If you were one of the over 4,500 people who toured R/V Sally Ride in late October, you saw the ship decked out in her finest – red, white, and blue bunting around the railings, with flags from bow to mast to stern. Called dressing, it’s a prescribed setup when showing off a ship for special occasions like a christening, commissioning, or retirement ceremony. The flags themselves, called the International Maritime Signal Flags, have a use and are carried on the ship’s bridge at all times. They can be run up the mast if other means of communication are unusable. A specific flag is assigned to each letter of the alphabet, plus the numbers 0-9. There are meanings assigned to each one, and pretty much everything a ship would need to communicate can be relayed with a 1-3 flag combination. There is a whole book listing the hundreds of things that can be communicated with just these flags, everything from “No” (N) to “I have had a nuclear accident on board” (AK) to “My cargo is dairy products” (SU2).
According to the mates onboard R/V Sally Ride, there are only two flags that the ship is likely to fly solo: B(ravo) when refueling and H(otel), which signifies a pilot is onboard. A pilot is often required by a port of call in order to advise on the navigation of the ship through the channel and up to the dock. We are not required to use one in San Diego, but in most foreign ports one will join the ship via small boat.