School of the Ship

What every man needs to know about care and maintenance of their hammocks, personal cleanliness, heads afloat

Hammocks

Hammocks slung.

Airing Hammocks

Correct way to air bedding (hammocks) and tie off clothing.

Hammock Storage

Airing bedding & Hammock storage

Personal Cleanliness

Personal Cleanliness- bathing

Heads

Engineer’s Washroom

Heads and sanitation

Scuppers-heads and sanitation

Heads

Heads

Officers Heads

Water Closets (Officers) Heads

Sanitation in dry dock & shipyards

Sanitation in dry dock and shipyards

Dry dock

Dry docking and sanitation issues

Dry dock

Dry docking a ship

Heads

Heads, habitability issues, garbage disposal

The OLYMPIA Handbook is an invaluable guide for the new recruit or seasoned hand. Written by CAPT John J. Read, USN, it details all aspects of the ship in her earliest configuration.

The Bluejacket’s Manual should be the first book you purchase. It serves as the “bible” for information about the Navy. The most readily available editions are from 1917-1918. While there are several readable online versions, they are not as useful as having the genuine article in your hand when you are aboard OLYMPIA.

Boatswain’s Calls

All Hands
Belay
Heave Around
Mess Call
Pass the Word
Piping the Side
Secure General Quarters
Sweepers
Turn To
Viers – Eight Side Boys
Viers – Six Side Boys
Viers – Four Side Boys
Viers -Two Side Boys

Traditions of the US Naval Services

The term “watch” has three basic meanings in the Navy.  Most basically, a watch is the fundamental unit into which the shipboard day is divided,” during which a segment of the crew takes turns on duty.  There are seven watches in the day, five of four hours each and two, the “dog watches,” of two hours each.  The dog watches ensure that no one is on watch throughout the period for the evening meal as well as that no one has to stand the mid watch night after night.  The seven watches, as laid down in OpNavInst 3120.32C, Standard Organization and Regulations of the United States Navy (SORN) are:

Mid Watch Midnight-0400
Morning Watch 0400-0800
Forenoon Watch 0800-1200
Afternoon Watch 1200-1600
First Dog Watch 1600-1800
Second Dog Watch 1800-2000
Evening Watch 2000-Midnight

(As a matter of curiosity, the Royal Navy uses different names for some of these watches.  What the U.S. Navy calls the “evening watch” is the “first watch” in the Royal Navy, “mid” is “middle,” and “second dog” is “last dog.”)

For at least six centuries, time has been signalled aboard ship by the striking of bells each half hour, one bell per half hour, with eight bells signifying the changing of the watch (except for the change from the first to second dog watches).  For example, two bells in the forenoon watch would signify 9:00 a.m., five bells in the afternoon watch would be 2:30 p.m., and so on.  Bells are rung in pairs:  “ding-ding [pause] ding-ding [pause] ding” for five bells, for instance.  The officer of the deck (that is, the senior officer on watch) seeks the captain’s permission before striking eight bells at the end of the morning, forenoon, and second dog watches.  Today bells are not struck between taps and reveille.

In the U.S. Navy, bells are sounded throughout the two dog watches in a continuous one-through-eight sequence.  The Royal Navy, however, starts over with one bell at 6:30 p.m. in the “last” (i.e., second) dog watch, then rings two at 7:00, three at 7:30 and eight at 8:00.

“Watch” also refers to the basic division of the ship’s company into two halves, designated port and starboard, for the sharing of shifts of duty as well as to the group of crewmen actually on duty at a given time.


Honors and Salutes

Tending the Side

When a senior officer or official formally visits a ship of the Navy, he or she is normally “piped over the side” by a boatswain’s mate and a number of sideboys corresponding to the visitor’s rank as shown on the table of honors.  This process is a ritual throwback to the days when coming aboard a ship meant either climbing up a rope ladder or being hoisted aboard in a boatswain’s chair.  Sideboys were mustered to assist if necessary in pulling the visitor bodily over the side.  The tale goes that the more senior the officer, the greater the weight to be lifted, and accordingly the more sideboys mustered.  Sideboys were first formally prescribed in the U.S. Navy by the 1843 Rules and Regulations, but had clearly been provided from the very birth of the service.

Well before the visiting dignitary arrives, the boatswain’s mate of the watch sounds the call “Pass the word” over the shipboard loudspeaker system, known as the 1MC, and passes the word “Lay to the quarterdeck the sideboys.” The sideboys line up facing each other in two rows, with the boatswain’s mate positioned behind the outboard sideboy in the forward row.  The boatswain’s mate then pipes “Alongside,” timing it to end when the boat reaches the foot of the accommodation ladder or the car arrives at the shore end of the brow.  When the visitor’s head appears at the level of the quarterdeck (or when he reaches a designated point on the brow or accommodation ladder), the boatswain’s mate begins piping “Over the Side” and he, the sideboys, and all other persons on the quarterdeck salute.  If the boatswain’s mate uses his right hand to hold the call (pipe), he may salute left-handed.  The piping continues until the visitor has passed between the two rows of sideboys and is greeted by the officer of the deck; salutes are held throughout, as well as through any musical honors and gun salute that may be rendered.  The  process is repeated in reverse when the visitor departs, with the boatswain’s mate piping “Over the Side” as the guest passes through the sideboys and “Away” as his boat or vehicle gets under way.

Musical Honors

The 1821 Rules and Regulations for the Naval Service were the first to provide for a form of musical honors to senior officers and officials, prescribing for two ruffles on the drums.  The 1833 edition elaborated a more complete system of musical honors:  a march for the President, Vice President, or cabinet officer; three ruffles for the Board of Navy Commissioners or a commander in chief; two ruffles for a commander of a squadron other than a commander in chief; and one ruffle for a division commander or a captain of the fleet (what we would today call a chief staff officer or chief of staff).  By 1863, this was elaborated, in the case of the President, Vice President, a foreign sovereign, or a cabinet officer to a sequence of three ruffles, as well as a march.  The 1870 regulations added one more ruffle and stipulated the playing of “the national air” rather than “a march” for senior civilian officials.  The same regulations established the current practice of matching the number of an admiral’s ruffles to the stars on his flag, except that commodores still received two rather than one.

The modern practice is to play the number of ruffles and flourishes equal to the number of stars of the official’s or officer’s rank. (Most senior civilian officials who are entitled to honors are four-star equivalents.) Ruffles (on the drums) and flourishes (by bugle or band) are played simultaneously. Following the ruffles and flourishes, the march prescribed for the official being saluted is played, as listed in the table of honors. For example, this is the sequence for a rear admiral. If a gun salute is to be fired, it commences at the last note of the march.

Gun Salutes

The tradition of firing blank rounds from the gun batteries of both ships and fortifications as a form of salute goes back almost to the earliest days of naval guns.  It apparently originated as a sign of good faith; by discharging your guns, you temporarily disarmed yourself and thereby showed yourself to have peaceful intentions.  The number of guns varied from situation to situation and country to country–for many years, ships would fire up to seven guns and shore fortifications (which could store more powder) would return salutes with up to three guns for each fired by the ship.  The earliest record of an American warship exchanging salutes with a shore installation occurred in October 1776, when a Continental schooner was saluted by the Danish battery at St. Croix, Virgin Islands.  It was not until 1818 that the U.S. Navy issued regulations on this subject, requiring that “an officer appointed to command in chief shall be saluted on hoisting his flag.”  Those regulations also prescribed a 21-gun salute for the President, conforming to the number of guns that had been established as the royal salute in the British service but also corresponding to the number of states in the Union at the time, 19 for the Vice President, and 17 for cabinet members and governors.  The 1821 revision changed the President’s 21 guns to one gun for each state (23 at the time) and added provisions for salutes of 15 guns for major generals, 13 for brigadier generals and commodores on separate service, nine for other commodores, and seven for captains.  An 1823 order provided for a 15 gun salute to the Board of Naval Commissioners visiting a ship as a body.  The 1833 Rules and Regulations for the Government of the Navy raised the Vice President’s salute to 21 guns, cabinet members’ to 19, and the Board of Navy Commissioners to 17.  It also provided for salutes of 17 guns for full admirals, 15 for vice admirals, and 13 for rear admirals, notwithstanding that none of these ranks existed at the time in the U.S. Navy.  Finally, in 1843, by which time the number of states had reached 26, a new set of regulations returned the President’s entitlement to the internationally recognized 21 guns, dropped the Vice President back to 19 and cabinet officers back to 17.

Salutes in the naval services are fired at five second intervals, except in the case of minute guns fired for funerals or memorials.  Gun salutes are not fired between sunset and 8:00 a.m., on Sundays, or in ports where they are prohibited by local law or regulations.

Today, gun salutes are fired by the Navy under the following circumstances:

  • To the flag of the President; the Secretary of State acting as special foreign representative of the President; the Secretary, Deputy Secretary, Under Secretary, or Assistant Secretary of Defense; the General Counsel of the Department of Defense; or the Secretary, Under Secretary, or Assistant Secretary of the Navy; or a foreign head of state or member of a ruling family.  Such a salute is fired by ships falling in line with a ship displaying one of these flags or arriving at a station where one of them is displayed.  It is also fired by a flag or general officer who assumes command (or who breaks a new flag after being promoted) in the presence of a ship or station flying one of these flags.  In the case of a salute to the flag of the President or a foreign head of state, all ships arriving or falling in line fire the salute.  In other cases, the salute is fired only by the senior officer present.  The number of guns fired for the flag of each official indicated above is shown on the table of honors.
  • A 21-gun salute in honor of a nation recognized by the United States, when entering a port of that country, fired by the senior ship arriving.  This salute is returned gun for gun by a ship or shore battery of the country being visited and is not fired if there is no ship or shore battery available to return it.  It is also not normally fired by ships returning from temporary absences, as in the case of a U.S. ship based at a foreign port.  In most cases, governments mutually waive this salute nowadays, except in the case of the most formal port visits, those known as “visits of courtesy” (OpNavInst 3128.10D).
  • By the senior saluting ship or military installation present when returning a salute fired by a foreign warship entering a U.S. port.  The Secretaries of the Army and Navy and the Commandant of the Coast Guard publish directives listng the forts, stations, and other installations that are designated to return such salutes at each major U.S. port, as well as ships (by class) that are designated as saluting ships.
  • The senior U.S. officer and the senior flag officer of each foreign navy present in a port exchange salutes upon the arrival or departure of either, or if either hoists the flag of a higher grade in the presence of the other.  Likewise, when a ship of the U.S. Navy falls in with a warship flying the flag of a flag officer, salutes are also exchanged.  Each of these salutes is exchanged gun for gun.
  • To U.S. civilian and military officials on official visits according to Navy Regulations and Department of Defense Directive 1005.10, the provisions of which are summarized on the table of honors.  When they are prescribed for firing upon a dignitary’s arrival aboard a ship or station, the first gun is fired at the conclusion of the prescribed musical honors.  The honoree’s personal flag (or national ensign in the case of a foreign visitor) is broken on the first gun and, if it is not to be displayed throughout the visit, hauled down at the last gun.  Only officers and officials of four star rank or above ordinarily receive this salute, although the senior officer present may direct that it be fired for others when appropriate.  In any case, no one below four star rank receives such a salute from the same ship or station more than once in any 12-month period.
  • According to regulations, a flag officer who is the senior officer present in a port is saluted by arriving vessels, and a new senior officer arriving aboard a vessel is saluted by the former senior officer present.  This practice is limited by the norm that salutes are not generally fired to officers below four-star rank, however.
  • 21-gun salutes are also fired at noon on President’s Day (Washington’s Birthday), Memorial Day, and Independence Day, as described in the section on holidays.

Passing Honors

Ships passing within 600 yards of a ship displaying the flag of a senior official, or within 400 yards of a boat flying the flag or pennant of a civil official, a flag officer, or a unit commander, render “passing honors.”  Depending on the rank of the official being honored, this may entail anything from a simple hand salute by persons on the quarterdeck (in the case of a boat carrying a unit commander) all the way up to manning the rail, parading the guard and band, and playing “Hail to the Chief” (in the case of the President).   Passing honors are also rendered to ships flying the flags of foreign heads of state on the same basis as to the President (except that the foreign national anthem substitutes for “Hail to the Chief”) and to foreign warships.  The sequence of rendering passing honors is:

Junior Ship Signal Senior Ship Signal
Sounds “attention” to starboard or port Bugle call “Attention” or 1 whistle for starboard, 2 whistles for port
Sounds “attention” to port or starboard Bugle call “attention” or 2 whistles for port, 1 whistle for starboard
Sounds “hand salute;” guard presents arms; band (if required) sounds off with prescribed music One short note on bugle or one short whistle
Sounds “hand salute” One short note on bugle or one short whistle
After three seconds, or after band completes music, sounds “Two;” salutes terminated Two short notes on bugle or two short whistles
Sounds “Two;” salutes terminated Two short notes on bugle or two short whistles
“Carry on” Three short whistles
“Carry on” Three short whistles

Boat Gongs

Although technically considered a form of communication and not honors, boat gongs are similar to honors in that their number corresponds to the rank of the individual being announced.  As the person being announced approaches the ship, the word is passed over the 1MC, “[Title] arriving,” and a bell is struck the number of times corresponding to the number of sideboys to which the person would be entitled:  eight for a vice admiral or above, six for a rear admiral or rear admiral (lower half), four for a captain or commander, or two for an officer below the grade of commander.  The title used is the same as for a boat hail.  As with the bells signaling the half-hours of the watch, the tones are sounded in pairs.  A captain commanding a destroyer squadron would thus be announced, “DesRon-2 arriving,” DING-DING (pause) DING-DING.  One final “DING” is then struck when the person’s foot touches the deck.  The same procedure is followed upon departure, “[Title] departing” and the sounding of the bell.  Boat gongs are sounded only between reveille and taps.  If honors are being rendered (e.g., the visitor is to be piped over the side), the arrival announcement is made as his or her boat or vehicle approaches the ship and the announcement is “[Title] approaching.”

The use of the short form of title makes for some interesting announcements, especially with foreign VIPs; hearing the announcement, “Russian Navy arriving” undoubtedly caused some double takes until those within hearing registered that a U.S. ship was being visited by the Russian Navy Commander in Chief.


Mourning and Funerals

Half-Masting the Ensign and Other Ceremonies of Mourning

Additional information on flag-related mourning customs and procedures for half-masting can be found on the page on flag-related customs.

Position of Deceased National Ensign Half-Masted Gun Salute
President, former President, or President-elect By all ships and stations for 30 days from date of death On the day after notification, one gun every half hour from 0800 until sunset, fired by all saluting ships not under way in U.S. ports, the senior saluting ship not under way in a foreign port, and all stations with saluting batteries.  On the day of the funeral, 21 minute guns fired at noon.
Vice President, Chief Justice or retired Chief Justice, or Speaker of the House of Representatives By all ships and stations for 10 days from date of death. Nineteen minute guns at noon on the day after notification and on the day of the funeral fired by all saluting ships not under way in U.S. ports, the senior saluting ship not under way in a foreign port, and all stations with saluting batteries.
Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, member of the Cabinet, former Vice President, a member of the top Congressional leadership, or the Secretary of a military department By all ships and stations from the day of death until interment. Nineteen minute guns at noon on the day after notification and on the day of the funeral fired by all saluting ships not under way in U.S. ports, the senior saluting ship not under way in a foreign port, and all stations with saluting batteries.
Chairman or former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; fleet admiral or general of the Army or Air Force; Chief or former Chief of Naval Operations; Commandant or former Commandant of the Marine Corps By all ships and stations from the day of death until sunset on day of funeral. Minute guns equal to number of official salute, fired during funeral by flagship or station commanded, or as designated by senior officer present
Governor of a state, territory, commonwealth or possession By all ships and stations within the Governor’s jurisdiction from the day of death until interment. Minute guns equal to the number of the deceased’s official salute, fired at noon on the day after notification and on the day of the funeral, by a ship and/or station designated by the senior officer present in the port where funeral honors are directed to be rendered.
United States Senator or Representative or other delegate to Congress By all ships and stations in the metropolitan area of the District of Columbia and in the applicable state, congressional district, territory, or commonwealth Minute guns equal to the number of the deceased’s official salute, fired at noon on the day after notification and on the day of the funeral, by a ship and/or station designated by the senior officer present in the port where funeral honors are directed to be rendered.
Other civil official entitled to a gun salute on an official visit By ships and stations in the vicinity when directed by the senior officer present or other competent authority Minute guns equal to the number of the deceased’s official salute, fired at noon on the day after notification and on the day of the funeral, by a ship and/or station designated by the senior officer present in the port where funeral honors are directed to be rendered.
Flag or General Officer in command By all ships present, not under way, and by naval stations in the vicinity, from day of death until sunset of day of funeral or removal of body from the vicinity. Minute guns equal to number of official salute, fired during funeral by flagship or station commanded, or as designated by the senior officer present.
Flag or General Officer not in command By all ships present, not under way, and by naval stations in the vicinity of the funeral, from the beginning of the funeral to sunset of that day. Minute guns equal to number of official salute, fired during funeral by a ship or station designated by the senior officer present.
Unit commander not a flag officer or a commanding officer By all ships present, not under way, and by naval stations in the vicinity of the funeral, from the beginning of the funeral to sunset of that day. Seven minute guns, fired during the funeral, by the flagship or the ship or statoin commanded, or by a unit designated by the senior officer present.
Other persons in the naval service By all ships present, not under way, and by naval stations in the vicinity of the funeral, during the funeral and for one hour thereafter.

Naval Funerals Ashore
The basic elements of a naval funeral ashore consist of the following elements:

  • The casket is draped with the national ensign, arranged so that the blue union is positioned over the left shoulder of the deceased.  The casket is moved feet first, except in the case of a deceased chaplain, who is moved head first, the tradition being that a chaplain never turns his back on his congregation, even in death.
  • At the funeral of an official or officer entitled to a personal flag, it is carried ahead of the casket into the church and in the procession to the grave, draped with a black crepe streamer tied in a bow below the flagstaff ornament.  For unit commanders below flag rank who die while in command, the broad or burgee command pennant is carried, while a commission pennant is used for the commanding officer of a ship who dies while in command.
  • Honors are rendered to the casket, including salutes by all personnel in uniform, whenever it is moved.
  • A procession to the grave, including the escort appropriate to the rank of the deceased, commanded by an officer in the case of an officer’s funeral and by a petty officer or noncommissioned officer in the case of an enlisted member’s funeral:
    • Special full honor (combined) funerals (for former Secretaries of the Navy, former Chiefs of Naval Operations or Commandants of the Marine Corps, and serving Under Secretaries and Assistant Secretaries of the Navy) include a band, one Marine and one Navy company (each  consisting of two platoons), combined Marine and Navy color detail, Navy casket bearer detail, and Marine Corps firing party.  The escort commander is a rear admiral. [Officers and officials above the level described here are entitled to joint Armed Forces funerals with escorts from all the services.]
    • Special full honor funerals, conducted for full admirals, include a band, two Navy companies of two platoons each, a Navy color detail, Navy casket bearer detail, and Navy firing party.  The escort commander is a rear admiral.
    • Full honor (company) funerals, conducted for vice admirals, rear admirals, rear admirals (lower half), and captains include a band, one Navy company of two platoons, and Navy color detail, casket bearers, and firing party.  The escort commander is a rear admiral or captain.
    • Full honor (platoon) funerals, conducted for officers below the rank of captain, consist of a band, a Navy platoon, and Navy color detail, casket bearers, and firing party.
    • Full honor (squad) funerals, conducted for Master Chief Petty Officers of the Navy, include a band, three Navy squads, Navy color detail, casket bearers, and firing party.
    • Simple honor funerals, conducted for other enlisted personnel, consist of a bugler, Navy casket bearers, and Navy firing party.
    • If the deceased was entitled to a gun salute, minute guns equal in number to the number of guns in the salute are fired during the procession to the grave.
  • When a band takes part, it normally plays the Navy hymn, “Eternal Father Strong to Save,” as the casket is moved from the hearse or caisson to the grave.
  • Honors following the graveside committal service, including the firing of three rifle volleys by the seven-person firing party and the sounding of “Taps.”  If the deceased was entitled to a gun salute, it is fired following the committal and before “Taps.”  The Navy flag and guidons present are dipped in salute during the playing of “Taps” as well as during any salute fired.
  • The folding and ceremonial presentation of the casket flag to the next of kin by an official of the U.S. Government, normally the escort commander or the chaplain.  The head casket bearer salutes the folded flag after giving it to the presenting official, who then salutes it again after presenting it to the next of kin with words similar to the following:  “On behalf of a grateful nation and a proud Navy, I present this flag to you in recognition of your [relationship]’s years of honorable and faithful service to his/her country.”

Burial at Sea

After the crew is summoned by passing the word, “All hands bury the dead,” the ship is stopped and its ensign is lowered to half mast.  The casket, covered with an ensign, is placed on a plank, the foot extending over the side of the ship.  After the words of committal, “we commit his body to the deep…” the board is tilted so the casket slides from under the ensign into the sea, the burial detail grasping the hoist of the flag so that it remains on the board.  The three volleys are then fired over the spot where the casket entered the water and “Taps” is sounded.  The ensign is then closed up to the truck and the ship resumes its course and speed.  The ensign used for the burial is then folded and cased and later presented to the next of kin.

Procedures for the conduct of naval funerals are found in Navy Regulations, Chapter 12, Section 10; NAVPERS 15555C, Naval Military Funerals; and NAVPERS 15956D, Naval Funerals at Arlington National Cemetery.


Special Honors to USS Arizona

Article 1282 of Navy Regulations directs that all persons on deck aboard ships passing the USS Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, between sunrise and sunset be called to attention, and that those not in formation render the hand salute as the ship passes the memorial, which symbolizes the losses suffered in the surprise Japanese attack on the morning of December 7, 1941.  In addition, it is customary for distinguished visitors to Pearl Harbor to pay tribute at the memorial, normally by laying a wreath in front of the memorial tablets bearing the names of those who were lost aboard the battleship and by throwing a flower lei into the sea above the sunken hull.


Ceremonies in the Life of a Ship

Keel Laying

The first and simplest ceremony in the life of a ship is that associated with laying the keel.  With modern modular ship construction techniques, there is often no actual laying of the keel to begin the building process, but the ceremony is sitll carried out using the first element of the ship on which construction begins.  The ceremony is conducted by the shipyard building the ship and normally involves an address by a dignitary, such as a member of Congress or government official.  Following the address, the speaker authenticates the keel by affixing a name plate or inscribing his initials on the keel (or whatever part of the ship is being used in lieu of a keel).  This typically takes the form of writing his initials in chalk, after which workmen of the yard use a welding torch to cut the chalked inscription into the metal.  The workmen then move the keel into position on the building way and an announcement is made that “the keel has been truly and fairly laid.”

Launching and Christening

The second milestone is the dedication, naming, and launching of the newly completed ship.  The exact procedure depends on the design of the building yard.  Traditionally, the launching takes place by rolling the ship down the ways into the water, but many modern shipyards no longer use this process.  Nevertheless, the launching and christening still take place, modified as necessary.  The launching and christening ceremony are a joint effort by the building yard and the Navy.  The ceremony normally consists of:

  • The playing of the national anthem.
  • A welcome by an official of the shipyard.
  • A speech by a suitable dignitary.
  • An invocation by a chaplain.
  • The introduction of the sponsor, invariably a woman, normally one with some connection to the ship’s namesake.  For instance, a ship named after a person will often have the widow, mother, or daughter of the honoree as the sponsor; one named after a state may have a female political figure or the wife of a political figure from the state as the sponsor.  The sponsor is accompanied by a maid or matron of honor.
  • The band or bugler sounds “Attention,” and all rise and stand at attention.
  • The chaplain pronounces an invocation, calling divine blessing down on the new ship.
  • The culmination of the ceremony comes when the sponsor announces, “In the name of the United States, I christen thee (name).  May God bless her and all who sail in her.”  (The sponsor does not use the words “United States Ship” in announcing the name, for that distinction is withheld until the ship is commissioned following sea trials.)  She then swings a bottle of champagne, attached to a tether, smashing it against the bow of the ship, at which time the ship is cut loose to slide into the water.
  • The ceremony then concludes with the playing of “Anchors Aweigh.”

During the launching and until the ship is commissioned it does not display the commissioning pennant or any other distinctive mark of a warship.  Instead, the house flag of the builder is displayed.  The current practice is for the house flag to fly at the outboard halyard of the port yardarm beneath the national ensign.

Commissioning

A vessel officially becomes a “United States Ship,” entitled to use the prefix “USS” before its name, only when it is commissioned, the final rite of passage in the process of bringing a new warship into service. Navy Regulations, article 881, provides the bare minimums of a commissioning ceremony, but the ceremony is normally somewhat more elaborate.  The steps shown in bold in the following description of a typical ceremony are those required by Navy Regulations:

  • The officers and crew, a guard, and music are assembled on the quarterdeck or some other suitable part of the ship (or, if circumstances require, on the pier alongside).
  • As members of the official party for the commissioning arrive, they are rendered musical honors but not gun salutes, since the ship is not yet authorized to fire such salutes.
  • When everyone is in place, the prospective commanding officer faces and salutes the commissioning authority and reports, “Sir (or ma’am), we are ready to proceed with the commissioning.”
  • The chaplain gives an invocation.
  • The commissioning authority then introduces the official party.  This typically includes the sponsor who christened the ship.
  • After calling the audience and crew to attention, the commissioning authority reads the commissioning directive, formally transferring responsibility for the vessel to the prospective commanding officer, and states, “In accordance with this authority, I hereby place the United States Ship [Name] in commission.”
  • As the band plays the national anthem, the national ensign, union jack, and commission pennant are hoisted.
  • The prospective commanding officer reads his or her orders, salutes the commissioning authority and announces that he assumes command of the ship, and directs the executive officer to set the watch.
  • The executive officer responds, “Aye, Aye, sir (or ma’am),” salutes, and directs the navigator, “Set the watch, navigator,” simultaneously handing him the long glass (telescope).
  • The navigator proceeds to the quarterdeck and orders the boatswain’s mate to pass the word.
  • The boatswain’s mate pipes “Attention,” and passes the word over the 1MC, “Set the watch! On deck section one, watch one!”  All the boatswain’s mates commence piping fore and aft as the first watch takes its duty stations.  The first officer of the deck takes his station and makes the first entry in the log.
  • The executive officer salutes the commanding officer and says “Captain, the watch has been set.”
  • The sponsor of the ship then gives the order, “Man our ship and bring her to life.”
  • The crew boards the ship as the band plays “Anchors Aweigh,” each crew member saluting the ensign as he or she crosses the quarterdeck and proceeding to his or her position at quarters.
  • The commanding officer then salutes the senior officer present and says, “Admiral [or Mr. Secretary, or as appropriate], I request permission to break your flag.”  When the senior officer replies “Permission granted,” the commanding officer orders the executive officer, “Break the flag of __________.”  As the flag is broken, the band plays the appropriate ruffles and flourishes and march, then the appropriate gun salute commences at the end of the march.
  • After honors are rendered, the principal speaker delivers an address, gifts to the ship are presented by the sponsor, builder, or representatives of the city or state if the ship is named after one.  After the commanding officer accepts the gifts on behalf of the crew, the chaplain pronounces a benediction and the ceremony is concluded.

Decommissioning

The ceremony of decommissioning a ship terminates its active service, although in many cases decommissioned ships may be placed in reserve and recommissioned many years later in time of need.  Decommissioning ceremonies are generally serious, if not sad, occasions, however, and are conducted far less elaborately than those that bring a ship into service.

  • After arrival honors for the senior officers and officials attending the ceremony, the national anthem is played to commence the ceremony.
  • The chaplain gives an invocation, then the commanding officer makes welcoming remarks and introduces the guest speaker if there is one.
  • After the guest speaker’s comments, the commanding officer calls “Attention to orders!” and reads the decommissioning order.
  • The commanding officer then says, “XO, make preparations to decommission United States Ship [name].”  The executive officer responds, “Aye aye, captain.  Reports.”
  • The heads of various departments then make their reports, to which the executive officer responds, “Very well.”
    • The first lieutenant:  “All secure about the decks.  The running lights have been extinguished, the cannonballs have been removed and the cannon has been spiked.”
    • The engineer officer:  “The shafts have been locked.  All valves closed and the seachest secured.  The tiller has been locked amidships.”
    • The supply officer:  “All rations have been commuted and the galley fires doused.”
  • After the last report, the executive officer reports, “Captain, [name of ship] is ready for decommissioning.”  The captain then asks the senior officer present for permission to decommission the ship.
  • The senior officer and guests, if aboard, are piped ashore, with any appropriate honors, then the captain orders the executive officer to have the ship’s company lay ashore.  Once the crew is ashore, the captain orders, “Strike eight bells,” terminating the final watch, and “Haul down the colors.”
  • All present salute as the national ensign and jack are lowered.  Finally the commissioning pennant is hauled down.
  • The executive officer finally orders, “Secure the watch.”  With this, the continuous cycle of watch relieving watch aboard a ship in commission is broken and the ship is no longer in commission.  The captain reports this fact to the senior officer present and relinquishes command, then directs the executive officer to have the members of the crew carry out their respective orders.

After the decommissioning, tradition has it that the commanding officer is presented the last commissioning pennant to fly over the ship to keep as a memento.  The crew member with the most years of service keeps the last ensign flown by the ship.


Change of Command

Article 807 of Navy Regulations requires that “At the time of turning over command, the commanding officer to be relieved will call all hands to muster, read the orders of detachment, and turn over the command to his or her relief, who will read the orders of relief and assume command.”  The following is the typical procedure by which this provision is carried out, with the essential elements in boldface:

  • The crew is mustered at the ceremonial area where crew members can have an unobstructed view of the ceremony.  This is important, because the entire event is about the visible transfer of authority.  Honors (less gun salutes) are rendered to members of the official party who are entitled to them as they arrive at the command.  The senior officer or official receives full honors, including a gun salute.
  • Guests rise and the crew is called to attention as the official party moves into place
  • The national anthem is played, the official party facing the national ensign and all persons in uniform saluting.
  • The chaplain gives the invocation.
  • Guests are seated and the crew is given “Parade rest.”
  • The senior officer or official makes remarks and presents any decorations or awards being given to the officer being relieved.
  • The officer being relieved makes his farewell remarks, then reads the pertinent portions of his orders of detachment.
  • If the officer being relieved is a flag officer or is flying a command pennant, he orders “Haul down my flag [or pennant].”  Full honors are rendered, including gun salute.  (Aboard ship, the personal flag or pennant is immediately replaced by a commission pennant–a ship in commission must have one of the distinctive marks displayed at all times.)
  • The officer being relieved then states, “I am ready to be relieved.”
  • The relieving officer then steps forward, reads the orders of relief, which typically read something like this:
    Bureau of Naval Personnel Order Number —–.  To Commander (name).  When directed by reporting senior, detach in (month) (year) from (current duty) and report not later than (date) to FFG 7 Oliver Hazard Perry.  Upon arrival on board report to (name), Commanding Officer USS Oliver Hazard Perry (FFG 7) for duty as his relief.  Report immediate superior in command, if present, otherwise by message.  Signed, Vice Admiral (name), Chief of Naval Personnel.

  • The new CO than salutes the officer being relieved, and states, “I relieve you, sir (or ma’am).”  The outgoing commander returns the salute and responds, “I stand relieved.”
  • If the new commander is entitled to display a personal flag or command pennant, he orders, “Break my flag [or pennant].”  His flag is broken in place of the commission pennant and the appropriate full honors are again rendered.
  • If the immediate superior is present, the new commander salutes him or her and states, “Sir [or ma’am], I have properly relieved [name] as [title of the command].”
  • The new commander then makes very brief remarks, usually expressing pride in the command and wishing his predecessor well, and concluding with “All standing orders, regulations, and instructions remain in effect.”  He then orders an officer to “take charge and dismiss the ship’s company.”
  • Departure honors are then rendered for the official party and the ceremony is concluded.

Holiday Observances

Washington’s Birthday (or President’s Day)

In addition to full dressing ship and displaying holiday sized colors, all saluting ships not under way and all installations equipped with suitable artillery fire a 21-gun salute at noon on President’s Day (the third Sunday in February).  The tradition of firing such a salute in honor of George Washington’s Birthday on February 22 arose in the early nineteenth century.  This salute originally consisted of 17 guns in the 1818 regulations but was changed in 1821 to one gun for each state in the Union, to be fired by every vessel in port rated as a sloop-of-war or higher.  By 1833, the time of the salute was fixed at noon.  The 1843 regulations ended the practice of matching this salute to the number of states and instead provided for a 21-gun salute at noon, as it has remained ever since.  The salute has since been shifted, along with the Federal observance of the holiday, to the third Monday in February instead of February 22.

Memorial Day

The national ensign is flown at half mast aboard all ships and stations beginning at morning colors (or sunrise, in the case of ships under way) on Memorial Day, the last Monday in May.  At 12:00 noon, saluting ships and stations with saluting batteries fire a salute of 21 minute-guns.  At the conclusion of this salute, or at 12:20 p.m. if the salute is not fired, the ensign is hoisted briskly to the truck or peak and remains there until sunset.  The first mention of this observance in Navy Regulations appeared in a change published circa 1903.

Independence Day

Independence Day is celebrated by the naval services by full-dressing ship and by the firing of a 21-gun salute at noon by every naval station with a saluting battery and every saluting ship not under way.  This observance dates back to the 1818 Rules, Regulations and Instructions for the Naval Service, which provided for a 17-gun salute to be fired on the Fourth of July, but this was increased to one gun per state, to be fired by every vessel in port rated as a sloop-of-war or greater in 1821.  The 1833 regulations stipulated that the salute was to be fired at noon and, for the first time that all ships in port were to be dressed for the day.  The 1843 regulations dropped the one-gun-per-state salute, providing instead that “Upon the anniversary of the Declaration of Independence of the United States, the colors shall be hoisted at sunrise, and all the vessels of the navy shall, when in port, be dressed, and so continue until the colors are hauled down at sunset, if the state of the weather and other circumstances will allow it.  At sunrise, at meridian, and at sunset, a salute of twenty-one guns shall be fired from every vessel in commission mounting six guns and upwards.”  The noon salute was dropped in 1863, but restored in 1870, when the sunrise and sunset salutes were dropped instead.  At the time, “dressing” ship entailed the full display of pennants and flags from stem to stern.  Allowing for the subsequent change in terminology to “full dressing,” the observance has remained the same since 1870.

Dining-In (Mess Night)

The Navy has an official directive, OpNavInst 1710.7, that prescribes the procedure for the formal dining-in or mess night, a formal dinner conducted for members of an organization or unit.  As a formal dinner, dinner dress uniforms, or, for civilians, black tie, are worn.  Although English monasteries and universities are usually cited as the source of origin of the dining-in, such ceremonial dinners have been a part of civic and military life all across Europe for many centuries as a way of building organizational camaraderie and esprit de corps.  In the past, dinings-in were relatively common events aboard ship or in regiments, but modern informality, the trend for officers to have families, and the general spirit of the times has made them increasingly rare.  They are now usually conducted to observe special events or as annual hail-and-farewell occasions.  In addition, it is increasingly common for them to be conducted as “dining-outs,” that is, for spouses or dates to be included, which was not the case in the past, when the mess night was exclusively a stag affair.

Although all the U.S. services have dinings-in, there are several elements of the institution as practiced in the Navy that make it different from the customs in the Army and Air Force and even in the Marines.  In many cases these stem from the messing arrangements typically found aboard ship, where the officers except for the captain dine in the wardroom but the captain has his own private mess.  As a result, at a Navy mess night the commanding officer is normally a guest, not, as in the other services, the president of the mess.  In the Navy, it is the executive officer–the second in command–who presides.

Common to all the U.S. services is the position of “Mr. Vice,” or, in modern times, “Madam Vice,” the vice-president of the mess.  By tradition, Mr. Vice is the junior member of the wardroom, although in recent years the tendency has been for the president to consider wit and presence of mind as well as seniority in designating the officer to fill this role.  Mr. Vice’s job is to organize the dining-in, function as sergeant-at-arms and master of ceremonies during the proceedings, second toasts, and enforce the rules of the mess.

After a cocktail hour (alcohol free when conducted aboard ship), a bugler or band plays “Officers Call,” followed by marching music.  The officers put down their drinks, put out any smoking materials, and proceed to their places in the dining room, members of the head table waiting until last.  After everyone else is at their places, the president leads in those sitting at the head table, including the honored guest.  When they are all in place, the music stops.  The president raps the gavel for attention and calls on the chaplain to say grace.  Another rap of the gavel signals the members and guests to be seated.  Throughout the dining-in, a fixed code of raps of the gavel signals the members to be silent (three raps), to rise from their seats (two raps), or to be seated (one rap).

After the conclusion of the six course dinner (appetizer, soup, fish, main course, salad, and dessert) comes the most distinctive element of the dining-in, the ceremonial toasts.  After dessert and coffee, port decanters (or bottles) are brought in and placed on the tables, along with (traditionally) ash trays.  Mr. Vice then announces, “The wine is ready to pass, Sir.”  The decanter is then passed from left to right around each table, never stopping until all the glasses are “charged.”  An officer who chooses not to drink wine need not do so, but must fill his glass and at least raise it to his lips at each toast.

When the port has finished its circuit and all the glasses are filled, the president rises and calls for a toast to the President of the United States as commander in chief of the Navy.  Mr. Vice seconds the toast by rising ad saying “Ladies and gentlemen (or gentlemen, if only men are present), the Commander in Chief of the United States.”  All then stand and repeat the toast in unison–“The Commander in Chief of the United States”–sip the drink and remain standing while the band plays the national anthem.  All are then seated.

From that point on, the president may call for specific formal toasts or recognize a member of the mess to propose the toast.  If the president proposes the toast, Mr. Vice seconds it.  If a member proposes it, the president seconds it.  Members and guests respond to each toast as for that to the Commander in Chief, by rising, repeating the toast, and sipping the port.  Once the toasts begin, the port continues to be passed so that no one is caught with an empty (“uncharged”) glass during a toast.  The formal toasts are drunk in a specified order:  the Commander in Chief (President of the United States), heads of state of foreign guests, the United States Marine Corps, missing comrades, and the Chief of Naval Operations.  Each of these is proposed without mentioning the name of the person being toasted, only his or her formal title.

After these formal toasts, the president of the mess introduces the guest of honor to address the mess.  After his or her speech, it is time for informal toasts.  Members rise and address the president of the mess, “Mr. President!”  On being recognized, the member explains why he wishes to propose the toast–preferably with (in the words of the directive on the subject) “inspired wit and subtle sarcasm”–and ending with the words of the proposed toast.  If the president agrees to the toast, he directs Mr. Vice to second it and the toast is drunk in the same manner as the formal toasts.

When the president decides it is time to end the informal toasting, he raps the gavel three times and commences the “business meeting” portion of the mess, asking Mr. Vice to read the list of offenders against the customs and traditions of the mess.  Offenses include tardiness, smoking at the table before the president announces that the smoking lamp has been lit, arguing over precedence, leaving the dining area without permission, being caught with an uncharged glass, improper toasting procedures, wearing the cummerbund upside down, and so on.  Fines and punishments are imposed by the president as appropriate.

Remaining seated, the president then calls for a toast the United States Navy.  Mr. Vice rises and proceeds to the head table, where he fills each glass with port, starting with the honored guest and ending with the president.  All at the other tables likewise fill their glasses.  The president then stands and fills Mr. Vice’s glass.  Mr. Vice then faces the mess and seconds the toast.  All rise, responding in unison, “The United States Navy,” drain the entire glass, and remain standing while the band plays “Anchors Aweigh.”

The formal part of the evening is then at an end, and the president invites all present to join him at the bar for informal refreshments.  Attendees do not depart, however, until the president and the official guests of the mess have done so.

The “Customary Phraseology of the Service”

Navy Regulations require that all orders given by persons standing watch be given in the “customary phraseology of the service.”  This is not merely a matter of preserving tradition but of ensuring that orders are clearly understood and promptly obeyed.  For example, when the officer conning the ship gives an order to change engine speed, he begins with which engine to change (starboard, port, or all), whether forward or back, and by how much (flank, full, one-third, etc.).  An engine order might thus be given “Starboard ahead one-third, port back one-third;” the lee helmsman, who operates the engine order telegraph that sends the instructions to the engine room, repeats the order, adding “aye aye, sir (or ma’am).”  Steering orders, by contrast, are given in terms not of starboard and port but as right or left:  “right standard rudder,” for instance, or “left 20 degrees rudder.”  Thus, from the first word out of the conning officer’s mouth, the entire watch knows whether the change is to engines or steering and in what direction and can start reacting even before the order is completed.

Announcements over the shipboard public address system, the “1MC,” are referred to as “passing the word,” and for many messages adhere to strict traditional formulas.

  • At the beginning of the day, the boatswain pipes “All Hands” and passes the word, “Reveille, reveille!  All hands heave out and trice up!  The smoking lamp is lighted in all authorized spaces.”
  • At the close of day, he passes the word, “Taps, taps, lights out!  All hands turn into your bunks!  Maintain silence about the decks!  The smoking lamp is out in all berthing spaces.”

But adherence to customary phraseology extends far beyond the requirements of shipboard operations.  It governs almost every element of day-to-day discourse, even ashore.  The Marine Corps drill manual does not say that one never lets the flag touch the ground, but that colors are never allowed to touch the deck.  Even in office buildings far from sea, sailors habitually refer to walls as bulkheads, ceilings as overheads, halls as passageways, and stairways as ladders.  Moreover, the etiquette of the service has many carefully prescribed formulas by which personnel communicate with each other:

  • Junior personnel always close written correspondence with their seniors with the complimentary close, “very respectfully.”  Seniors sign “respectfully” when writing to juniors.
  • A junior officer sending a verbal message to a senior instructs the messenger to present his “respects” to the admiral or captain or whomever; the senior replies by presenting his “compliments.”
  • Seniors “call” or “direct” attention to something; juniors “invite” attention.
  • Seniors “suggest” that something be done; juniors may only “recommend.”
  • Seniors “direct” juniors to act; juniors “request” seniors to act.
  • Juniors acknowledge an order by saying “aye aye.”  Seniors acknowledge information conveyed by juniors by responding “very well”–and woe to the junior officer who slips up by saying “very well,” even with “sir” appended to it!
  • Official correspondence is always signed with initials and last name only, never with the first name.  When anyone other than the officer in command corresponds on behalf of the organization with someone outside it, the typed block under the signature will read:
    O. H. Perry
    By Direction

without rank or title following the name.  This makes clear that one acts only with the authority of the commander.
The principle of customary phraseology also pertains to the wording of the officer’s commission, which has not changed significantly since the revival of the Navy in 1794:

The President of the United States of America

To all who shall see these presents, greeting:Know ye, that reposing special trust and confidence in the patriotism, valor, fidelity, and abilities of      [name] , I have nominated, and by and with the advice and consent of the Senate do appoint [him or her]    [rank]     in the United States Navy, to rank as such from the ___ day of      [month]    , [year].  This officer will therefore carefully and diligently discharge the duties of the office to which appointed by doing and performing all manner of things thereunto belonging.

And I do strictly charge and require those officers and other personnel of lesser rank to render such obedience as is due an officer of this grade and position.  And this officer is to observe and follow such orders and directions from time to time as may be given by the President of the United States of America or other superior officers, acting in accordance with the laws of the United States of America.

This commission is to continue in force during the pleasure of the President of the United States of America, under the provisions of those public laws relating to officers of the Armed Forces of the United States of America and the component thereof in which this appointment is made.

Done at the City of Washington, this _____ day of    [month]   in the year of our Lord _____ and of the Independence of the United States of America the _______.
By the President:
[signature of the Secretary of the Navy]

Other Ceremonies and Customs

Boat Hails

The watch aboard a ship is responsible for hailing any boat approaching the ship at night to determine the rank of passengers aboard the boat.  This custom originated in the requirement that the ship be prepared for the proper protocolary reception of any senior officer who might be coming aboard.  The required information is conveyed through a series of traditional responses given by the boat’s coxswain in response to the cry, “Boat ahoy!”

United States Navy Royal Navy
Rank of Senior Passenger Coxswain’s Reply Rank of Senior Passenger Coxswain’s Reply
President of Vice President “United States” Member of royal family “Standard”
Secretary, Deputy Secretary, Under Secretary, or Assistant Secretary of Defense “Defense”
Secretary, Under Secretary, or Assistant Secretary of the Navy “Navy”
Chief or Vice Chief of Naval Operations “Naval Operations”
Commandant of the Coast Guard “Coast Guard”
Fleet, force or group commander “Fleet” or abbreviated title of command Flag officer “Flag [name of flagship]”
Chief of staff or chief staff officer “Staff” Chief of staff, chief staff officer, or captain of the fleet “Staff [name of flagship]”
Squadron commander “____Ron [number]” (e.g., “DesRon-23”
Commanding officer of a ship “[name of ship]” Commanding officer of a ship “[name of ship]”
Other commissioned officer “Aye, aye”
Petty officer “No, no”
Other enlisted personnel “Hello”
Boat not intending to come alongside “Passing”

Long a matter of custom, the specific boat hails used in the U.S. Navy were first codified in Navy Regulations in 1893.

Maritime Signal Flag History


Signal Flag History

The designs of the individual flags are lost in the mists of time. They were developed separately for various iterations of naval and merchant marine signal codes over the course of the 18th and early 19th centuries. What Popham, Marryat, and the Board of Trade did was to assign these mostly pre-existing designs to specific numbers and letters. In other words, a blue flag with a white square on the center was the signal for “about to sail” long before it was assigned to the letter P, and solid yellow was used for purposes connected with quarantine long before it was designated as Q, but whoever designed the first blue flag with a white square on the center is probably not the same person who came up with a yellow flag with a black disk (now used for the letter I).

I don’t think it is possible to assign credit for the design of signal flags to an individual or nation. One of the earliest maritime entities to make use of a numeral flag signal code was the Order of the Knights of Malta. The galley captains of the Order apparently used codes consisting of up to fifteen flags. I have seen no depictions, but according to the written descriptions, they were of simple single, bicolour and tricolour designs, including pennants of equally simple designs. Simple signal flag design is an imperative at sea and it is the practical seamanlike requirement to be able to identify signal flags at the longest possible distance, which enforced these simple designs. Kempefeldt, Popham, Marryat et al no doubt designed some flags as the codes grew in complexity requiring more flags, but they also made use of many designs already in existence since late medieval or early Renaissance times. Their main claims to fame rest with the code systems they developed and which gradually grew into the modern International Code of Signals. So lets lift a glass or two to the unknown sailors who invented these simple designs still in use today!
Andries Burgers, 20 March 2006


The expansion of the signal codes in the 18th Century required the invention of a number of hitherto unknown flags and if the compilers of the various codes (or members of their staff as appropriate) did not invent them, then who did? As just one example, the code used by Rodney in 1782 required the addition of 23 previously unknown flags and pennants, and a number of these were later found to be impractical (from a visibility point of view) so had to be revised in subsequent expansions.

The current International Code of Signals contains 40 different flags and pennants and the current NATO code a further 28, whereas a signal book of 1762 shows 26 in total of which only 20 are purely signal flags.

The other six flags were – the (royal) standard, the union jack, the red ensign, and the plain red, white and blue admiral’s command flags.
Christopher Southworth, 20 March 2006


Here are some observations on the subject from an article entitled “The Development of Signalling in the Royal Navy” by Captain (later Vice-Admiral) L.E. Holland [hnd53], published posthumously in the Mariner’s Mirror of February 1953.

“Chequered flags should be abolished. Quartered, halved, three-striped, striped corner ways, half up and down, and pierced, are the only ones that are properly distinguished at a distance.” Captain Young, Admiral Rodney’s flag-captain, 1780.

Kempenfelt thought that three stripe flags were more distinct if the stripes were vertical rather than horizontal, and that chequered pendants were unsatisfactory.

Sir Home Popham wrote in 1812, that the Dutch and French flags were very good over long distances. He also liked the French signal flags which were white with a blue border and red centre, or red border and blue centre.

Swallow-tailed pennants were a shape favoured by Sir Samuel Hood who wrote to Popham in 1814, “The Broad Pendants give great relief to the observer, the flag wafting out with every change of view, the colours are more perfectly distinguished. There certainly is not that advantage in triangular flags; they are in general difficult to discern.” However five that were in the 1816 signal book were replaced by different shapes in the 1827 book, and earlier Kempenfelt had written that pendants should not have swallow tails.

Holland wrote that the best colour combinations were red and white, blue/black and white, and blue/black and yellow. Howe considered red and blue a poor combination, and preferred red and black, and yet red and blue is now used in the International Code. Similarly Kempenfelt thought that red and yellow gave poor results and changed this combination for blue and yellow, and yet this is also in the International Code. Perhaps with modern dyes it is possible produce colours that have more contrast than was achievable in the 18th century.
David Prothero, 21 March 2006


In beginning of 17th century, Mahé de la Bourdonnais use only 4 colours: large blue, scarlet red, arsenic yellow and white.

The maritime world is very conservative because now only one other colour is used extra in International Code of Signals: it is the black. The first man ( to my knowledge) who used black is Lord Richard Howe for his substitute flag. But it is not a proof that manufacturer at the time did not made flags with other colours: for distinguish the 121 regiments of the French ground army in 1730, they used 16 colours: white, blue, blue Turkish, red, carmine, black, green, brown, yellow, dead leaf, dawn, light fawn, isabelle, purple, flax-grey and moiré.
Dominique Cureau, 22 March 2006


Roland-Michel Barin marquess of la Galissonniere (1693-1756) left the port of Toulon for the expedition of Mahon in the Isle de Minorque on April 8th, 1756 with a fleet of 193 boats carrying an army consisted of 23 battalions with a regiment and a train of artillery. The army was commanded by Mr. the marshal of Richelieu.

The book of signals which was used by de la Galissonniere shows the care brought by this leader of squadron to stay in communication with his ships. A reproduction is in Histoire de la Marine by “l’Illustration” 1934. The document is in the National library, Department Manuscripts
Dominique Cureau, 26 March 2006


Signal 39 and 16

Signal 39 as flown by Admiral Parker was the signal for “recall” or to “leave off the action”.

Lord Nelson was made aware of the signal and put the telescope to his bind eye and declared to Foley “I really do not see the signal!’

Nelson not only ignored the signal but forbad repeating the signal to the fleet and order the signal officer to keep the “close action” signal flying

Source: Lord Nelson, The Immortal Memory by David Howarth and Stephen Howarth, Viking 1989, page 253

Wayne Lovett, 24 November 2006


When in the Napoleonic Wars the countries around the Baltic Seas took up arms to collectively defend their neutrality, Great Britain sought to force them to give up that neutrality. To this end, a fleet was sent to Denmark, with Sir Hyde Parker as Commander-in-Chief, that was to dissociate Denmark from the alliance, after which an attack should be made into the Baltic. When negotiations failed, Sir Hide Parker was satisfied with blockading the Baltic, as Denmark was not very supportive of the alliance to begin with. Vice-Admiral Horatio Nelson, however, persuaded him to attack the Danes.

Since British preparation had been less then optimal, the battle initially did not go well for the attackers. At one point vice-admiral Nelson and rear admiral Graves seemed to be in so bad a position, as seen from Sir Hyde Parker’s ship some four miles away, that he had signal 39 made: Recall / Leave off the action. According to The Life of Horatio Lord Nelson – Robert Southey (1896), Sir Parker elaborated on his order with: “I will make the signal of recall, for Nelson’s sake. If he is in a condition to continue the action successfully, he will disregard it; if he is not, it will be an excuse for his retreat, and no blame can be imputed to him.”

Neither of the commanders complied. According to Southey, when Nelson was made aware of the signal, he ordered to acknowledge it, but not to repeat it to his ships; rather to keep up his signal for close action, being signal 16. Graves did in fact repeat the signal, but left the signal 16 up in a more prominent place. To his captain, Nelson elaborated: “You know, Foley, I have only one eye, I have a right to be blind sometimes:”. He then put his spying glass to his blind eye and continued: “I really do not see the signal!”, and then, “Damn the signal! Keep mine for closer battle flying! That’s the way I answer signals! Nail mine to the mast!”

Either for the original motive of the signal 39, or for the fact that the battle was indeed won for Great Britain an hour later, the two men’s disobedience somehow was never mentioned afterwards.

As you might have noticed, twice the way these signals are flown plays a part: One is the fact that two signals could be flown simultaneously, from different locations. The other is that the signal is from a mast, as it can be nailed to it.
Peter Hans van den Muijzenberg, 7 October 2007


The signals were from the Admiralty Book of 1799.

16. Engage the enemy more closely.
1. yellow over red over yellow.
6. diagonal from lower hoist to upper fly, white over blue.

39. Discontinue the action.
3. blue / white / blue.
9. blue over white over red.


Flags used by Captain William Padget

A few years ago I wrote a piece on William Paget for my local antiquarian magazine (in Anglesey). As well as being the local MP Paget was a navy captain who died in the Mediterranean in somewhat mysterious circumstances in 1794, after having captured a French frigate (La Sybille) off Mykonos. The following entries occur in the logs.

14 Fresh Gales Squally AM at 20m. past 5 made the Signal 104 at half past 5 made the Tabular Sig 24 and bore up by express orders from Capt Paget & made sail. Parted Company from the convoy …

15 Squally Wr with heavy swell from the Dr wd [?] at 10 m past 2 Departed this life Capt Paget Island of Minorca NebE 5 Leagues 15 Tons of Water only on board.

14-20 At Anchor off the Quarantine island

17 Completed our Waters recd in all 70 Tons.

25 Spoke a ship 3 days from Gibraltar

Hauld round Europa Pt and came too in the Bay & moord. Unbent all sails Down t/g yards and lower yds and struck t/g masts

Oct 3 Interred Capt Paget in the Convent at 11 the Ceremony took place & the Romney fir’d 79 Minute Guns

The entry in G Patterson’s log – he being Master of the Romney – is practically identical in its account of what occurred when she parted company from the fleet: “20 Minutes Pr 5 Made ye Sigl Bo 104 at 30 Minutes pt 5 Made ye Tabular Sigl 24 & bore up by Express orders & Directions of Captn Pagett.”

In 1794 the Mediterranean Fleet were using Lord Howe’s Numerary Signal Book of 1790. The 1793 edition is the same but arranged differently. The Tabular Signal was probably also from the one devised by Howe, as he had a second numerary code intended for the use of private ships when communicating with the flagship.


Evolution of the flags of the International Code of Signals

Flag and first usage notes
Flag Description Notes on Origins
Alpha (A) White-Blue vertical swallowtail Rectangular version by Admiral Vernon, RN, mid-18th century
(Joe McMillan, 20 March 2006)
Bravo (B) Red swallowtail Rectangular version from antiquity; swallowtail in Admiral Russell, RN, 1691
(Joe McMillan, 20 March 2006)
Charlie (C) Blue-White-Red-White-Blue horizontal French Adm Duchuffault, 1780
(Joe McMillan, 20 March 2006)introduced in 1934 to replace triangular flags.
(David Prothero, 23 March 2006)
Delta (D) Yellow-Blue-Yellow horizontal introduced in 1934 to replace triangular flags.
(David Prothero, 23 March 2006)
Echo (E) Blue-Red horizontal Commodore David Porter’s 1809 signal book had Blue-Red horizontal as well as Red-Blue
(Joe McMillan, 20 March 2006)This flag (which could be flown either way up) was included in the signals used by Admiral Rodney (Royal Navy) in 1782.
(Christopher Southworth, 22 March 2006)introduced in 1934 to replace triangular flags. Echo is a flag that was used in Lord Howe’s Signals and Instructions on the North America Station in 1776. [Facsimile] It was a combination that he considered unsatisfactory, and was not used in his later codes.
(David Prothero, 23 March 2006)
Foxtrot (F) White with Red lozenge introduced in 1934 to replace triangular flags. A white flag pierced with a red lozenge was in Admiral Robert Digby’s
code of 1782. [Mariner’s Mirror Feb 1953]
(David Prothero, 23 March 2006)
Golf (G) Yellow-Blue-Yellow-Blue-Yellow-Blue vertical introduced in 1934 to replace triangular flags.
(David Prothero, 23 March 2006)
Hotel (H) White-Red vertical This was also used by Rodney in 1782, but first appears in reversed colours (Red-White) in Instructions issued by Admiral Russell (Royal Navy) in 1691.
(Christopher Southworth, 22 March 2006)
India (I) Yellow with Black disk This flag first appears as ‘H’ in the British Admiralty naval code of 1889, the The International Code of Signals as revised in 1897 gives a yellow flag with a ‘blue’ ball.
(Christopher Southworth, 22 March 2006)I With a blue ball, this was introduced in 1878 by Burney. [Gordon’s FOTW]
(David Prothero, 23 March 2006)
Juliet (J) Blue-White-Blue horizontal Marryat 1817
(Joe McMillan, 20 March 2006)
Kilo (K) Yellow-Blue vertical Howe 1790
(Joe McMillan, 20 March 2006)
Lima (L) Yellow-Black quartered This flag first appears as ‘F’ in the British Admiralty naval code of 1889, the Commercial Code of Signals of 1857 gives yellow and ‘blue’ quarterly.
(Christopher Southworth, 22 March 2006)With blue and yellow in Digby’s code of 1782. [Mariner’s Mirror Feb 1953]
(David Prothero, 23 March 2006)
Mike (M) Blue with White saltire Duchuffault 1780
(Joe McMillan, 20 March 2006)
November (N) Blue-White checkered Pennant form Royal Navy 1756; rectangular Duchuffault 1780
(Joe McMillan, 20 March 2006)
Oscar (O) Red-Yellow falling diagonal a Red-Yellow diagonal (orientation unknown) was included in the English Naval Instructions of 1673.
(Christopher Southworth, 22 March 2006Howard Chapin’s article in US Naval Institute Proceedings on the evolution of signal flags describes this flag as diagonal stripes, which is why I identified it with the modern flag for Yellow.
(Joe McMillan, 22 March 2005)
Papa (P) Blue with White square Royal Navy by 1756
(Joe McMillan, 20 March 2006)more like the years between 1756 and 1762
(Christopher Southworth, 22 March 2006)
Quebec (Q) Yellow Royal Navy by 1688
(Joe McMillan, 20 March 2006)A plain yellow signal flag first appears in Boteler written in the early 1630’s, and appears again in 1691.
(Christopher Southworth, 22 March 2006)
Romeo (R) Red with Yellow cross Marryat 1817
(Joe McMillan, 20 March 2006)
Sierra (S) White with Blue square US Navy 1812
(Joe McMillan, 20 March 2006)
Tango (T) Red-White-Blue vertical US Navy 1803
(Joe McMillan, 20 March 2006)
Uniform (U) Red-White quartered Howe 1790
(Joe McMillan, 20 March 2006)Kempenfelt 1780. [Mariner’s Mirror Feb 1953]
(David Prothero, 23 March 2006)
Victor (V) White with Red saltire Royal Navy by 1689
(Joe McMillan, 20 March 2006)
Whiskey (W) Blue-White-Red concentric squares International Code of Signals by 1867
(Joe McMillan, 20 March 2006)I think this flag was introduced in the revisions of 1887
(Christopher Southworth, 22 March 2006)one of the French signal books in the 18th century provided for this flag as well as a Red-White-Blue version.
(Joe McMillan, 22 March 2005)On a French Code Flag Signal Chart captured by HMS Fisguard in 1804. [Facsimile]
(David Prothero, 23 March 2006)
X-Ray (X) White with Blue cross Adm Hawke, Royal Navy, 1762
(Joe McMillan, 20 March 2006)
Yankee (Y) Yellow-Red diagonal stripes Royal Navy 1673
(Joe McMillan, 20 March 2006)There is a red and white striped diagonal listed in the 1673 Instructions but apparently no red and yellow
(Christopher Southworth, 24 March 2006Howard M. Chapin, “Notes on the Early Development of the Designs in Marine Signal Flags,” United States Naval Institute Proceedings, Vol. 53, No. 297 (Nov 1927), pp. 1191-1195, says that the 1673 Instructions introduced a flag with red and yellow diagonal stripes, as well as one with red and white diagonal stripes and another with red and white horizontal stripes. The two red and white ones were carried over to the 1689 instructions, but the red and yellow one wasn’t. I don’t have a copy of the Instructions themselves, just the Chapin article, so I can’t verify his statement.
(Joe McMillan, 23 March 2006
Zulu (Z) Black-Yellow-Red-Blue diagonally quartered

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