Just as the marine electronics and lights on a boat help you communicate with your fellow cruisers, nautical flags and sailing flags are a language of sorts, too. They help alert others to maneuvers you’re making, for example, or an emergency. In certain combinations, they warn of bad weather. It all depends upon which flag—or flags—you see.
Here’s how to make sense of the nautical flag alphabet. This way, you understand the situation at hand when you’re next out on the water.
6 Tips for Identifying Nautical Flags
1. Pay attention to the flag’s shape.
Most nautical flags are squares. Additionally, you’ll find some resembling triangles but with flat tips—a.k.a. pendants. These two shapes are the most common.
2. Learn the nautical flag alphabet.
Conveniently, for every letter of the alphabet, there’s an equivalent square nautical flag. Well, more accurately, each flag represents international code words like Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, etc., which correspond to alphabetical letters. The full list and their meanings:
- A – Alpha – diver down; keep clear
- B – Bravo – carrying dangerous cargo
- C – Charlie – affirmative (yes)
- D – Delta – keep clear, I am maneuvering with difficulty
- E – Echo – altering course to
5. Tally the total.
Boats can fly up to seven flags in a row to convey certain messages.
- Solo flags are the previously mentioned international code words (Alpha for diver down, for instance).
- Two nautical flags flown together typically indicate distress or a maneuvering problem. A good example: Oscar and Whiskey flown together mean someone fell overboard and needs medical assistance.
- Three-flag signals can mean the points of the compass, among other things. Four-flag signals are ship names, while five are time and position. Six-flag signals indicate latitude and longitude, while seven mean longitude with more than 100 degrees.
6. Keep in mind that special languages exist.
Sometimes, the nautical flag alphabet is unique to certain situations. Regattas assign different meanings to a few flags, so that racers understand what’s happening. NATO and even the U.S. Navy do, too, with only their personnel knowing the meanings.
A journalist with more than 30 years’ experience, Diane M. Byrne is the owner
of MegayachtNews.com, a daily website educating American superyacht owners, buyers, and
their circles of influence about the leading builders, designers, cruising destinations, and more.
She founded the website in 2007 as the first, and still the only, American-focused online media
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