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The system of international maritime signal flags is a way of representing individual letters of the alphabet in signals to or from ships. It is a component of the International Code of Signals. Nautical signal flags can be used in various methods:

  • each flag spells out a letter of an alphabetic message.
  • individual signal flags have specific and standard meanings; for example, diving support vessels raise the "A flag" indicating their inability to move from their current location because they have a diver underwater.
  • one or more flags form a code word whose meaning can be looked up in a code book held by both parties. An example is the Popham numeric code used at the Battle of Trafalgar.
  • in yacht racing and dinghy racing, nautical signal flags have other meanings; for example, the P flag is used as the "preparatory" flag to indicate an imminent start, and the S flag means "shortened course".
  • Note: NATO uses an extra set of flags to communicate specific types of messages.
Letter Meaning
  A - I have a diver down; keep well clear at slow speed. With three numerals, azimuth or bearing.
  B - I am taking in, or discharging, or carrying dangerous goods. (Originally used by the Royal Navy specifically for military explosives.)
  C - Affirmative. With three numerals, course.
  D - Keep clear of me; I am maneuvering with difficulty. With two, four, or six numerals, date.
  E - I am altering my course to starboard.
  F - I am disabled; communicate with me.
  G - I require a pilot. When made by fishing vessels operating in close proximity on the fishing grounds it means: "I am hauling nets". With four or five numerals, longitude. (The last two numerals denote minutes and the rest degrees.)
  H - I have a pilot on board.
  I - I am altering my course to port.
  J - I am on fire and have dangerous cargo on board: keep well clear of me, or I am leaking dangerous cargo.
  K - I wish to communicate with you. With one numeral, I wish to communicate with you by; 1) Morse signalling by hand-flags or arms; 2) Loud hailer (megaphone); 3) Morse signalling lamp; 4) Sound signals.
  L - In harbor: The ship is under Quarantine. At sea: You should stop your vessel instantly. With four numerals, latitude. (The first two denote degrees and the rest minutes.)
  M - My vessel is stopped and making no way through the water.
  N - Negative.
  O - Man overboard. (often attached to the man overboard pole on boats).
  P - The Blue Peter. In harbor: All persons should report on board as the vessel is about to proceed to sea. At sea: It may be used by fishing vessels to mean: "My nets have come fast upon an obstruction".
  Q - My vessel is "healthy" and I request free pratique.
  R - The way is off my ship. With one or more numerals, distance in nautical miles.
  S - I am operating astern propulsion. With one or more numerals, speed in knots.
 Tango T - Keep clear of me; I am engaged in pair trawling. With four numerals, local time. (The first two denote hours and the rest minutes.)
  U - You are running into danger.
  V - I require assistance. With one or more numerals, speed in kilometres per hour.
  W - I require medical assistance.
  X - Stop carrying out your intentions and watch for my signals.
  Y - I am dragging my anchor.
  Z - I require a tug. When made by fishing vessels operating in close proximity on the fishing grounds it means: "I am shooting nets". With one or more numerals, time (UTC). (The first two denote hours and the rest minutes.) (Origin of the phrase 'Zulu Time'.)

*   N and C together (No and Yes) is used as a distress signal.


Type of flag 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9
NATO flags zero one two three four five =six seven eight nine
Pennants zero one two three four five six seven eight nine


Other Flags

prompt subsitute one substitute two substitute three substitute four
Prompt First substitute Second substitute Third substitute Fourth substitute


Storm Signal Flags

hurricane gale
Hurricane Gale


NATO Signals

answer preparation question negation designation
Code/answer (ANS) Preparation (PREP) Question (INT) Negation (NEGAT) Designation (DESIG)
alter course turn screen speed station
Alter course (CORPEN) Turn (TURN) Screen (SCREEN) Speed (SPEED) Station (STATION)
port starboard formation division squadron
Port (PORT) Starboard (STBD) Formation (FORM) Division (DIV) Squadron (SQUAD)
group subdivision emergency
Group (FLOT) Subdivision (SUBDIV) Emergency (EMERG)


This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License.

It uses material from the Wikipedia article "International Maritime Signal Flags".

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