The legal use of an inverted ensign–the national flag flown upside down–as a distress signal

The legal use of an inverted ensign–

the national flag flown upside down–

as a distress signal

Maritime Warning Signals

US Flag used as an example of the “Inverted Ensign”

The use of an inverted ensign

the national flag flown upside downas a distress signal dates back many years, apparently originating in British practice but carried over to the United States at an early date. 

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The U.S. Flag Code says that the American flag should never be flown upside down except as a signal of dire distress, which would appear to give the practice official sanction.

To be a useful distress signal, however, a flag must have an obvious right side up.  Many national flags do not.  As a result, neither the international nor U.S. inland rules of the road list the inverted ensign as a recognized sign of distress. 

Using it instead of one of the approved signals should therefore be avoided, as it may not be understood by other vessels, especially outside the United States.

Sea Flags
Copyright 2000, 2001 by Joseph McMillan



Distress Signals


Rule 37 of the 1972 International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea (enacted into U.S. Law as the International Navigation Act of 1977)  and the United States Inland Navigation Rules provide for a number of signals to be used by a vessel in distress.  Most of these use lights, sounds, flares, and similar means, but three of them rely on flags.The first is the International Code of Signals signal for “I am in distress and require immediate assistance,” the ICS code flags N and C (known as NOVEMBER and CHARLIE.The second is an orange flag or other surface showing a black disk or ball next to or above a black square.  The specific design of this flag is spelled out in 46 Code of Federal Regulations 160.072.The third (not shown) is a square flag of any color hoisted above any round shape.
November-Charlie Orange Flag 

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