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Flying flags upside down

Inverted Ensigns

Last modified: 2003-08-16 by phil nelson
Keywords: inverted flags | distress signal |
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Do countries other than the US and UK use the inverted ensign as a sign of a ship in distress? Some navies in the age of sail apparently inverted the ensign of an enemy ship after they captured it, although the normal procedure was to hoist their own ensign above the enemy ensign aboard the prize. On the other hand, it would obviously be useless to invert the French ensign as either a distress signal or as a sign of capture, while the fact that some others were inverted (Spain, Italy, Portugal) would only be visible at very close range. Not to mention that there are a few flags whose inversion would simply make them someone else's flag.

I believe, although virtually without evidence, that inverting the ensign to signal distress originated with the UK and was borrowed by the US, but would be interested in anyone's insights on the history and extent of this aspect of flag usage.
Joe McMillan, 13 April 2000

Upside down flags may have been used as distress signals in the past, but they are not used as distress signals anymore. (There are 16 different standardized distress signals used in shipping, the most common flag signal is "NC" with international letter flags, another "flag like" one is "something square over something round").

During my years of service in the German merchant fleet I encountered one case of an upside down flag: it was a shipwrecked and abandoned US sailing boat in the North Sea. My captain at this time explained it as follows:

If a crew abandons a ship in distress to save their life, the last thing to do (if they have time to do so) is to turn the flag upside down. This means that they give up any right on the vessel or cargo and anybody who manages to rescue the ship afterwards could keep it.

Now, after reading about upside down flags as a distress signal I'm not sure if he was right.

I'm also not sure if there is some hard law about this flag signal, but I think I have an explanation for the use of it: Sometimes ships are found without crew. There are different reasons. It happened during the California gold rush and there have been some recent cases of piracy (yes, still) too. By law, a company looses claim of property on a ship abandoned by her captain. If the flag on a ship were still flying the right way, this would indicate that the crew did not leave in distress and therefore did not give up possession of the vessel, but rather that something odd happened. Therefore the company would have a stronger case in court to claim the right on the vessel back.
Volker Moerbitz Keith, 13 April 2000

Inverting an ensign was only one of a number of ways of signalling distress, the essence of which was to display something unusual. Sails might be arranged in an un-seamanlike manner, the ensign flown (upright) in an unusual place such as at the main topmast-head or in the shrouds, but according to Perrin the earliest commonly agreed distress signal was to tie a knot in the ensign, making it into what was known as a wheft.

The word is not the same as weft in weaving, but another form of waift/wayft/waft which were variants of waif, which originally meant, "a piece of property which is found ownerless, e.g. an article washed up on the sea shore." In 1708 the "causes competent to the Admiralty Court of Scotland are among others, wafts and strays and deodands and wrecks."

So you have the connection between a word which means abandoned and a word for a flag made into a signal of distress.

In Lord Howe's Signals and Instructions for Ships of War 1776:

To denote distress, when in want of immediate assistance-- White over red flag in the mizzen topmast shrouds.

To denote distress, and being obliged to part Company on that Account, but needing the Attendance of another Ship into Port-- Ditto with a wheft at the Fore-top-gallant-mast Head, and two guns.

In Explanatory Observations.

III. A Wheft when requisite, is to be made, by stopping the Head-part of the Flag only, and leaving the Fly loose.

David Prothero, 14 April 2000

Early last century a British gunboat, entering one of the Chinese Treaty Ports, noticed that no flag was flying on a merchant ship anchored in the harbour. As the gunboat anchored, an upside down Red Ensign was hoisted on the merchant ship. An armed boarding party sent to investigate, took over the ship that had been captured by Chinese pirates. The English Chief Engineer of the merchant ship had been able to hoist the ship's ensign by persuading his captors that the gunboat's captain would become suspicious if there was no flag flying. He successfully gambled that the pirates would not appreciate the significance of it being upside down.
David Prothero, 30 April 2000

Nowadays, neither the international nor U.S. inland rules of the road recognize the inverted ensign as a distress signal and I believe the editions published by the U.S. Coast Guard specifically discourage its use, as it may not be recognized by non-U.S. vessels. The correct visual signals for a ship in dire distress are the signal flags N-C (NOVEMBER CHARLIE), an orange flag with a black square and circle on it, any rectangular flag above a round day-shape, and various arrangements of lights or flares.
Joe McMillan, 13 September 2002