Boating flags have been used as a communication tool for hundreds of years. The first code of signals was drafted in 1855 by the British Board of Trade, and in 1857 the draft was published and became the Commercial code.
The flags were split into two parts – universal signals, and international signals. The second were used solely as British signals.
Since 1969 the extensive flag list has been narrowed but are still used when other forms of communication, such as radio, are not available. The reduction was used to focus on navigation and safety, which included a medical section.
The signals are separated into three types. Flags with single-letter signals highlight messages which are very urgent, important or common, while other messages which were of less importance used two-letter signals. These were sometimes followed by a numerical ‘complement’ which modified the message. The final type of flag signal used contained three letters which always began with an M, signifying a medical issue.
Flags are still used today, with most showing where they originally came from. From the tower at Falmouth Maritime Museum you can find a book containing the different types of flags and what they mean, but reporter William Gavin challenged the public – Did they know what some of the most commonly used flags signify?
To find out more, check out the video below!