October 9, 2011

Bring back the flags

WE 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)











Decimal point


Today’s Thought
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 a new Mainly about Boats column.)


andre said...

Was the USS Wainright flying the signal flags SN when she intercepted and questioned you ?

John Vigor said...

Andre, I just don't know. We could hardly see from one end of the ship to the other, it being nearly 600 feet long. It kind of loomed over us, and there were Marines doing exercises on deck that distracted us mightily as we kept watch for sharpshooters. But we had no signal flags with which to reply anyhow.
However, time has given us one small triumph. Wainwright has since been decommissioned and sunk. Our old yacht Freelance is still alive and well and living in Britain now, I believe, after first crossing the Atlantic from Florida to Spain.

John V.

Stephen said...

John, although I'd like you to, I don't expect you to post this on your blog. Upon re-reading it, I see that it's too long winded, mostly negative and demonstrates that I may be too much of a fuddy duddy. Perhaps you'd like to edit it or just reference it or even ship it directly to your black water holding tank. I won't be offended either way, as really, I'm just venting.

I'm so glad you posted this about flags. Some displays I've witnessed are symptomatic of a general lack of respect for proper form and tradition that is prevalent these days, like the horrific cleat knots that are ever present on any dock walk. Knots that look like the regurgitated pellets of some foul sea creature. If only mariners would just glance at Chapman's or any book about boating, they might learn something about proper cleat knot tying procedure. But I digress. . .

Maybe it's because I mostly sail in waters near the border, but Canadians seem to be the worst flag etiquette culprits. Don't get me wrong, I love Canadians. What I don't love is when you see the American courtesy flag being flown faded and in tatters. It's seems as offensive as another visual signal that can be made with your hand. I don't think they mean to be disrespectful, as you just as often see their own flag in similar condition, often the same small size as a courtesy flag and hoisted by only one grommet to the end of an unused boat hook bungeed to a pulpit stanchion. Of course it's not just Canadians. Improperly sized national flags in bad condition flown in the wrong fashion are ubiquitous. And Americans flying Canadian courtesy flags while in US waters is just wrong.

I also have a bit of a problem with silly flags, like martini glasses and shamrocks. I'll admit, I'm torn on the skull and cross bones, though. I won't fly one. I think pirate flags look cool and are kinda fun, but don't they represent rape, pillage, mayhem and not bathing regularly? Why do we glorify pirates? I do admire their to ability to nonchalantly wear beads in their beards with impunity, so . . .

Personally, I long to fly as many flags as I can. I love them. I wish I could fly a streaming pennant from the masthead, but that would mean eliminating the windex and anemometer. I long to fly yacht club burgees, but no club will have me unless I give them money first and regularly. I long to fly victory pennants from hard fought regattas, but I don't race. Occasionally, you will see my private ensign flapping from the port spreaders. More rarely, and just to appease the mate, you might observe signal flags spelling out the old sloops name, also on the port flag halyard. Beyond that, I intend to respect tradition. The American flag is displayed at the stern, large and proud, and taken in at dusk.

John Vigor said...

Stephen, nothing wrong with fuddy duddies. I have never believed in change for change's sake. And I certainly agree with you about flag etiquette. In fact, I threw out my Windex in favor of a masthead burgee. (I'm a life member of a yacht club, so don't pay any subs. Poor suckers never expected me to live this long.)

John V.

Aaron Headly said...

Stephen has every right to complain, based on what I've seen.

Some additional observations:

I wanted to fly a burgee, but had no interest in joining any of the local yacht clubs. So I sewed my own (which was quite a bit of fun, actually). I just made sure to give mine the two tails that indicate 'commodore' and I had my own Y.C.

As far as the Windex™ goes, you can attach your burgee to a short staff and then hoist that to the masthead. If you make the staff the right length, the burgee itself will be above the expensive tell-tale. Except, of course, when the wind isn't blowing, but what use is a Windex™ then? And when the wind is blowing, the burgee is easier to read than the little arrow, so why not ditch it?

And if you're really serious about having the shippiest national flag in the fleet, you'll need to have a mizzen gaff to fly it from. That fact certainly influenced my choice of boat.