Published: Jan 03 2014
By learning the protocol involved in displaying national ensigns and developing an understanding of one of the world’s oldest and most globally-recognized form of communication — the International Code of Signals — boaters can enhance their boating experience and further their nautical knowledge.
While the practice of many nautical traditions and practices have gone the way of the dial telephone, following any nautical tradition, no matter how outdated or impractical, can make the recreational boating experience more fun and interesting, especially those involving flags.
In the United States, a registered or documented vessel of any size is entitled to fly the U.S. national flag. In the nautical world, any country’s national flag is typically referred to as the national ensign and is flown from a vessel’s stern to indicate its nationality, which has served that very practical purpose for centuries and continues today.
In place of the national ensign, recreational boats can fly the U.S. Yacht Ensign (13 stars with a fouled anchor in the blue field). This ensign was designed in 1848 at the request of the Secretary of the Navy to distinguish private yachts from commercial vessels and warships. At the time of its inception and for several years following, the yacht ensign served a practical and money-saving purpose: it relieved the vessel flying the ensign from paying customs duties. While that purpose has long since vanished, displaying the unique yacht ensign has continued.
Boaters sailing U.S. waters do not have to be concerned with flag display; in fact, flying an ensign of any type is not required.
On the other hand, those planning foreign ports of call should know what flags to fly while underway in foreign waters, when making port, and where to fly the flags. The tips below about flag protocol and related issues are intended only as a guide; charterers should check with their representative and customs officials at a foreign port for details about quarantine, customs, immigration, and other issues.
In addition to ensign etiquette, understanding basic International Code of Signals (ICS) messages can also help avoid potential danger and provide hours of amusement during an extended voyage or a one-day trip.
Modern-day recreational boaters, professional mariners, and the world’s navies still use the ICS for several purposes, though the practice has greatly diminished in recreational boating and commercial shipping due to the widespread use of GPS, marine radios, and other technologies.
The ICS is a global system of nautical communication rooted in ages-old tradition, customs, and courtesies. Its lineage can likely be traced to the Peloponnesian War, when the coordinated movement of hundreds of Athenian galleys would have required some sort of communication among the ships. Though no record exists to explain how the maneuvers were accomplished, flags would have been the most probable method.
The signal code is used to communicate a variety of conditions or situations concerning the safety of navigation and persons or related matters. The system, which can be translated into nine languages, uses flags, each with a unique color, shape, and marking that represent each letter of the alphabet and the ten numerals. In addition to the letter it represents, each single flag or flag combination has a distinct meaning or code. For example, the “B” (Bravo) flag flown alone on a ship or barge communicates a very clear message: “I am taking on, discharging, or carrying dangerous cargo. Stand clear of my ship.” When the Bravo flag is flown with the “Z” (Zulu) flag, the meaning is entirely different: the combination sends a congratulatory (‘Well Done!’) message, usually seen on naval vessels.
The sailing world also uses ICS code flags, but with entirely different meanings. For example, during regattas, the “P” (Papa or Blue Peter) flag is used as the “preparatory” flag, indicating the start of a race is imminent; the “S” (Sierra) flag indicates a shortened course, signifying that the race has been shortened due to weather or other conditions.
Though the ICS is primarily a means of maritime communication for commercial and naval vessels, casual boaters can use flag messages flying from the big boats to avoid potentially dangerous situations. The flags also provide some inside intelligence, allowing recreational boaters to determine what vessels in a port or harbor are doing. Some inside information and suggestions for learning the ICS flags follow:
Even though many nautical customs and traditions have fallen into disuse, several still do serve a practical purpose, not the least of which is signaling a vessel’s country of registry and displaying patriotism. Understanding the basics of the world’s most recognized form of communication, the International Code of Signals can make boating anywhere around the globe more interesting and safer.