Sometimes, two forms of communication don’t mix:
When the National Park Service wanted to dress up the U.S. Navy Memorial here, officials decided to fly signal flags, a colorful but archaic form of ship-to-ship communication. Visitors to the site today encounter two flagpoles designed to look like ships’ masts, on which 14 signal flags are arrayed in four groups. Each flag represents a letter. Together, they are supposed to spell: U-S-N-A-V-Y-M-E-M-O-R-I-A-L….[Unfortunately], there are several different ways to read signal flags. “Vomiting is present. Man overboard,” the flags on one yardarm would read. M-E-M is the signal for vomiting. O means someone has fallen into the sea.
A local yachtsman, who drives by the memorial regularly, complained to the National Park Service about the multiple messages. The memorial has settled on leaving the flags up, preserving a message that can be easily explained to non-naval tourists, but have unfortunate meanings for those who can read them. I’m more impressed by the fact that the Navy apparently has a three-flag signal that means “Patient has flatulence.”
The most historically famous flag signal is, I think, Admiral Nelson’s at Trafalgar, in which, before closing with the enemy fleet, he sent “England expects that every man will do his duty.”