Signal Flags And Their Meanings

Signal Flags And Their Meanings | Life of Sailing

Last Updated by

Capt Chris German

June 15, 2022

Signal flags harken back to a bygone era before VHF and cell phones. At one time, flags were the cornerstone of every well operated ship or military unit’s communication system, signaling maneuvers, emergencies and other general information for crew and comrades to receive with fear and trepidation.

All too often now, signal flags are reserved for senior citizen sailors with their weekend power squadron exercises and colorful adornment for the local Yacht Club Martini Mixer.

But deep in the annals of the internet, I found several uses for signal flags that have otherwise been forgotten and it is because they have been forgotten by the masses that their function is brought into question.

After all, a signal or message is only useful if someone is there to understand it. Much like fog signals, if a horn blows and no one knows what it means, is it really a signal or just noise pollution?

If a flag that is flown without anyone's understanding is it a useful flag?

One of the most recognizable flags we have is Old Glory and the only reason she is so revered is because we all think we know what she stands for.

What if, like the rotary dial phone, all the Millennials all stopped knowing what Old Glory stood for, would we still have a reason to fly it?

I was talking with my father-in-law, an Annapolis Grad (class of ‘69) and long time Navy Pilot who flew with the fleet from New Zealand to New York and everywhere in between. If anyone was supposed to know what a “Zulu” flag looked like, it was him.

But alas his Navy training failed him when we started to quiz him on the signal flag alphabet one afternoon last Christmas. Blame it on the wassail if you will, but when the Captain forgets a flag, one must begin to question it’s efficacy as a universally understood signal.

If you want to join the sailing nerd and sea scouts and memorize the entire alphabet and number system of signal flags for posterity, perhaps you would like to know some of the other uses signal flags might offer to common (or not so common) sailors.


Table of contents

Racing Signals

First up, its racing signals. Spend enough time in the beer can races and you're bound to see a committee boat sporting a few signal flags every once in a while.

They are used to indicate info about races and course changes to a fleet. They are far more functional than a radio in a dinghy race, as lasers tend to flip and vhfs tend to sink.

So using a signal flag for all to see is much more effective and certainly a ton more salty. I sourced this description of racing meanings from sailing flags here.

Most big name yacht clubs and racing syndicates use flags and horns in a regatta to some degree or another, but only the most preeminent do so with any kind of standardized manner.

Generally speaking the more hoity toity the yacht club, the more they use flags in their races because they want to (a) be elitist and (b) can afford to buy the flags which retail for big bucks.

But if you find yourself aboard a committee boat in South Africa you best review the flags at the link above - but for everyone else, here’s a sample:

Signal Flags

Common Flags

While the racing world has co-opt the use of flags for regattas, there remains other uses for signal flags which if your savvy can be quite useful when cruising to strange International ports of call or miraculously time travel to the decks of a World War II aircraft carrier.

These uses have included the most commonly known flags such as the diver down flag or Alpha flag and the courtesy flags which don’t seem to have any standardized meaning at all but are used in all sorts of ports from Berma to Bimini.

And in this day and age, international cruisers are well aware of the ‘Q” flag which is used to indicate that a newly arrived vessel is free of disease.

In other times this flag meant a “quarantine” was in effect for your boat when arriving in new ports of call but that signal has been replaced by the Lima Flag indicating that one is to stop all operations immediately.  

If you aim to island hop in the little latitudes you would be well to understand and commit these most commonly used flags to memory, but just in case, hang on to the others in the back of your mind.

You can get a great run down of the flags by looking at any Sea Scouting Manual or by going here.

Buying Signal Flags

If you want to run out and get yourself a set of signal flags, be aware that there are lots of cheap knock offs and many that aren’t worth the $300 price tag they soak you for at your local marina.

Signal flags should be made of durable canvas or nylon. Brass grommets and sturdy cotton lines should be part of the package and make sure they are large enough to be seen from a distance.

Those little 6 inch jobs don’t cut it from a mile and half off though sea spray and blowing sand. Mine are at least 36” long and can be seen from Space if Google ever decides to look my way again.

I must admit I love my flags. I inherited an almost complete set from a boat that I dreamed of restoring that was raced in the Washington DC area for 20 years.

When I pulled them out the stink-drenched hull, they smelled like diesel and were coated with black mold. But a soak in laundry detergent and an airing in a stiff Carolina breeze on a sunny day and they were much more tolerable.

So much so that my wife didn’t make me throw them out. I used them to celebrate the holidays by dressing ship in my Hunter at Cape Lookout on the 4rth of July and Labor Day and as a marketing ploy to get people to want to take sailing lessons from me on the waterfront of Beaufort.

I dreamed of stringing them up the front and down to the stern in my 42’ endeavour but alas Hurricane Florence took her before I could ever dress her up, so I stuck them in storage in a laundry basket and will use them once I acquire my dream boat, a 60 foot catamaran from Australia.

Given that they are so expensive, $315 for a small set from Landfall Navigation I would suggest reading the manufacturer’s methods on care.

Caring For Your Flags

Make sure you let them dry out before packing them away, even on a sunny day. The mere fact that they are flown by the water means they will acquire moisture that will rot them in a matter of days if packed away wet.

I would also suggest you treat them as you would your sails.

  • A gentle detergent and lots of fresh water every spring and fall.
  • Fly them regularly to make sure they don’t get stiff or dry rot.
  • Pack them in a waterproof bag or tote and if you can find them, throw in a few packs of those silica desiccants to dry up any ambient moisture and keep them fresh.
  • You can also treat them with tea tree oil to inhibit mold and mildew growth and slow down fading.

Dressing Ship

Now let’s talk about “dressing ship”. There is a way to do it and a way not to do it.

Too many lines and halyards can create havoc on a windy day and the worst is if one comes undone and you fly your halyard.

My recommendation is use your jib halyard and attach it to the middle of the string of flags and pull the flags up that way, fore and aft.

You can run one string up the forestay with the jib halyard and one up the back stay with the main halyard but then you have no main halyard to fly Old Glory off the back stay and double your chances of flying your halyard if something goes wrong.

Some say you should alternate number pennants and letter flags, but I say use what you got and fly em proudly.

If you’re on the dock, prep your flags on the dock or in a grassy area, but if you have to do it on the deck of your boat, watch out so that they don’t blow overboard.

Most of the time I have used them, they attach one to the other with a loop and wooden slug. You slide the loop of one over the slug of the next and continue with the same pattern until you have enough to reach from your bow to mast top to stem. Make sure the first one is right side up and all the others should be right.

Run the flags, up to your mast and then down to your stern. If your boat has a lot of freeboard and you have a lot of flags, you might even attach a sinker to the loose end of the bottom flag at your stern and bow. It's kind of a show off thing to do and people might look at you with a bit of envy or disgust depending on your zip code, but this way you can show how big your boat is and how much money you have.

Just make sure you cleat off the string of flags that is up the mast before you hang one to the waterline or the whole string will fly up in a breeze and wrap around your mast.

When To Dress Ship

Now when to dress ship? Basically whenever you want to wear a dress or tie, you should dress your ship too.

Ties are rarely welcome on a sailboat and dresses are only welcome if they are flowy and can blow up at the right moments - so instead of getting dressed up, why don’t you dress your ship instead?

I think any federal holiday is a good time and every high holiday as well. Stick em up at Thanksgiving and don’t take em down until New Years Day and you’ll cover all the cultural bases with minimal work.

Birthdays and Anniversaries are always a great time to do it and if you have the flags, spell out your hubby’s name or the name of the birthday celebrator in flags.

Just make sure you tell everyone that is what you did, because most people don’t know what they mean.

One of my favorite Jimmy Buffet lyrics is when he is talking about the birth of his father in Havana Harbor and all the ships celebrate his birth by dressing ship.

In his song “False Echoes” he writes,

“On the old Chicamauga the Signal Jacks flew
And the message they spelled out caused a great ballyhoo
Every ship in Havana then hoisted away
All the pennants were 'a flyin' on my dad's first birthday”

Man I was born at the wrong time.

So that’s my take on signal flags and the sailor. If you got ‘em, fly ‘em and have fun with them. They do have meanings and if you decide to wander to St. Somewhere or aim to be the next Dennis Conner, you should probably know what they mean.

But for the rest of us here in mainland America, they are a breathtaking sight to behold when flown on someone’s birthday or to celebrate the birth of our Nation.

They are expensive and prone to mold and dry rot, so take care of them with regular washing and lots of fresh air.

Now that you know what they are and how to fly them, I hope to see lots of photos of boats dressed to the nines. Send them to us at if you think of it, or share on Facebook and tag us in the photo so we can see how you dress your ship.

Thanks for reading and remember, do good, have fun and sail far.

Signal Flags And Their Meanings
Capt Chris German

Capt Chris German

Capt Chris German is a life long sailor and licensed captain who has taught thousands to sail over the last 20 years. In 2007, he founded a US Sailing-based community sailing school in Bridgeport, CT for inner city youth and families. When Hurricane Sandy forced him to abandon those efforts, he moved to North Carolina where he set out to share this love for broadcasting and sailing with a growing web-based television audience through The Charted Life Television Network.

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