At Sea


Our Correspondents

On the defunct language of nautical flags.

Willem van de Velde II, Sea Flight, mid-1800s–early 1900s, pen and brush and brown and gray ink, 7″ x 11 1/8″.

There are forty flags in a complete set of international maritime signal flags—one for each letter of the English alphabet, one for each number, and four flags called substitutes, which perform special operations.

The flags are a way of raising a meaning to the eye, at a binoculared distance, and while most vessels still carry a set on board, the flags themselves—unfurled, unraised—now mainly signify that we are seafaring in the time of radio and digital and satellite and do not need to communicate so slowly or primitively, via material squares of color.

To a ship’s crew, I imagine they signify something like what a drop-down oxygen mask signifies to the commercial air traveler: if you think about it, all you realize is you don’t want to think either about the situation in which you’d have to use it or exactly how unable it would be to fully remedy that situation. The ships carry the flags in case they lose all other means of communication, but what set of circumstances could cause that kind of outage and also be cured by flying some flimsy flapping message? 

I first learned of the flags from a friend who is a merchant marine—he works on a ConocoPhillips oil tanker and is interested in analog contraptions like typewriters and acoustic contraptions like accordions and artistic contraptions like poetry.

The poetry of the signal flags is obvious: it’s the poetry of code. Meaning: it says that which means this. What a marvel. How does it do that, make that this? We all just agree that it does, so it does. The arbitrary magic behind all language and currency. Poetry as code demands a key made of life, rhythm, feeling—you match what you know, what you’ve brought, with the text, arranged as it is, and you see if anything’s been deciphered at the end.

The key to the signal flags is the International Code of Signals, a book that accompanies a set of flags and describes how the flags can be raised singly or in combination to communicate a phrase or reality.

A reality such as:


Meaning ZL.

Meaning: Your signal has been received but not understood.

Or one’s latitude, longitude, course, speed, or identity.


What is the wind doing?


The wind is squally.


I am unable to answer your question.


Very deep depression is approaching from direction indicated.


I will keep close to you.


I will keep close to you during the night.


I am on fire.

Reading the International Code of Signals is much like reading Beckett, in that one begins to wonder if there is actually so much meaning teeming, swarming, in every particle of language, if all matters of being and death are always all there, no matter how the words are assembled, or if one is projecting all that meaning onto it somehow, and then one remembers that of course one is, because that is what meaning does, it is that which makes itself available for projection, it is that which can be, must be, may be this.

(For further reading in the genre of signal flag poetry, I highly recommend Hannah Weiner’s Code Poems, which opens with Romeo and Juliet told entirely through signal-flag phrases, demonstrating with great comedy and brilliance the inexhaustible expressive capacity of the International Code of Signals.)

The phrases in the International Code of Signals comprise general, medical, and distress/lifesaving communiqués, and within this limited realm of entering, avoiding, escaping, or at a minimum reporting on dire straits, they still offer an almost comprehensive existential vocabulary. Perhaps it is the first-person narrative construction that causes me to imagine a single individual at work creating this language; one mind trying to envision everything that could happen, everything that could go wrong, everything that one ship of humans could ever need to say to another. There is something tender about the tendency toward thoroughness. And then something grave about how the language effloresces, absurdly, into such dark specificity. As language does. And yet, I wonder if in all of nautical history anyone ever actually raised the flags to say, I have broken adrift (easily conceivable), or, You should indicate your position by smoke signal (seems less likely), or, Emetic has been given without good results (surely not?).

I wish we could fly such flags, we humans, ships unto ourselves, to communicate our states of balm or damage, our current headings, our desires and lacks. Maybe my friend’s radio has gone out, but at least he could fly his small I-am-suffering-on-this-sunny-day flag and I could raise my I-will-take-a-walk-with-you-and-listen flag. We could see each other, understand, and act, without having to say all the words.

And if we had those flags, maybe we could also fly a kind of country flag, a thematic flag, a semipermanent flag, during certain eras of our lives, if only we could ever know which one we’re in. Just so everyone would grasp, at a glance, what’s happening out on the ocean today:

I’m being born.
I’m rapidly increasing in size and complexity.
I’m feeling it all.
I’m having a hard time.
I’m making an effort.
You don’t understand.
I’m wanting to live.
I’m dying.

Merritt Tierce is the author of the novel Love Me Back and one of the Daily’s correspondents.