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Pilot Flags

Last modified: 2002-03-08 by phil nelson
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The change from "national pilot signal flags" to "international pilot signal flags" began just over a hundred years ago. In 1899 the International Code of Signals Committee wrote; "We recommended that flag S when hoisted alone should be an international pilot signal signifying 'I want a pilot.' At present the single flag signal to be used by British vessels requiring a pilot is the Union Jack with a white border. This flag is not suitable for international use, and there is great diversity of practice among foreign countries in regard to the signal to be made by vessels wanting pilots. Some countries use their jacks with a white border, while other countries use their ensigns or jacks without a white border, or the blue peter or a special flag; and others seem to have no single flag signal for a pilot and use the flags P and T of the International Code, which mean 'I want a pilot'. We gather that foreign maritime powers are generally agreed as to the desirability of there being an internationally recognised single-flag signal for a pilot and we are of the opinion that flag S (blue centre with white border) is well adapted for the purpose. We therefore recommend that the Board of Trade should obtain an Order in Council making legal the use of flag S as a signal for a pilot."

At that time the Order in Council in force stated that "the following signals, when used or displayed together or separately shall be deemed to be signals for a pilot in day-time;

  1. At the fore, the Union Jack having around it a white border, one fifth of the breadth of the flag;
  2. The International Code pilotage signal indicated by P.T." An Order in Council of 28th June 1900 added;
  3. The International Code Flag S, with or without the Code Pennant over it;
  4. A distant signal consisting of a cone pointing upwards, having above it two balls, or two shapes resembling balls.

In Flags Of The World published in 1915 Gordon wrote that "the old pilot signals appearing in the books are seldom seen."

When the Signal Code was revised in 1934, another Order in Council of 9th October 1933 (effective 1st January 1934) changed the list to;

  1. The International Code Signal G
  2. The International Code Signal P.T.
  3. The Pilot Jack hoisted at the fore.

As far as I know the Pilot Jack (the white-bordered UJ) ceased to be a pilot signal in 1970.

The flag for a pilot boat was defined in the Pilotage Act of 1808. It specified that a Pilot Boat was to be, "fitted with black sides and have the upper strake next the gunwale painted white and shall carry a vane at the masthead or else a flag on a sprit or staff or in some other equally conspicuous situation; which vane or flag shall be of large dimensions proportioned to the size of the boat or vessel carrying the same and shall be half red and half white, in horizontal stripes of which the uppermost shall be white."

This white over red flag was confirmed in section 612 of the Merchant Shipping Act 1894 and section 613 added; "When a qualified pilot is carried off in a vessel not in the pilotage service he is required to exhibit a pilot flag (i.e white over red) to show that the vessel has a qualified pilot on board."

This flag could be flown under the ensign, at the jack staff, or the triadic stay. I think it was normally flown under the ensign when the captain of the ship was also a qualified pilot, which was likely in ferries or vessels on regular coastal runs.

In 1934 International Code Signal H replaced the white over red flag.
David Prothero, 9 July 2001

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