibility from a greater distance) while handhelds give duration. Smoke is the best option for day only signaling.