Flags and Bunting


When you stroll beside Sutton Harbour and look toward the boats, one of the first things that will attract you is the fluttering of the flags and bunting adorning the various vessels as they bob at their moorings – especially on weekends when there is a tall ship in harbour or an event like the Classic Boat Rally, or when a major yacht race event such as the TRANSAT is being hosted.

Have you ever stopped to wonder what the significance of certain flags might be?

Of course, there is something about a flag rippling in the wind that appeals to the human soul – that’s probably why we see them around temples in Nepal for example.


From a maritime point of view they can be made in many colours and patterns and be arranged in different orders, so that meanings and messages can be conveyed. In the days of sail it was vitally important to be able to identify friend or foe at a distance, and for naval and trade vessels to pass messages and orders.

The most famous flag signal ever made is probably Nelson’s ‘England Expects…’ at Trafalgar, but flags are still used today.

If a ship is engaged in some hazardous operation – loading ammunition or operating divers – she will fly a signal to tell other boats to pass ‘well clear and at slow speed’, with an addition to indicate the danger.

Divers will use ‘Flag Alpha’ whenever in the water, on buoy or boat, or on the shore side.

Few adults will not have watched ‘Blue Peter’ on television; why the title, and why the ship on the Blue Peter Badge? Because the ‘Blue Peter’ if the flag indicating a letter ‘P’, is a blue rectangle containing a white rectangle – and indicates a ‘ship ready to proceed to sea – all aboard!’ So the meaning is quite apt.

You may see ships in harbour carrying a line of bright flags from the bow up to the mast head, across to the next, and down to the stern rail; this is called ‘dressing ship’ and is done as a sign of celebration; the flags must be random, with no concealed (or accidental!) messages!

Ensigns will also fly at the mastheads and jackstays; at sea the ‘bunting’ of the signal flags would not be flown but the ensigns may remain.

The most familiar Ensign to most people is probably the Royal Navy’s White one; the Merchant Service has the same but in red – the ‘Red Duster’. But did you know that in the 17th Century the Royal Navy had Red, White and Blue Ensigns? Each Fleet was colour-coded, and an Admiral would be the ‘Admiral of the Blue’ for example.

At the risk of digressing here – the colours were ranked – with Red as the most senior and Blue as the junior. As for Vice and Rear Admirals – sailing ships were formed in squadrons at the front, middle and rear of a Fleet; the front 9the ‘Van’) was commanded by the Vice Admiral and the rear by the Rear Admiral, with overall charge in the centre. So the Vice needed to be strong and daring as he would hit trouble first, while command was safely protected in the centre. Needless to say, Nelson was most often in the position of the Vice!

Flags were enormous so as to be seen at great distance and in the smoke of battle. Ensigns flew at mast heads ABOVE the thick smoke of cannon fire, and ‘battle’ ensigns were twice the size of normal ones.

For a ship to ‘strike’ it’s Ensign meant it surrendered – and so the saying ‘nailing your colours to the mast’ came about as a way of a Captain telling his crew that there would be no surrender!

We often think of ‘bunting’ as being the little triangular fabric flags strung out at weddings and the like; the idea of course came from the naval practice, but the ratings who run up the flags – signallers – are sometimes nicknamed ‘bunting tossers’ or just ‘bunts’. 

Flag signals remain important to this day in maritime and naval operations, but they also allow for great decorative and ceremonial opportunities.

A flag flown upside-down is an indication of distress, as is clothing strung in the rigging.

Another well-known flag is the ‘Jolly Roger’- the pirate flag. It was flown in various forms and colours in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, with both red and black backgrounds and various representations of skeletons, knives and the Devil.

Submariners – initially regarded by their Admirals as little better than pirates! – flew a Jolly Roger on returning to harbour after a patrol to indicate their successes, with pictures added to show their victims. Ships were obvious enough – but some WW1 submarines lurked off coasts and shelled railway trains, so got a locomotive on the flag too1 a ‘dagger’ meant the insertion of a secret agent – ‘cloak and dagger stuff’.

So the next time you see boats on the blue and admire the pretty fluttering flags, give a thought to what they actually ‘say’ – there might be more meaning that you think!