Nautical Flag History | Using Flags as Ship Signals

Catch up on your nautical flag history and learn about everything from where the flags came from to what the colors and flag combinations mean.

Ships all around the world follow a certain flag signal code called the International Maritime Flag System. This flag system has been in use for over 150 years by sailors in order to communicate between water and shore.

International Code of Signals Nautical Flags

It was in 1857 that the International Code of Signals was officially published by the British Board of Trade. The purpose of the code was to establish a set of rules for maritime communication that everyone would understand. Originally the code included 18 signal flags that could be combined to signal about 17,000 various messages.

Nautical flag history includes two important years of change. In 1932 the flag signal code was expanded by adding six more flags for different languages that included French and Spanish. Then in 1969, even more flags were added to accommodate Russian and Greek languages. Today, this flag system of communication also is used to dress ships to more festive occasions and certain ceremonies.

What exactly does each flag look like and represent? The nautical flags are composed of various geometric shapes and colors. Nautical flag sets include 26 square flags for the letters of the alphabet and 10 numbered pendants. The five different colors were chosen since they were the easiest to see while at sea – red, white, black, yellow and blue.

Nautical Flags

Each combination of flags, from one flag to six, has a different meaning. One-flag signals are either urgent or common. Two-flag signals usually show distress and maneuvering of the ship. Three-flag signals show compass points, bearings, times or general code.  Four-flag signals communicate geography and ship names. Five-flags together means time and position. Finally, six-flags signal specific latitudes and longitudes.

Two-flag signals and fairly common and here are some examples:

AC – I’m abandoning my vessel

AN – I need a doctor

DV – I’m drifting

EF – SOS, Mayday

GW – Man overboard

PP – Keep clear of me

Check out our collection of nautical flags and see which flags work best for your needs.

Credit: Ezine Articles

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4 Replies to “Nautical Flag History | Using Flags as Ship Signals

  1. I’m impressed that 17,000 messages were made from the flag signals. I would think that the emergency signals you mention would be the only ones needed. I would need a map to decipher all of the other flag messages.

    1. Hello Connie, thank you for your inquiry. The nautical flag showing a red x on a white background represents the letter V. It can also be used to signal “require assistance”.

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