Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Flash your neighbors!

Over the last two years, one of my 'cocktail napkin' projects has been to design a signalling system that would permit our boats to communicate with each other and to the shore. During Conquer the Chesapeake, we communicated with our chase boat (which has since been deemed a thing for sissies) via flashing light, with some success. But the project had been somewhat back-burnered, citing that we only had one operational boat. Of course, with some elbow grease this winter, that will change next spring. And so the signalling system is back on the table.

My ideas on what makes a sucessful system is as follows:

1. The system should permit signalling in visual range via means available to Sailors of various time periods, such that we can re-create historical conditions. This means abandoning use of electronic systems for routine operations.

2. It must be easy to use. We don't need an overly complicated matrix of mediums that take advanced training to understand. Stick to the Bowditch principle: even the cook should be able to use it.

3. It should mesh - at least partially - with currently practiced signalling methods and allow us to communicate with other non-NHS vessels.

That said, the system I'm working up will attempt to reach all three goals.

My first ideas revolved around the use of signal flags. But my reading on the subject yielded an interesting find - the international signal flags we use today didn't come into use until the later part of the 19th century. Until then, signal flags were in a constant state of development - with someone or other always coming up with "new and improved" signal codes and flag patterns. And although many flag patterns carried over across international lines, there were often significant differences in meaning.

There was another hurdle - logistics. The modern code of signals calls for 26 flags representing letters and 12 pennants for numbers and symbols. Yikes! That's a lot for a small boat to carry. While most ships have a flag bag stuffed full of these things, we'd probably have to make do with what we could fit in a canvas bag under a thwart. Not to mention that all those flags are bloody expensive - and the small ones for boats are too small to see at any real distance. So that just wouldn't do.

Instead, I'm playing around with about 6 flags, each of them based on a historical example - right now on Popham's 1790 code (Brit, though similar flags were used by the US) - and flown singly or in pairs hoisted in sequence one after another to denote a message. By this method, I've been able to produce about 300 different signals ranging in complexity from "turn, starboard" to "I see two sail bearing North-Northeast proceeding to the South and intend to intercept". Of course, all of this would be in-house communication between NHS boats, as they'd be the only people who recognized the flags and had the code books to decipher messages.

Now I completely realize the shortfalls of the signal flag system, and even considered replacing some of Popham's flags with modern ICS flags that are used in single-flag messages (such as Alpha - divers over the side, or Bravo - dangerous cargo). But overall, I don't think most vessels would be prepared to answer flag signals anyway - so that's probably not the best means of exterior communication and the in-house flags will probably serve their purpose just fine. We would also have to work with each boat's rig to determine best placement for flag halyards etc. I know that at least in Monomoy No. 1, the flag halyard on the yard is a pain in the a$$.

For exterior communications in the visual arena I think flashing light is probably our best bet. Not to say that I expect many mariners to be proficient in this - experience has shown that this is a dying art. But its still a requirement for Merchant Marine officers, is certainly easier to answer than flag signalling and the alternative - semaphore - well, I might as well just put the message in a bottle and lob it to them. At the very least flashing light might put a burr in someone to figure out what we're flashing to them and inspire them to try and answer back. If we try semaphore, they'll probably just wave at us. Plus, it'll give NHS members the opportnity to build a potentially useful professional skill. Equipment? Well we still have the battery-powered trigger operated lamps from Conquer the Chesapeake and they were maybe $35, tops.

Semaphore might find a place in the internal commnications section - but strictly as a novelty useful for demonstrations and whatnot. It's far too difficult to try and stand in a boat and hold your arms out for any length of time - and then you have the other crew trying to figure out if you mean 'break' or you just fell over and had to steady yourself.

All in all, I think signals will be a fun way to expand our underway programming and add a cool degree of depth to ongoing operations.


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