The U.S. Coast Guard is often forgotten in a discussion of the American military, but they play a vital role in guarding and protecting the waters of the United States. They embark on hundreds of lifesaving search and rescue missions for boaters and sailors in distress. While nearly everyone is familiar with the flags for larger branches of the American military, the Coast Guard flag often goes unrecognized even though it has a long and proud tradition of faithful Americans serving under its banner.
One of the most common symbols we see today is The Jolly Roger, which is found on children’s toys, holiday decorations, and even sports team logos, such as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and which replaced the crossbones with swords and a football to represent their team in a unique way. Continue reading
Did that get your attention? It should have, because that motion with the flags in that position is the internationally designated semaphore signal for “Attention!” It also means “Error,” but we can skip that for now.
Semaphore flags are the end result of a signaling system developed in the late 1600s by Robert Hooke (of microscope fame). He presented it to the Royal Society, but they failed to do anything with it. A century later, it was adapted and used by Claude Chappe in France, eventually covering much of the country and allowing for very rapid transmission of information across vast distances.
Chappe’s design was a tower with a large crossbar at the top, with arms at either end that each could be arranged in seven different positions. The crossbar itself could assume four different positions, allowing for a total of 196 different configurations. This allowed for a sophisticated system of phrases and messages to be sent to another tower within extreme visual distance, which would then copy it, allowing the next tower to copy it, and so on.
These towers were so successful that the French government initially rejected Samuel Morse’s telegraph on the basis that the wires could be too easily cut. Eventually, of course, they fell out of favor, largely because they were pretty much useless at night, and when they could be seen, everyone could see them, so secret signals were suddenly no longer as much so.
Before that time, though, they inspired the development of the smaller version used shipboard to great effect. Those were flags, and that’s why we’re here.
Semaphore flags are (if on a ship) red and yellow or (if on land) blue and white. The colors are split diagonally with the red hoist-side and on top. (Although the colors don’t matter: the land-based version is blue with a white square in the center. It’s just to make the arm position more obvious.)
The arm position is what gives the letter – or numeral, depending on what you need to signal. The flags do not overlap unless they are in the “rest” or “space” position, in which case they are directly in front of the signaler with both arms straight down. The alphabet is laid out similarly to a wheel: each arm can take one of eight positions, and the combination of the positions of the two arms denotes the letter. Six of the letters require an arm to be brought across the body so the flags are on the same side, and there is a unique signal to denote that the signaler is switching to numbers. (The switch back to letters is denoted by signaling “J”.)
Starting in the rest position with both flags in the down position, the right arm rising to low gives “A”, and rises a quarter-rotation for B, C, and D. Then the right arm drops back to down, the left arm goes to the high position for “E” and follows down to “G”.
Easy enough, right? Then “H” is done by the right hand being straight out and the left hand going across to the low position underneath. Keep your left hand there for “I” while raising the right hand up to the high position. Skip “J” for now; “K” continues the same circle except for convenience’s sake you swap arms. That is to say, right hand in the low position, left hand in the up position. “L” through “N” continue the sweep, then you move your right hand up one more to straight out and cross your left hand over again. Then the pattern continues – it’s actually much easier than it sounds from just reading it.
We did imply we would come back to “J”. That’s a unique position where your right hand is straight up and your left hand is straight out. This may seem odd, but it’s a consequence of assigning numbers to the first series of letters; the signal to switch back has to be significantly different so the intent is clear.
Semaphore is not outdated quite yet; it has significant use as a quick signaling system for areas – such as in the mountains or onboard ship – where visual clarity is good but the distance between participants may be too great for verbal clarity. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police have used it (without flags, unfortunately) for years in such situations.
Of course, the most famous use of semaphore is probably Monty Python’s depiction of the classic British pastime of reciting Wuthering Heights completely in semaphore, as Emily Bronte probably originally wished.
The open ocean has undeniable appeal, especially in today’s hectic, loud, busy world. The simplicity of a valiant sailing ship running before a brisk wind in silent elegance encapsulates a glorious idea of escape. One does not often find a quiet haven disturbed only by the rush of wind and water and the crying of seabirds. Even better, when it enables you to explore the greater world around you in unexpected and glorious ways. Full sails and salt spray hearken back to the earliest adventurers and traders looking upon the mysterious shores of a New World.
Modern day sailing is an interesting and challenging art that requires both physical effort and careful study—and is becoming more and more popular as a delightful warm-weather hobby. The perennial popularity of the Boston Sailing School on the Charles River in Massachusetts is testimony; children of all ages learn to set sail and love the open water. Each year hundreds of young people grapple with every level of challenge, from beginners to advanced racing techniques, and even nighttime navigation.
The Eastern Seaboard teems with opportunities for unique adventure, far from the dubious delights of fast food and social media. Sailing, it seems, can be for almost everyone, as these sea-going beauties come in all sizes. Even tiny solo sailboats command as much respect as luxurious multi-bedroom yachts when it comes to sheer accomplishment and skill. In one respect, however, they all have a beautifully uniting feature: They all fly colors.
A flag is an identity at sea, a statement of who you are and where you are from. One flies the flag of one’s country in pride and honor, but there is also a vibrant, beautiful language of smaller flags utilizing an internationally recognized code for communication. Using 26 pennons to represent the letters of the alphabet that are described in NATO phonetic terms (A=alpha, B=bravo, C=charlie, etc.) these small, brilliant flags help international ships pass quick, efficient messages.
Making the whole concept a little more complex is the idea that each of those letter flags also has a specific meaning in and of itself, so “A” is also “diver down, keep clear.” A celebration of Tall Ships would hardly be the same without the brilliant buntings training from the mast. It’s also fascinating to see the messages they post for other ships to see—a conversation right in front of us that only very few know how to interpret.
International Code Flags at AmericanFlags.com
Luckily enough, AmericanFlags.com carries the entire 40 piece package of these International Code flags. The total 26 piece alphabet is supplemented with the complete eleven piece set of numeric flags, an answer flag, and three “spacers” to help with signal clarity. Though the mastery of this art requires diligence and persistence, the effect of sailing into port with the Stars and Stripes billowing and a carefully worded “Happy 4th of July” has an undeniable cachet. Not only does a sailing vessel look more festive with international code flags, they also instill a sense of pride in one’s self for mastering a unique form of communication. A little bit of satisfied smugness could be justified from such a display of unusual artistry.
Carefully constructed of long wearing, double seamed nylon, these International Code flags are available in six different sizes to suit the magnitude of your vessel. American made and tested by AmericanFlags.com ourselves, these flags are guaranteed to last and stay beautiful. Appropriate ropes and fittings are included with each set, as is a durable storage duffle to keep your collection safe and organized.
Colors are brilliantly dyed, fade-resistant, and of internationally approved combinations and patterns. Designed to withstand the harsh conditions found at sea, this attractive collection can also be used to add flair and identity to the homes of proud Navy families, and is a beautiful, patriotic addition to the Stars and Stripes.