History of Nautical Flags

History of Nautical Signal Flags:

The International Maritime Flag System has been used for over 150 years by sailors and boaters to signal between ships and shore. In 1857, the British Board of Trade published the International Code of Signals for the means of maritime communications. The original Code included 18 signal flags, which could communicate as many as 17,000 different messages. In 1932, the Code was expanded to include six additional languages: French, German, Italian, Japanese, Spanish and Norwegian. By 1969, Russian and Greek languages were added and each of the alpha-numeric nautical signal flags was assigned a meaning under the International Code of Signals. Besides providing maritime communication, signal flags today are used to dress ships for ceremonial and festive occasions. Mariners string the flags end-to-end and hang them from the rigging in a bow-to-stern direction.

Signal Flags: Colors and Meaning:

The signaling flags are composed of different colors, shapes, and markings, which used alone or in combination, spell out different messages. The flags include 26 square flags for the letters of the alphabet and ten numeral pendants. The colors of the flags were selected because they are the most distinguishable at sea - red, blue, yellow, black, and white.

One-flag signals are urgent or common signals. Two- flag signals are mostly distress and maneuvering signals. Three-flag signals are for points of the compass, relative bearings, standard times, verbs, punctuation, general code, and decode signals. Four-flags communicate geographical signals and names of ships. Five-flag signals communicate time and position. Six-flag signals are used, when necessary, to indicate north or south or east or west in latitude and longitude. Examples of two-flag signals include:

AC I am abandoning my vessel.
AN I need a doctor.
BR I require a helicopter.
CD I require immediate assistance.
DV I am drifting.
EF SOS/MAYDAY has been canceled.
FA Will you give me my position?
GW Man overboard. Please take action to pick him up.
JL You are running the risk of going aground.
NC I am in distress and require immediate assistance.
PD Your navigation lights are not visible.
PP Keep well clear of me.
QD I am going ahead.
QT I am going astern.
QQ I require health clearance.
QU Anchoring is prohibited.
RU Keep clear of me. I am maneuvering with difficulty.
SO You should stop your vessel instantly.
UM The Harbor is closed to traffic.
UP Permission to enter Harbor is urgently requested. I have an emergency.
ZL Your signal has been received but not understood.

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