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Flying flags upside down

Inverted Ensigns

Last modified: 2011-12-30 by rob raeside
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 signaling 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

This signal was formerly allowed as one of several methods of distress signaling authorised or recommended by the International Maritime Code of Signals, but I believe it is no longer in the code. It could then of course have been used by the seamen of any country with a flag which had an up and a down side.

Hoisting your national flag up side down (if it could be) was a last resort. The International Maritime Code of Signals provides plenty of alternatives. In http://www.themeter. net/nautical1_e.htm?Submit2=see+nautical+flags+meanings you will see the Code provides various signal flag groups to cater for all sorts of emergencies whereby a ship could call for outside help when other vessels or shore signal stations are in sight.

Then of course there was signaling SOS by radio in Morse code, or calling MAYDAY over voice radio to let the world know about your trouble. If another ship is in sight, the SOS could be signaled by signal lantern, or if no power is available, by Aldis battery powered signal lamp, or failing all else, making a fire at a safe spot on deck and signaling SOS by smoke signals! ( Provided of course wind and weather permitted).
Andries Burgers, 15-16 June 2005

Has any study been made of which flags were in practice flown upside down as distress signals? In some countries, there is no specified ensign, or the ensign is the same as the national flag. Some flags, if flown upside down, would look exactly the same; others would look like a flag of a different country flown the right way up.
Richard Mallertt, 26 April 2006

I seem to recall that Alan Villiers mentioned this problem in one of his memoirs about life aboard the "windjammers" in the 1920s and 30s. Many of the ships that he sailed on hailed from the Aland Islands, and flew the flag of Finland. His comment was that these old ships were often in distress, but could not use their flags to appeal for help.

Peter Ansoff, 26 April 2006

I don't know of any study, but it might be worth remarking that an upside-down ensign is no longer recognized as a sign of distress in the International Rules. In the days before signal flags however, or in the absence of an ensign which could be recognizably reversed, then there was always the option of a "waft" which was (in essence) a knotted ensign.
Christopher Southworth, 26 April 2006

Commander Hilary Mead wrote three and a half pages on the subject in his book Sea Flags: Their General Use [mea38] published in 1938.


"Newspaper accounts frequently contain reports that vessels in distress have signified their condition by hoisting the Red Ensign upside down. As a matter of fact the colours upside down is not one of the authorised signals of distress.

"Although there may be some ethical grounds against treating the national flag, even in an emergency, with the contumely of hoisting its colours reversed, there can be no doubt that such a proceeding forms a very con­venient expedient in small craft when time and circumstances do not admit of the crew getting out and hoisting the more conventional International Code signals, and this provides the reason why its use is resorted to.

"The Americans […] approve of the "ensign union down" as one of the established signals of distress in the United States.

"I know of no printed authority now in existence for the use of the British Red Ensign upside down generally as a signal of distress for the Merchant Navy. In quite recent times, on the other hand, it has been used in the Royal Navy as a local signal at various dockyard ports, either with or without other flags or shapes, to denote "establishment on fire" or some other such purport, but not in any connection except that of fire. This must be a survival of earlier signals of the same nature. So the modern practice in the British Merchant Navy must presumably be attributable entirely to the customs of the past, and has probably been handed down from generation to generation since the time when it was a recognised signal.

"Additional Signals for the North American Station, issued by the British Commander-in-Chief, Vice-Admiral Arbuthnot, in 1791, contains: "When any ship is in distress she will hoist her Ensign, Union downwards; but if she wants immediate assistance she is to make it known by the Ensign, Union downwards, and a white flag under, at the main topmast shrouds".

"A printed pocket-book published at the very beginning of last century, entitled Signals to be made by One Man, contains a page of distant signals, distinct from the rest of the matter in its pages. They consist of, (a) the ensign at the main, with the fly fast to the rigging or yard, to denote "the greatest distress"; (b) a flag at the main and fore, or sails in the place of flags, to denote "wanting provisions and water"; and (c) ensign at the peak-end, union down, and the flags or sails at the mastheads, to denote "the ship to be in a sinking state".

"In 1812 a short code was introduced to enable merchant vessels to signal urgent necessities to naval signal stations on the coasts of Britain. Signal No. 4 in this convention was the ensign union down at the fore topgallant mast­head, indicating a state of distress due to shortage of hands.

"A member of the Royal Yacht Squadron, Mr. G. H. Ackers, produced in 1847 a code called Universal Yacht Signals. An edition of it destined for the use of the R.Y.S. contained:- Ensign (the white or St. George's) reversed, signal of distress." Cypher or church pendant over ensign reversed, man overboard.

"Admiral Smyth's Sailor's Word Book of 1867 has the definition: 'Signal of distress. When a ship is in imminent danger she hoists her national flag upside down, and if she is armed, fires minute guns; also lets fly topgallant sheets, etc.; indeed, does anything to attract attention',

"Although the foregoing examples provide a variety of occasions for distress signals dependent on the ensign upside down, it may be taken for granted that there was no formal generally recognised practice, otherwise, I think Perrin, in British Flags, would have made some reference to the custom. This he has not done, though he devotes a good deal of space to the usages of ensigns in saluting, in surrender, in victory and in mourning."

End of extracts.

W.J. Gordon in Flags of the World 1918 [gor18] wrote that

in 1650, when the admiral hoisted a red flag to the fore topmast-head, the fleet understood that each ship was to take the best opportunity it could to engage with the enemy next to it, and when any were in distress they put a weft in their ensign, that is tied it together at head and middle so as to make a loose bundle of it.

However at the end of the 19th century the Board of Trade noted that around the British Isles hoisting a weft in open waters meant "I wish to communicate with you."
David Prothero, 26 April 2006

I gain the impression from this that it is possible that the practice of flying the ensign upside down as a distress signal might not have been a very widespread custom, if at all.

The latest edition of the International Code of Signals (2005) list the following methods of signalling distress:

1. Sound signals: firing a gun or any other explosive means; continuous sounding of the fog horn; firing rockets or shells throwing red stars one at a time at intervals - in other words anything to draw attention to the ships plight.

2. Radio signals: sending SOS by Morse code or MAYDAY by voice radio; emergency position indicating radio beacons; radiotelegraph alarm signal (a series of twelve four second dashes with one second intervals); radiotelephone alarm signal (two audio tones transmitted alternately on a frequency of 2200 and 1300 Hertz for a duration of 30 seconds to one minute).

3. Visual signals: flames on deck from a burning tar or oil barrel etc); a rocket parachute flare or a hand flare showing a red light; a smoke signal giving of orange smoke; slowly raising and lowering the arms outstretched on each side.

4. Flag signals indicating distress: A square flag having above or below it a ball or anything resembling a ball; the flag group NC - I am in distress and require immediate assistance.

5. Flag signals indicating emergency situations: Flag D - Keep clear of me, I am manoeuvering with difficulty; Flag F - I am disabled. Communicate with me; Flag J - Keep well clear of me. I am on fire and have a dangerous cargo on board, or I am leaking a dangerous cargo; Flag O - Man overboard; Flag V - I require assistance; Flag W - I require medical assistance; Flag Y - I am dragging my anchor.

Andries Burgers, 27 April 2006

This refers to a ball or disk that would provide a round silhouette above or below the rectangular silhouette of the flag--what is known to mariners as a "day shape." If you've got a set of ICS flags, you fly N-C as the distress signal.

The combination of the rectangular and circular shapes is also the origin of the design of the distress flags provided for in the US Inland Navigation Rules, orange with a black square and disk.
Joe McMillan, 27 April 2006

Rule 37 of the 1972 International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea (enacted into U.S. Law as the International Navigation Act of 1977) and the United States Inland Navigation Rules provide for a number of signals to be used by a vessel in distress, none of which involve the display of an inverted ensign.

The US Flag Code says the flag should never be flown upside down except as a signal of distress, and if a vessel is in dire distress there's nothing wrong with using this as a signal, but it may not be understood and any vessel should be equipped with--and use--the signals provided in COLREGS and the Inland Navigation Rules.
Joe McMillan, 20 August 2006

The International Code of Signals 2005 Edition, Appendix 1, contains no reference to an upside down national flags as a possible distress signal. Appendix 1 is a repetition of Annex IV to the Convention on the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea, 1972. Both these references confirms your certainty by omission rather than cancellation. It is uncertain where this belief in the use of an upside down national flag as a distress signal comes from, but it is no longer a valid signal if it ever was, and as you also said, flying a national flag upside down is usually a sign today of ignorance and a disgrace to the flag concerned.
Andries Burgers, 20 August 2006

By 1872 an inverted flag was considered unsuitable as a signal of distress. The notice was found in the Straits Settlements Gazette, but probably appeared in the London Gazette earlier in the year.

Straits Settlements Gazette 6 December 1872 [CO 276/3] Government Notice 216.
A meeting at the Board of Trade attended by Captains Were and Weller, Elder Brethren of Trinity House, Mr. J. Hart of the Pilotage Department of Trinity House, Captain Simpson the Superintendent of Pilotage at Liverpool, Captain Wilson of Mersey Docks and Harbour Board, Admiral Bedford and Mr. Gray of the Board of Trade drew up the following draft rules for signals of pilotage and distress.

Pilot Signal in Daytime.
To be hoisted at the fore, the Jack or other National Colour usually worn by Merchant Ships, having around it a white border 1/5th of the breadth of the flag.

Distress in Daytime.
Gun fired at minute interval.

Commercial Code NC
Distant Signal consisting of a square flag having either above it or below it a ball or anything resembling a ball. (The Ensign, Union down, has been advisedly omitted because many foreign flags are the same whether right side up or wrong side up, and because it is hoped that the signals suggested may become international.)

David Prothero, 29 July 2010