Wooden boats and old-timey shipyards hold a certain charm. I’m drawn to them, and have spent some time hanging around in Essex, Mass., the Oslofjord, Norway, and Port Townsend, WA, admiring the craftsmanship and beauty of schooners, gaff-rigged cutters, faerings, and chebacco boats. Although not a highly accomplished shipwright nor tall ships sailor, I’m definitely a wooden boat enthusiast, and enjoy learning about traditional wooden boat technology, history, and literature — and most of all, sailing on wooden boats and ships.
I’ve read all of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin novels (only once through so far), so I have just enough know-how about maritime stuff to get myself in trouble. One of my favorite, hard-won skills is being able to read the coded meanings in nautical signal flags. Once you learn the alphabet, secret messages from marine supply stores, restaurants, and bars become clear. The messages can be profound and powerful: a bar will spell out “Happy Hour,” for example.
Because I’m a total nerd about stuff like this, I made myself a set of flash cards a few years ago to help me learn all the letters, as well as the phonetic alphabet words. Knowing how to spell out a boat’s name by using the phonetic words is actually a useful skill, not just random trivia. If I’m on my boat called “Cindy,” and she’s on fire or sinking or in some other kind of dire situation, I’d need to know how to call the Coast Guard over the radio by saying, “Mayday, Mayday, Mayday! This is vessel Cindy.” When they ask me to spell the name, I don’t say, “C.I.N.D.Y.” I say “Charlie. India. November. Delta. Yankee.”
The other cool thing about the signal flags is that they have secondary meanings, beyond just a simple letter. Foxtrot means, “I am disabled.” Mike means, “My vessel is stopped.” Yankee, “I am dragging my anchor.” After I made the flash cards, I thought it would be fun to stick them on the front door of the Shack, stating (or warning) people about my mood. Charlie would be an invitation to visit. Bravo, “dangerous cargo on board” — don’t even think about knocking.
My favorite signal flag is the P, or Papa: a blue flag with a white center. A ship would fly this one, also known as the Blue Peter, to say, “All persons should report on board as the vessel is about to proceed to sea.” In other words, I should have put the Blue Peter flash card on my front door back in February, to let people know “I am ready to sail!”
Where am I now? On board the good ship BERTIE, in Huatulco, Mexico. My friends from Port Townsend, Heidi and Peter, sent me a message back in late December:
Hey Cindy!! Heidi and Peter, on Bertie here … So, we were wondering if the Galápagos Islands were on your bucket list? Wanna come with us??! We are leaving from somewhere in Mexico, likely Acapulco. The crossing to Galapagos could take a couple weeks? … then spend as long as you are able to on the islands, and fly home from there. More details to come if it’s a go for you. We’d love to have you aboard!”
I couldn’t think of a single good reason to say no.
…it was the Blue Peter… a name that Stephen particularly liked, for not only had it a fine round sound but it was also that of one of the few flags he could recognize with certainty, the flag that ships flew when they were about to sail, and it had the pleasing associations of fresh departure, new regions, new creatures of the world, new lives, perhaps new life. — Patrick O’Brian, The Surgeon’s Mate
(This is Part 1 of the BERTIE JOURNAL series. Click here for Part 2.)