Signal Flags - Camden Haven Pilot Station ; 1890; 2014/151


Mid North Coast Maritime Museum


Signal Flags - Camden Haven Pilot Station

About this object

This collection of 26 brightly coloured signalling flags, made from cotton and linen, was used between 1890 and 1975 by pilots stationed at the Camden Head Pilot Station as a means of providing communication and navigational assistance to mariners and ships entering the Camden Haven inlet.

Signalling Flags, also known as International Code Flags, are a set of flags of different colours, shapes and markings which when used alone or in varying combinations, have different meanings. The complete set of signalling flags includes 26 square flags which depict letters of the alphabet and convey special messages, 10 numerical pennants, one answering pennant and three substitutes or repeaters. The Camden Haven collection consists of 18 alphabetical flags and 8 numerical pennants.

Because only a few colours can be readily distinguished at sea, the colours used are red, blue, yellow, white and black and except for a plain red flag and a plain yellow flag, all the flags and pennants are made up of a combination of these colours. The flags were introduced prior to the use of radios in order to facilitate communication between two ships at sea or to send messages from ships to the shore or vice versa.

In the 1840s the timber industry was the lifeblood of the Camden Haven area. However, the establishment of farming, fishing and an oyster industry soon followed and by the late 1880s the Camden Haven inlet was a busy port with steamers and ketches using the wharves inside the estuary.

Land was set aside for a Pilot Station in 1890 and the Signal Shed was the first building to be erected on the site. It was fitted out with 46 pigeon holes to accommodate 46 signal flags and was situated underneath a flagpole. The pilot’s job was to communicate by signals from the flagpole, to all ships seeking entry to the estuary. In addition, the pilot used a triangular formation with black and white balls to indicate the status of the channel and sometimes ships had to remain at sea for days waiting for their signal to enter.

Because the Camden Haven bar is notoriously dangerous, it was essential that pilots had a thorough knowledge of the channels, sea conditions and wave movements, and it was also essential that they had a detailed understanding of the meaning of the signal flags, both individually and in combination, in order to communicate with mariners and to ensure their safe passage into the Camden Haven waterways. By 1975 more sophisticated means of communication had been developed and the use of flag signals at the Camden Head Pilot Station ceased.

Today, although at least three signalling flags are still displayed on all ships at sea, and many flags are used at boating regattas, in fleet parades and on ships in areas of heavy international shipping traffic, it appears that flags that were once used in Australian coastal pilot stations have rarely been saved.

As well as this being a unique collection, these flags provide a link to our past coastal shipping era, and provide an enduring reminder of the skills and knowledge of the marine pilots of the Camden Haven, who for nearly 100 years, used the flags to assist sailors to safely navigate the Camden Haven inlet, and to support them in overcoming any difficulties they might encounter in waters close to the river entrance.

Zsolt Newby & Margaret Blight
21 January 2015

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