there’s a flag for that

Stand easy, shipmates. We’re all getting to know our new crew-member, Mr Corona Virus. He’s everywhere. But what is the appropriate marine signal response to the pandemic that’s forced the cancellation of just about anything that moves on water?

Old-timers would be confused. For centuries the “Q” for Quebec – plain yellow (the ‘yellow jack’) – was the flag that signalled disease on board. It’s thought this was chosen because a common infectious disease on sailing ships was yellow fever. Or maybe it was simply Q for ‘quarantine’. Plague was often indicated by a plain black flag, although this is not usually found in the standard alphanumeric signalling set.  

But for some reason the meaning of “Q” has changed. It now indicates the opposite, namely, ‘The captain warrants that this ship is free of contagious, quarantinable disease and requests entry to port’. Go figure.

So what flag might a ship now fly if its commander believes it may be carrying COVID-19 and cannot disembark? The answer is “L” (Lima) – alternate black and yellow squares. In harbour that means ‘This ship is under quarantine’. Beware!

– Anarchist David