Nautical Flags have long been a crucial part of maritime communication, acting as a visually efficient way to send messages across vast distances. They can convey everything from distress signals to identifying a ship’s nationality. And though their role in high-speed communication has been somewhat usurped by modern technology, these brightly colored flags are still valuable tools for boaters of all kinds in case of emergencies or breakdowns in radio.

The International Code of Signals was established in the 19th century and set out a system of flags that represented letters of the alphabet, numbers, and various maritime safety situations. This system enabled boats of different nationalities to communicate easily, regardless of language. It also made it easy for ships to communicate with land stations or other vessels in the event of a loss of communication.

Sailing Symbols: Exploring Nautical Flags

Today, we’re most familiar with nautical flags as the colorful patterns a boater flies to signal his or her position and intentions to other vessels on open water. They can be used to convey a message solo or in combination with other flags to convey more complicated information. For example, a single red pendant flag signifies that there is a small craft advisory, while a single square red flag with two black squares means that a storm warning is in effect.

These nautical flags are often seen during yacht and dinghy races, too, where they can be combined to convey specific race scenarios. They’re even used by the U.S. Navy, which combines its own set of flags that differ slightly from the international meanings.