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What Does an Upside-Down Flag Represent?

08 Jun 2021

When first learning to navigate the waters of the sailing world, there can be a near-overwhelming amount of information to absorb. Along the way, you may find yourself wondering: what exactly is indicated when a flag is flown upside-down?

Most realise early on that a misstep in the formalities of flag etiquette can represent a major faux pas, with potentially serious consequences. In the case of flipping a flag the wrong way up, it is best to be aware not only that this gesture has specific meaning, but that doing it unintentionally is not an error to make lightly! Here, we will explore the history and meaning behind the upside-down flag.

Upside Down Red Ensign

A signal of distress

For hundreds of years, inverted flags have been harnessed as a signal of distress. Hoisting the ensign upside-down was also a potentially covert way in which sailors might share that their ship had been taken by hostile forces and was being manoeuvred nefariously. The United States Flag Code expresses the idea concisely, stating that a flag should never be flown upside-down, “except as a signal of dire distress in instances of extreme danger to life or property.”

The Act of Union in 1707 united the Scottish Parliament and the English Parliament to form the Parliament of Great Britain and the national flags were amalgamated accordingly. The Acts for the Union of Great Britain and Ireland in 1800 unified all three countries, and the Irish national flag was incorporated into the Union flag. Prior to the merging of the flags in1800, the British flag appeared the same whether upright or inverted. Today, it would seem that not everyone knows which orientation is correct for the Union Flag. In fact, when hoisted, the wider diagonal white stripe should be displayed above the red diagonal stripe on the side that it is mounted – and to get this in a muddle is considered a gesture of great disrespect! Please note, the Union flag is a land flag. The red ensign should be used to denote your nationality at sea.

Protest and dissent

There is one other circumstance in which you might come across a flag flown upside-down intentionally, and that is as a statement of protest. This gesture might be made as a display of dissent against a standing government or disapproval of a country's foreign policy. However, such a deliberate insult should not be made flippantly. In some countries, displaying the local flag upside-down without good reason is considered a finable offence, and may land the vessel's owner in uncomfortably hot water. Whenever in foreign waters, flying a courtesy flag correctly is always the proper course of action.

Meaning around the world

The significance of an inverted flag does vary around the world, with some counting it as a legitimate SOS signal, while others may not recognise this gesture's intention. In some countries, such as Thailand or Japan, inverting the flag does not change its appearance at all. In other cases, inverting a flag may simply transform it into another – such as between the Polish and Indonesian flags, which are vertically mirror images of each other.

Other ways to signal distress

Of course, we would all far prefer it if we never needed to signal distress at all when out on the open water. But, knowing your options when in an unanticipated bind is a better prospect than the alternative. There are many possible options for indicating your need for assistance, beyond flying a flag upside-down. In fact, no flags flying at all can be taken as a sign of trouble, as can a knot tied in a flag – which is known as a wheft. An orange flag featuring the silhouette of a square and circle is also widely recognised, as is any square shaped object accompanied by a ball shaped object.

These days, we happily have a far greater array of resources at our fingertips, beginning of course with the marine radio and a Mayday alert. Distress flares come in a variety of forms, including handheld, coloured smoke emitting, and parachute or rocket flares. A contemporary alternative can be found in Electronic Distress Signals, otherwise known as electronic flares, which emit a bright LED-based light. GPS based emergency locators are another advantageous piece of emergency kit – known either as EPIRBs, or PLBs, which stand for Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon and Personal Locator Beacon, respectively. These resources can be invaluable if relying on assistance from Search and Rescue in bad conditions, when finding your vessel may be the biggest obstacle to your aid.

Whatever comprehensive safety strategy you intend to adopt, Jimmy Green Marine are at hand to provide each of the equipment elements you require. Explore our quality selection of flags, distress signals and safety accessories, and give yourself the peace of mind that comes with being fully kitted out. Don't forget to explore the safety equipment section of our Knowledge Centre too.

Finally, of course, if in doubt you can always give the Jimmy Green team a shout. We are ever ready to advise and to help you identify the best means to meet your needs.

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Author: Jimmy Green