Communicate with flags: The International Code of Signals

Communicate with flags: The International Code of Signals

Nowadays, modern technology allows for accessible communication between boats. However, before the spread of radio devices, sailors needed to communicate important messages in another way.

In the nautical field, flags have often been used to identify the boat and process more complicated messages.

This tradition is still alive today in the International Code of Signals, which provides a series of flags with an internationally shared appearance and meaning. There are flags for each letter of the alphabet and each number. Then, there are four auxiliary flags to facilitate communication. Here is the complete list of flags:

Communicate with flags: The International Code of Signals

The flags are associated with a standardized alphabet (the letters A to Z and the ten digits), along with a spoken form of each letter (to avoid confusing similar-sounding letters, such as ‘b,’ ‘p,’ and ‘v’).

The ICS flags are used to communicate specific information using one or two letters, thanks to a correspondence system understandable by all sailors.

Let’s take some examples.

Alfa alone means “I have a diver down,” but it means “I am abandoning my vessel if followed by Charlie.” If followed by November, it means “I need a doctor.”

Two-letter signals are sometimes followed with number flags, which supplements or modifies the message, for instance, to communicate positions and directions.

There are also other kinds of flags:

The Code uses three “repeater” flags to avoid carrying multiple sets of signal flags, which can be a problem in flag hoist.

The answering pennant is flown at the dip when a message is being interpreted and close up when it is understood.

It is useful for the shipowners to acknowledge the ICS flags’ meaning to better cope with any emergence and help other shipowners in difficulty.

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