Nautical Flag Knowledge: Are you Dragging Your Anchor?

Nautical Flags

A must for everyone who puts to sea in boats is some kind of guide to nautical flags. Most people who are regularly on the water, whether it be to race or cruise, know some of the most commonly used flags such as the Alpha signal for  “I have a diver down; keep well clear at slow speed”.  In yacht racing the code has its own specific set of applications, for example the Y flag on the committee boat indicates that lifejackets must be worn, the Sierra flag for a shortened course etc.

But when challenged I don’t think there are many of us who could identify every single flag and its various applications without making a mistake. The exception (you’d hope) ought to be those operating on the water commercially. Having a handbook on board is all well and good but not if you’ve run over the diver in your tinny or over shot the shortened course mark in your yacht by the time you get the book out, in which case you could find yourself in a lot of trouble.

The Nato Phonetic Alphabet (not to be confused with the International Phonetic Alphabet ) corresponds with the names of the International Code Flags and  is the international radiotelephony code for transmitting messages over radio. Again, having to translate as you go from a handbook, when you are exchanging information over radio in an emergency situation at sea/on the water, is far from ideal.

As a side, I have found that knowing this alphabet has come in very handy when discussing the antics of naughty (small) children in their presence or mentioning topics that are taboo such as; “its time for “Bravo, Echo, Delta”, or “so and so is being a thorough pain in the Alpha, Romeo, Sierra, Echo”. This type of regular use is also a good way of learning the code during day to day so it comes to mind when you really need it.

Recently, however, I found a much more practical tool for learning everything in the international code. The Nautical Flags Application on Iphone lists them all with clear pictures and descriptions, includes the racing flags meanings, coastal warnings,  as well as flash cards and a quiz which you can test yourself with on a spare minute on the train.

Nautical Flag App Functions

Test Yourself


It also has a really cool “spell it with flags” tool where you can type in a message such as “Happy Birthday” and it will display the flag sequence, useful if you want to use your nautical bunting to say something meaningful in a “best dressed boat” competition! It also includes the Morse Code and the coastal warnings flags.

There are a number of Iphone apps that offer this type of function but the one I’m describing is called “Nautical Flags”, costs $1.19 and was created by Pub 9 Nautical

If you don’t have an iphone, here’s a really useful link instead. You can also purchase stickers at any good chandlery (boat shop) that display the code and its meaning that you can place in a sensible location in your cockpit or nav station etc.

Can you decode this without checking your handbook?

First person to correctly decode the sequence in the picture above gets a picnic trip in the tinny.

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  1. Charley, What a cool site you have! I LOVE the nautical flags, will have my girls look at this, it goes perfect with our study of the alphabet and cryptography. I’m off to add you to the list!


    1. Glad youlike it Lisa. Let us know what else you discover with your flags and cryptography. I’ll be dong a follow up post at some point on nautical flag etiquette and history. We’re off out now in the tinny…have a great day in the outdoors!

  2. “Do you know your flag code” Did it without a reference book…knew those long boring passage races to Fowey in Moonlighter would come in handy sometime! I must confess though I have no idea on the commercial meanings of the flags.
    PS I will hold you to that picnic in the tinny. Just need to save up for some flights to Sydney first!

    1. Well done Polly, free tinny trip for the tregaskes family! It doesnt surprise me the flag solution came from a Collins family member!

  3. […] Nautical Flag Knowledge: Are you Dragging Your Anchor? – Secret Water […]

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