If you’ve been to a marina for a large gathering of any kind chances are you’ve seen a set of international code flags, or signaling flags. There’s always at least one boat in a flotilla festooned with flags up the stays.
When on a boat that’s docked, flying these flags (especially more than 20 at a time!) mean “serious fiesta on board”. They actually do have a purpose besides signalling cocktails. International code flags are normally used between ship and shore. Also called signalling flags, they’re a set of flags of different colours, shapes and markings which used singly or in combination have different meanings.
The flags include 26 square flags which depict the letters of the alphabet, ten numeral pendants, one answering pendant, and three substituters or repeaters. Only a few colors can be readily distinguished at sea. These are: red, blue, yellow, black, and white; and these cannot be mixed indiscriminately. You will notice, for clarity, the flags shown are either red and white, yellow and blue, blue and white, or black and white; besides plain red, white, and blue.
One-flag signals are urgent or very common signals (see meanings below). Two-flag signals are mostly distress and maneuvering signals. Three-flag signals are for points of the compass, relative bearings, standard times, verbs, punctuation, also general code and decode signals. Four-flags are used for geographical signals, names of ships, bearings, etc. Five-flag signals are those relating to time and position. Six-flag signals are used when necessary to indicate north or south or east or west in latitude and longitude signals. Seven-flags are for longitude signals containing more than one hundred degrees.
Here’s some useful two letter signals:
|AC – I am abandoning my vessel.||LO – I am not in my correct position: used by a light vessel||RU – Keep clear of me; I am maneuvering with difficulty.|
|AN – I need a doctor.||NC – I am in distress and require immediate assistance.||SO – You should stop your vessel instantly.|
|BR – I require a helicopter.||PD – Your navigation lights are not visible.||UM – the Harbour is closed to traffic.|
|CD – I require immediate assistance.||PP – Keep well clear of me.||UP – Permission to enter Harbour is urgently requested. I have an emergency.|
|DV – I am drifting.||QD – I am going ahead.||YU – I am going to communicate with your station by means of the International code of signals.|
|EF – SOS/MAYDAY has been canceled.||QT – I am going astern.||ZD1 – Please report me to the Coast Guard, New York|
|FA – Will you give me my position?||QQ – I require health clearance.||ZD2 – Please report me to Lloyds, London.|
|GW – Man overboard. Please take action to pick him up.||QU – Anchoring is prohibited.||ZL – Your signal has been received but not understood.|
|JL – You are running the risk of going aground.||QX – I request permission to anchor.|
And here’s the most useful 9 letter signal: