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Ezra Bowen
July 01, 1957
The colorful flags that fly from ships and yacht clubs carry messages to anyone who knows the sign language of the sea
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July 01, 1957

Yachting Heraldry

The colorful flags that fly from ships and yacht clubs carry messages to anyone who knows the sign language of the sea

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Every one of the brightly shaded flags and burgees on these pages means something to the seafaring men who can understand or recognize their patterns. For each flag, whether it is in the sailor's alphabet (see cover) or whether it is one of the private signals of the yachting organizations and amateur sailors at right and on the following pages, has a distinctive design that carries a built-in message. The simplest patterns are in the alphabet flags, and they are made simple so they can be quickly recognized across a couple of miles of open water. On the top row above are five samples from the sailor's alphabet, which is the same for all nations that operate under the international signal code. Each of the flags stands for a specific letter. Hoisted singly or in combination, they can spell out virtually any communication that might conceivably be exchanged between vessels.

Sometimes the message is a terse warning. For example, the letter B hoisted at the masthead means "I am taking aboard gasoline or explosives." The letter F means "I am disabled." But hoisted together, the two flags lose their separate meanings and spell out the message, "I cannot make headway."

Each of these letters also has a name of its own—Alfa for A, Bravo for B, Charlie for C—so that when the captain calls for something like a change in course, which is always signaled by hoisting a combination of code flags, the signalman won't think the captain said JT for follow me, when he really said JP for turn right, and thereby sink half the fleet.

The yacht club flags are generally quite simple, but many of them have some sort of theme woven into the design. The Northeast Harbor Fleet burgee (above right) shows a blue compass pointing to where northeast would be if north were at the top of the flagpole. The Atlanta and Corpus Christi clubs indulge in a little local chauvinism in their flag patterns, specifically, the Confederate colors and the Texas Lone Star motif. Each one of the Royal clubs—The Royal Canadian, The Royal St. Lawrence Yacht Squadron, etc.—carries a crown somewhere in the design. But most of the clubs or organizations, like the U.S. Power Squadrons, the Detroit Yacht Club, the Pewaukee Yacht Club or the U.S. Naval Academy Sailing Squadron, stick to basic or self-explanatory designs, usually the initials of the club superimposed on a combination of primary colors.

When it comes to personal flags, however, the barriers of simplicity and convention are down. Anyone who wants a flag can order it in any design he chooses. He doesn't have to belong to a club. He doesn't even have to own a boat. All he has to do is send his order to any one of a dozen or so companies, like the Capitol Flag Company in Houston, the Tabery Corp. in Los Angeles, or Abercrombie & Fitch in New York, and in a reasonable time he will get his flag. The only restrictions are those of his own personal taste.

Some tastes are uncomplicated. For example, Ira P. Fulmor of Pasadena, Calif. simply put a big F on a burgee made from the F code flag. Cornelius Shields likes the color green and prefers rectangular flags to triangles, so he put three green bars on a rectangle. Both these sailors were looking for something recognizable. Jack Price and Carleton Mitchell also thought in terms of recognition, but their designs are more personal and involved. Price's red-hulled cutter is named Comanche, whence the red Indian head. Mitchell, skipper of the famous ocean racer Finisterre, likes the soaring gull because it symbolizes for him the feeling of freedom in deep-water sailing.

In the field of really complex designs, George A. Pearson's burgee is perhaps the ultimate example. The name of Pearson's boat is Celia. Therefore he put a blue C on the white field of his burgee. The C forms part of the outline of a woman's face. The rest of the face is filled in by a Martini glass, a musical note and a pair of red lips. As Mr. Pearson explains it, all this has to do with the fact that "An Englishman once said, 'The backbone of yachting is immorality.' " Translating immorality into wine, women and song, Mr. Pearson then produced the design for his personal burgee.

Norman Sarns had essentially the same theme, but he picked it to reflect the name of his boat Revelry. Nicholas Geib, a musical instrument casemaker, took a section from the treble clef and dropped in a musical G note. Richard S. Rheem interlocked five circles to symbolize the feeling of togetherness (not necessarily inspired by anyone) within his family of five. Charles Ship-man Payson chose an adventuring viking ship to recall the name of his boat Saga. DeCoursey Fales put his family crest, a lion holding an arrow, on his flag. Henry S. Morgan, and all the rest of the sailing Morgans, for that matter, fly the crescent and star of the Moslem faith because their grandfather, John Pierpont Morgan, flew that flag over a series of yachts named Corsair after the Turkish and Saracen privateers. And D. Walter Elliott, who made his fortune as an independent oil operator, paid homage to that fortune by showing a red oil derrick gushing a black border of oil around a yellow burgee.

There is one other category of nautical flags. These are the universal symbols, which stand for neither letters nor clubs nor people. The symbolic flags, which usually look like what they mean, indicate something is about to happen, or has just happened—like the blue and white flag above that means the boat from which it flies has landed a tuna. The most familiar of the symbols—and perhaps the best known of all nautical flags—is the red and black storm warning shown on page 24. This flag, usually hoisted at a weather station or Coast Guard station in combination with other symbols to show the force and direction of the storm, is a stern warning to all craft in the vicinity to take refuge immediately. Perhaps not so well known, but far more welcome to all sailors is the other symbol shown at the bottom of page 24—a red cocktail glass on a white field. This is a gentle reminder to all yachtsmen that the sun is under the yardarm, that all serious sailing should cease, and anyone who happens to be thirsty is invited aboard for a drink.

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