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The art of the personal signal

Our personal signal, the white sea horse, which we fly from the starboard spreader of our mizzen mast.
Our white sea horse swallowtail.

Years ago, every sailor had his or her own personal signal (pirate flags were personal signals), which they flew on whatever vessel they were sailing. Most personal signals as of some civilized date were listed in Lloyd's register so you could identify the master of each vessel. The personal signal was usually selected to represent something very meaningful to or about the individual flying it. Naturally, the personal signals of the pirates were not registered, although they were pretty well known and so widely recognizable that they did not have to be registered. Take Blackbeard, for example. When he hoisted his particular brand of jolly roger, boats scattered.

The personal signal translated onto a new medium...the spinnaker.

Personal signals of club members are often flown in the clubhouse.
Today, the personal signal is still developed by proud racers, owners of significant vessels and officers of yachting organizations, although for the most part the tradition has waned in favor of the martini glass, sport fish, or babewatch flag. We, being none of the above, have nevertheless subscribed to the tradition, as we have a famous (or infamous) heritage to reflect. You see, we fly the flag of the famous O'Malley queen of the west of Ireland, who commanded many ships, many men, and eventually became a pirate to protect her holdings against the foreign raiders of her lands. Grace O'Malley, aka Granuaille, flew the white sea horse aboard her ship the Moytura. So we adopted the white sea horse, redrawn and stylized by Alex himself, as our personal signal to honor our family heritage. One of our friends developed his personal signal based on his family member's choices of favorite colors - his wife, his son, and he each have a primary color that they favor and so their personal signal depicts a red circle, a blue circle, and a yellow circle on a white background. Another friend chose a stylized rose on the background of a cross to reflect his English family roots. Another uses a chess piece as an emblem for his name: Bishop. This should give you an idea of places you could look for inspiration for your personal signal.

Most recently, we had a spinnaker made and decided to personalize it with the white sea horse as well. Others have done similarly with the advent of reasonably priced graphic.

Christopher Dragon displaying their 'war flag' at the start of the Centennial Bermuda Race.

A rather new development is the use of "war flags" prior to the start of races, to identify competitors and strike terror in the fleet (kind of what the pirates used to do, no?). These war flags are giant personal signals flown from the forestay prior to the start of a race and are taken down before the sails are hoisted.

Vexillology, the scientific study of flags, can be quite fascinating. The Jolly Roger is one of the more interesting evolutionary personal signal exporations. The other is royal families.

Members of royal families are naturally entitled to display personal flags and standards which are normally flown to denote their presence. These flags and standards are flown day and night at any building in which they are in residence or in which they are attending a public function. Generally, personal flags and standards are flown behind the saluting base when troops are inspected and on the sovereign's ships when they are aboard.

HRH Queen Elizabeth has a personal flag (E with crown surrounded by roses) as well as different personal standards for display when visiting each of the countries in the Commonwealth. Her Majesty's Personal Canadian flag and standards of members of the Royal Family will take precedence before the national flag of Canada; they are never half-masted. These flags and standards, like all personal flags, are never used by others. If more than one member of the Royal Family is present on an official visit, only the standard of the member taking precedence shall be flown.

The Queen of England's royal standard when appearing as Queen of Australia is complex.

Resources to help you design your personal signal.


Clockwise from top left: Emanual Winn originated the jolly roger, his flag sporting the skull and crossbones along with an hourglass to indicate time was running out for his enemies. Edward Teach, aka Blackbeard, modified his to strike terror in his victims although he was never reported to have killed anyone in his attacks. The flag of Wales reputedly originated as a personal signal created by Uther Pendragon, father of King Arthur. HRH Queen Elizabeth's personal standard for Canada, depicting the leopards of England, the lion of Wales, the harp of Ireland, the fleur de lis of France and the maple leaves of Canada, defaced with her personal emblem surrounded by a wreath of roses.

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