September 9, 2016

Let's get flapping again

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)











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 another Mainly about Boats column.)


Alden Smith said...

I recently flew over the US of A in my Lear Jet and was astounded by the number of flagpoles in the backyards of Gods own country flying GEM (MEG backwards) - 'My bowels are not regular' and MJD - 'I am burdened by gross flatulence'. Some say this is metaphor for the current Presidential electoral circus, others say this is simply what happens when landlubbers get carried away with flying flags.

I have three flags that I put to good use. One has Zzzzzzzzz written on it which means 'bugger off I'm having a sleep'. The second has a large tea pot on it which means 'come and have a cup of tea'; the third is my local Yacht Club flag - anything else is simply pretension.

Patrick Hay said...

I like flying flags, too. My favourite was my gin pennant - a triangular pennant with a background divided horizontally light blue over dark blue decorated with a large pink shape representing a cocktail glass. My wife made it for me out of offcuts of spinnaker material donated by my sailmaker.

Unfortunately I have lost it. If you find it please return it to me and collect a liquid reward!

Mike K said...

Then there is of course perhaps the most recognizable flag of all - the Jolly Roger. These days most often flown by racers trying to talk up their abilities but guaranteed to have caused more than a few GEM responses in past centuries.

andy said...

I have flow flags saying the following things.

I am unable to launch helicopter.

Have you seen any icebergs?

Indicate your position with rockets and flares. (on the fourth of July!)

Lots of fun for me and my crew. Have not received any response from other vessels!