April 30, 2020

Design Your Own Signal

Learn about communicating at a safe distance with code flags and private signals, and design your own to send a message to others while staying far away.

In the days before radios or cellphones, people would hoist flags on ships to communicate with anyone out of reach of shouting, whether on other ships or ashore. This included national flags to indicate where a ship was from, and signal or code flags to send messages. There are 26 alphabetical code signal flags (one for each letter) and 10 numerical flags. When flown in groups, they can be used to spell out words. When flown alone, each of the alphabet signal flags also has its own meaning - for example, our Lima signal means "stop! I have something important to say!" when flown at sea, or "this ship is quarantined" when flown by a vessel in harbor or at anchor. The meanings of code flags have changed over time, and can mean different things when you are underway versus at anchor or in port:

A (Alfa) - "I have a diver down; keep well clear at slow speed." OR "I am undergoing a speed trial"

B (Bravo) - "I am taking in or discharging or carrying dangerous goods." (used to mean explosives!)

C (Charlie) - "affirmative," or "yes!"

D (Delta) - "having trouble maneuvering, keep clear"

E (Echo) - "I am altering my course to starboard"

F (Foxtrot) - "I am disabled; communicate with me"

G (Golf) - "I require a pilot"

H (Hotel) - "I have a pilot on board"

I (India) - "I am altering my course to port"

J (Juliet) - "I am on fire and have dangerous cargo onboard," or, "I am leaking dangerous cargo!" or, "I am going to send a message by semaphore"

K (Kilo) - "I wish to communicate with you" or "you should stop your vessel instantly"

L (Lima) - in harbor: "this ship is quarantined" at sea: "stop your vessel instantly, I have something important to communicate"

M (Mike) - "My vessel is stopped" or "I have a doctor onboard"

N (November) - "negative," or "no"

O (Oscar) - "man overboard"

P (Papa) - in harbor: "we're about to leave! all crew report to the vessel!" at sea: "my nets are caught on an obstruction" or, "your lights are out or burning badly"

Q (Quebec) - "everyone on my vessel is healthy and we request inspection / permission to enter the port"

R (Romeo) - no meaning by itself; used to mean "the way is off my ship; you may make your way past me"

S (Sierra) - "my engines are going full speed astern"

T (Tango) - "keep clear" (in fishing boats, "keep clear, engaged in trawling") or "do not pass ahead of me"

U (Uniform) - "you are running into danger"

V (Victor) - "I require assistance"

W (Whiskey) - "I require medical assistance"

X (X-ray) - "stop and watch for my signals"

Y (Yankee) - "I am dragging my anchor" or "I am carrying mail"

Z (Zulu) - "I require a tug" or, to address or call shore stations

Semaphores are another system for sending messages, traditionally with flags. With the semaphore system, you only really need two arms to get the message across (flags, hands, lights or ping pong paddles optional) image courtesy the Torpedo Bay Navy Museum

But at HMM, our favorite type of signal flag is probably the private signal: a flag that belongs only to you! The custom of using personal ("private") flags to indicate when a specific (usually important) person was onboard a ship dates at least as far back as the Roman times. The history of private signals can also be traced to the history of adorning boats with carved statues to show who a vessel belonged to (sharing some origins with figureheads, which evolved symbolically into something a bit different - we'll get to that in a later post!). On land, it can also be connected to the use of symbolic heraldry and family crests from the Middle Ages, and a time when people used banners with colors, symbols, animals and patterns to indicate the presence of a specific person in a castle or on a battlefield. Later on yachts, flying a private signal typically meant the owner was onboard. Various Herreshoff family members had their own private signals. Captain Nat's consisted of two maltese crosses (one yellow and one red) on a blue swallowtail field. Today at the Herreshoff Museum we have added an "H" to the middle of N.G.H.'s crosses to make our own custom signal for the museum.

The Herreshoff Museum signal, based on the historic signal belonging to Captain Nat, and later, his son A. Sidney Herreshoff.

Can you spot N.G.H.'s personal signal from this 1920s copy of Lloyd's Yacht Register?

While you are spending more time at home than usual, maybe you want a private signal to hang outside your office or room to tell your family you're there (you get to decide if it means "I'm here, come on in!" or "I'm here, leave me alone!"). Your signal can be rectangular, swallow-tail shaped or triangular - though the swallowtail is the most traditional for private signals. You can print our templates and color them in on paper, or if you're feeling a bit more adventurous you can try sewing yourself a signal. Make sure you come up with a design that looks good large or small, because you can use them to mark all sorts of things as yours. Check out the gallery of photos below for some inspiration, and think about whether you want to include your favorite colors, animals, symbols that represent your name, or your initials before you start. And, as always, please don't forget to tag and share us @Herreshoff on instagram or over on our Facebook page! We'd love to see what you come up with.

4 replies added

  1. John OShaughnessy July 6, 2021 Reply

    I have a private signal but the flag needs replacing. Do you make private signal flags or can you recommend someone who does?

    • Britt Baubie August 6, 2021 Reply

      Contact Prestige Flag out of San Diego. Their work is fantasic.

  2. Jan Moniz June 23, 2023 Reply

    I bought Marjorie Merriweather Post’s 1963 Dyer 29…she used this on a lake but had a signal flag for her yacht Sea Cloud, is it improper etiquette to use her signal flag on the Dyer? Thank you!

    • JPFD January 5, 2024 Reply

      Hi Jan,

      Firstly- I am not the expert, but I will share my “tribal” understanding.

      A signal flag follows the person, not necessarily the yacht. So I am not sure it would be proper to fly a private signal of a yachts prior owner; you would fly your own.

      If I charter a yacht, my signal is flown on the charter while I am aboard and always when I am aboard of my own boat.

      That said – I also have a Herreshoff design boat and I may fly Captain Nat’s signal on that vessel.



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