I’VE MENTIONED this before, but I still don’t see enough flags flying on small boats these days. Hardly anyone even flies a burgee at the masthead any more, which is a great shame because that colorful little triangle of fluttering cloth denotes pride of ownership and bestows a disciplined liveliness on a boat.
And as for signaling flags, we might as well be talking about dodos, or pterodactyls, or home-based land-line telephones. And that’s another pity, because there is a huge section of the International Code of Signals devoted to the ancient art of sending messages by flags.
You can signal with one flag, or two, or three. There are literally hundreds of coded messages waiting to be sent, and anybody with a set of code flags ought to be absolutely itching to send a few. I mean, imagine you spot some old friends aboard a far-flung yacht in an anchorage — but you don’t carry a VHF radio (because you don’t have to) and you don’t have their cell-phone number because you never wrote it down like you were supposed to. So now what? Well, code flags to the rescue, of course.
Get out the signal book. Look up the right signal and hoist the flags. Simple. There are codes for every occasion. For example, here’s a handy three-flag hoist: MEG. It means “Bowels are regular.” That’s a message your friends are always happy to receive. And relieved, you might say. Of course, that might not always be the case, so the people who drew up the international code cunningly also provided MJD (“Patient has flatulence.”) and MIO (“Patient has clay-colored stool.”) There are other codes describing sailors with other delicate variations of tummy problems, but we don’t need to dwell on that now. You can look them up for yourself in private after dinner.
One two-flag signal of particular interest is XP. It is not clear why the compilers of the signal book thought fit to include this hoist, since it means “I am in thick fog.” But perhaps they needed a belly laugh after dealing with all that sordid stool business. In any case, if you ever come across a vessel flying XP, if you can read it, it’s already too late.
One signal you might want to memorize is SN. It means “You should stop immediately. Do not scuttle. Do not lower boats. Do not use the wireless. If you disobey I shall open fire on you.” Heavens, what a vicious and belligerent message for two little flags to convey. The only reply I can think of is MEG flown in reverse order, which should be read as “My bowels are NOT regular.” Not now, anyhow.
The international code does not deal with flags alone, of course. All other forms of signaling by sea are covered, including the use of the human voice as transmitted by radio waves. It seems that radio waves may sometimes distort the human voice so much as to make it intelligible without the help of the international code. Now I fear very few of my sailing friends practice this, but it’s not sufficient to say “One, two, three and four” over the radio. The code insists that you say unaone (oo-nah-wun), bissotwo (bees-soh-too), terrathree (tay-rah-tree) and kartefour (kar-tay-fower.) In fact, here is the full list, just in case you want to impress the Coasties when they ask to come aboard and inspect your potty arrangements:
Figure spelling table
Figure or Mark to be Transmitted
(Code Word Pronunciation)
0 NADAZERO (NAH-DAH-ZAY-ROH)
1 UNAONE (OO-NAH-WUN)
2 BISSOTWO (BEES-SOH-TOO)
3 TERRATHREE (TAY-RAH-TREE)
4 KARTEFOUR (KAR-TAY-FOWER)
5 PANTAFIVE (PAN-TAH-FIVE)
6 SOXISIX (SOK-SEE-SIX)
7 SETTESEVEN (SAY-TAY-SEVEN)
8 OKTOEIGHT (OK-TOH-AIT)
9 NOVENINE (NO-VAY-NINER)
What harm in getting knowledge even from a sot, a pot, a fool, a mitten or a slipper?
— Rabelais, Works
The luckiest man is the one who has a wife and an outboard motor that both work.(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday for another Mainly about Boats column.)