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