Wig-Wag Flags, Flag Hoisting & Distress Signals

By Bob Trapani, Jr.

Photo by Bob Trapani, Jr.

(L to R) Indian River LSS "surfmen"
Mark Callahan and Barney Barnhill
demonstrate how lifesavers communicated
using wig-wag flags

Prior to the era of radio transmissions, lifesaving efforts were very limited in their abilities to communicate vital warnings to nearby ships or messages of hope to imperiled crews. Essentially, only those means that were visible to the human eye could be utilized, and that was if thick weather or fog didn’t altogether obscure such an effort. In order to communicate effectively and thus save lives, surfmen utilized signal flags by day and lights or flares at night.

When a lifesaver discovered a shipwreck on his nightly beach patrol he was instructed to burn a red pyrotechnic light or red rocket to signify to a distressed vessel, “you are seen; assistance will be given as soon as possible.” Should a surfman discover a ship sailing precariously too close to shore, he would then wave a red flag by day designed to convey the instructions “haul away.” By night the surfman would communicate this same message by displaying a red light, red rocket or red Roman candle.

The ever-observant patrolman utilized a white flag on shore by day or a white light slowly swung back and forth, white rocket or white Roman candle fired by night to communicate the message “slack away” to a ship’s captain. If two surfmen were spotted ashore simultaneously waving a red and white flag by day or a red and white light slowly swung by night, a vessel understood the message to be, “do not attempt to land in your own boats; it is impossible.”

In his book entitled That Others Might Live, author Dennis Noble discusses wig-wag flags, noting, “On Wednesdays the surfmen practiced either wig-wag or flag hoists. Wig-wag usually required a team of four: one surfman with a three-foot square red flag on a pole, another with a white flag of the same dimensions, a surfman with a telescope to read the sending station, and a fourth member to record the message. Wig-wag was used much like Morse code; the red flag representing a dash and the white flag a dot.”

In 1889 the International Marine Conference recommended that a system of universal distress signals be adopted. Thus the United States Life-Saving Service (USLSS) created a General Service Code, while conforming to the signal policies stemming from the conference by instituting crew regulations on the usage and uniform communication methods involving distress signals.

The keeper of each lifesaving station was responsible for coordinating practice and cultivating the proficient use of both the wig-wag system and the flag hoist operations with the International Code for signals, which was another method of communicating with ships at sea. The 26 flags utilized in the International Code for signals represented a letter of the alphabet and were designed to send short warnings or instructions.

Photo Courtesy James Claflin

A vintage image showing surfmen
raising the flags used for the
International Code for signals

During weekly practice the surfmen were expected to answer questions from the keeper of the station related to what each flag represented. The USLSS regulations of 1899 informed the keeper and crew what was expected of them knowledge-wise when it came to the signal flags. According to the regulations, “the definitions of the two, three and four flag hoists, and the distinguishing flag or pennant of each, the part of the code book necessary to turn to when reading and when making a signal, etc., and in the actual conversation or communication by means of miniature signals provided each station.”

The United States Life-Saving Service’s use of their General Service Code and the International Code for signals helped keep many ships out of harm’s way and thus saved an untold number of lives. When we focus on the 177,000 lives saved during actual lifesaving operations from 1878 to 1915, we would be remised not to remember how many more were saved by warning vessels of imminent danger through the use of the flare, wig-wag flag system or the International Code for signals. Such vigilance and efficient communication is yet another stark reminder to the importance the United States Life-Saving Service had on our nation’s maritime heritage when the country needed it most.