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I know nothing of the FENIMORE COOPER but I notice from one of Susan’s earlier posts that she was a schooner (and presumably of US registry).

A recall signal by flag, if over more than a short distance, would be of most value if it could be distinguished by shape (and perhaps by position) as well as colour or design. A comet (the original Greek means long-tailed) flag or pendant would be a long tailed pendant and clearly identifiable by shape as against other signal flags. In the second half of the nineteenth century there were distant signalling systems that incorporated such a pendant, along with other shapes.

As I understand it, the general signal book of both the USN and the US merchant service in 1858 would have been based on the flags designed by H.J. Rogers of Baltimore – US members of the List may be able to correct me on this point. The only list of Rogers’ flags that I have does not include anything longer than the normal pendant.

This is an interesting puzzle but as a solution I favour David H’s suggestion that “comet” in this instance means a flag and a pendant at that. This could be either a recall signal peculiar to that ship and her boats and men or a more widely accepted recall signal within US shipping circles.


Mon Feb 11, 2008 11:08 am
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susan wrote:
In John M. Brooke's account of the cruise of the Fenimore Cooper, he writes: "Hoisted the signal of recall (comet at the main) and in order to call attention fired two guns."

Susan, what year did Brooke record this happened? Was it between the 1837-1845 time period of the "meteor flag", earlier or later?

I favor a flag or pendant also, as firing a gun was pretty normal to draw attention to a new hoist of such signals. Since the RN used a standard size signaling flag, the "blue peter," to recall sailors for departure, the "comet" might well have been a standard size flag. Although, I agree that a pendant might be more distinctive. I assume, like all signals, the position was very important.

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Mon Feb 11, 2008 1:25 pm
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timoneer wrote:
Susan, what year did Brooke record this happened? Was it between the 1837-1845 time period of the "meteor flag", earlier or later?

This was in January of 1859.

For those who are interested, here's an article from the New York Times archives about the expedition and the Fenimore Cooper: Exploration of the North Pacific--A Submarine Mountain. (Scroll down to find the beginning of the article.)

Additional question: Would a pendant work in the rain or would it get saturated and not fly properly? Brooke notes it had begun to rain before he hoisted the signal.

Anyway, the men whom the signal was intended for were in a location where they couldn't see it. Fortunately, they were able to hear the guns.

On Edit: Sorry. The link I provided expired. I have re-linked to the preview page. Hopefully this will not expire.

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Last edited by susan on Mon Feb 11, 2008 10:36 pm, edited 1 time in total.



Mon Feb 11, 2008 5:48 pm
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It looks like comet may be a misprint for cornet (CORNET), which was a signal flag, variously described (depending on period and navy) as a short pennant, swallow-tailed flag, or square red and white quartered flag.

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Mon Feb 11, 2008 10:36 pm
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The signalling system in the days before radio contact, etc., have always fascinated me. Hence the following post from The Times of September 17th, 1793, with news from Plymouth, dated 14th September:

" ..... On Friday the Ranger cutter, of 14 guns, Lieut. Cotgrove, was ordered out to cruise off the Sound, to the southward, and to make a signal at the mast-head, and fire three guns, in case of the discovery of a strange fleet. The Druid, of 32 guns, Capt. Ellison, was moored in the Sound in such a situation, as to be in sight of the Admiral's ship in Hamoaze, to repeat the cutter's signal ..."


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Tue Jul 08, 2008 10:21 am
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I'm looking for an engraving or painting of a ship with a wheft hoisted. Can anyone point me to one?

There's an image of a wheft on this page (Signalling and Communication - image at bottom), but it doesn't look like what I thought it did.

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Thu Sep 25, 2008 9:22 am
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I can't help with a picture but it is evident from the undermentioned quotations that the meaning (to say nothing of the spelling) of "wheft" varied over time.


1644 MAINWARING: “Sea-Man’s Dictionary”: Also wafts are used for signes to have the boate come a-boord (which is Coate, Gowne or the like, hung-up in the shrowdes) also it is a common signe of some extremetie, when a ship doth hang a waft upon the maine-stay, either that it hath sprung a-leake, or is in some distresse.

1769 FALCONER: “Dictionary of the Marine” (1780): Waft, a signal displayed from the stern of a ship for some particular purpose, by hoisting the ensign, furled up together into a long roll, to the head of it's staff.

1776 ADMIRAL LORD HOWE: Signal Book: “A weft …… is to be made by stopping the head part of the flag only and leaving the fly loose”.

1867 SMYTH: “Sailor’s Word-book”: Waft, more correctly written wheft. It is a flag or ensign, stopped together at the head and middle portions, slightly rolled up lengthwise, and hoisted at different positions at the afterpart of a ship.


It would appear that Howe felt it nescessary to standardize the meaning in his fleet.


Thu Sep 25, 2008 11:44 pm
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Hi Peter,

Thanks for tracking down the different definitions. It is interesting how it changed over time. The picture in my head was similar to the description from Falconer. The one from the King's College site looks more like a big swab than anything else. :D

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Fri Sep 26, 2008 4:33 am
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susan wrote:
I'm looking for an engraving or painting of a ship with a wheft hoisted. Can anyone point me to one?

There's an image of a wheft on this page (Signalling and Communication - image at bottom), but it doesn't look like what I thought it did.




...thanks for that link, Susan. No, it doesn't like I thought it would either; more like a horse's tail ..... :lol:

... and thanks, too, Peter, as always, for providing information.


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Fri Sep 26, 2008 10:50 am
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The Times, September 5th, 1804:

" ... A code of night signals has been lately established, and sent down by the Admiralty to the several posts on the heights round the coast, and a cordon of repeating frigates are stationed at convenient distances, between whom and the shore a ready communication can at all times be kept up by rockets and variegated lamps. Each signal-house, too, is supplied with a stack of furze, which is immediately set fire to on the first appearance of alarm, when a regular correspondence can be carried on by means of different coloured lights, with as much facility as in the day-time. ..."


Does anyone have any further details?


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Sun Jan 18, 2009 9:16 am
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The Times, February 14th, 1793:

" ... PLYMOUTH, February 10 .. Arrived the Druid frigate and Seaflower cutter. from Brest Water; where there was lying one ship of 98 guns; two of 74; two sloops, and two cutters. As soon as our vessels appeared in sight, the signals was hoisted on all the forts, and beacons along the coast, it consisted of a red burgee pendant hoisted half-mast up......"


I don't know much about signalling, but came across this page. Would anyone care to elaborate for me, pretty please. :)


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Wed Mar 18, 2009 9:37 am
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The meanings of burgee varied over time but I think that in 1793 the expression “burgee pendant” could have meant a pendant with a distinguishing badge or national flag in the hoist (similar to the 17th C. “budgee pendant”). Alternatively, it may have been a single pointed burgee (i.e. triangular) distinguishing it from the more usual swallow-tailed burgee. It this case it may have been both broader at the hoist and shorter than a normal pendant. There is no burgee pennant in the 1796 Signal Book.
I fear that this opinion will not clarify the matter for you – but, in endeavouring to pin down the use and meaning of some of the flag terms of the 17th and 18th centuries I, like Omar Khayyam, evermore came out by that same door as in I went.


Wed Mar 18, 2009 12:33 pm
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...thanks, Peter, for trying to solve it for me; much appreciated.

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Thu Mar 19, 2009 11:50 am
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I am trying to find out about practices of hand signalling or other kinds of communication between ships and a boat or boats that do not have a mast to hoist flags on. Does anybody here have information about when the "modern" hand signalling (with flags) started to be used? I suspect it to be of later days as I mostly connect it with steamships, but it may have been used earlier?

Susan, those Fighting Instructions you have, do they have anything to say about that?


Sat Mar 21, 2009 2:37 pm
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jenku wrote:
I am trying to find out about practices of hand signalling or other kinds of communication between ships and a boat or boats that do not have a mast to hoist flags on.

Susan, those Fighting Instructions you have, do they have anything to say about that?

The signal book from 1796 only deals with signals from ships.

I've come across boats using lights and flares as signals but nothing hand held that I know of.

Maybe someone else has a better idea?

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Sun Mar 22, 2009 1:17 am
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