Thursday, April 29, 2010


It's a piece of multi-colored cloth fluttering in the wind. But why? Why is it up there fluttering in the wind?

Most non-boating people would answer from a list something like this:
  • Decoration
  • They're festive
  • To show patriotism
But boaters would have these as the first two items on their lists:
  • Identification
  • Communication
And, if you allow me to define "identification" as "communicating national origin", then there is only one item on the list:
  • Communication
Communication is the primary purpose for flags. Before the advent of radio a little more than 100 years ago, most ship-to-ship or ship-to-shore communication was done with flags . A sailor standing on the deck of a ship with a telescope can "read" the flags being flown on another ship, from miles away. (The other method was by courier - sending a man in a boat with the message - but this has obvious limitations due to distance, sea state, and the lack of ability to do one-to-many messaging.)

Knowing that flags are communication devices, you might suspect that there are flags for each letter in the alphabet - and you'd be right. Given enough flags, and enough space to fly them, you could spell out any message. A modern-day example of the continuing use of the alphabet flags is the plain yellow "Q" flag, signifying "Quarantine", that a vessel flies before clearing customs when it enters a foreign harbor.

But this use of the Q flag begins to bridge to the primary flag methodology: where a single flag stands for an entire message or concept. This is a much more economical use of flags and flag halyards. In this particular example, although it is not a special-purpose flag, accepted usage has it understood that the single Q flag takes the place of 10 alphabet flags. Compared to flags, texting is scandalously verbose.

Boat in distress
Boat in distress

  • "A" alphabetic signal flag,
  • Diver down (International, US Coast Guard)
Diver down
(common usage)

Small craft warning
Gale warning
Storm warning
Hurricane warning
Sun is over the yardarm

And, of course, the flag flying over Eolian's decks most recently also is a means of communication!


The Interview With A Cruiser Project said...

We like to think that our martini flag is an easy message to translate :)

Mike said...

We were told to call the Boat in distress flag the iPod flag. :)

bob said...

Livia: The message is universal isn't it!

Mike: :)

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