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Dressing Ships

Last modified: 2007-07-14 by phil nelson
Keywords: dressing ships |
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South African naval vessel as dressed

South African Navy shipped as dressed
image by Andries Burgers
This image appears in the Dictonary of Vexillology on FOTW (see link below)

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The following question was posed to FOTW which elicited the information on this page.

I am looking for information about DRESSING SHIP. On occasion, Warships dress up by hoisting DRESSING LINE which starts from the bow to the stern. I understand different Navies have different practices. What I would like to find out is what does the following flags means:

Echo Quebec - this starts in the beginning of the dressing line.
Subdivision / Speed - this is at the main mast.
Lima Three - this is at the end of the dressing line.

We have been practicing it for ages and no one is able to give me answer.
James, 21 May 2007

They mean nothing. One of the main reasons for navies to prescribe a specific order of flags for dressing a warship is to ensure that no hidden meaning, intentional or otherwise, is embedded in the display. (The other reason is uniformity of appearance among warships.) Generally, the authorities prescribing the sequence try to achieve an even distribution of the colors of the flags, so that all the yellow or red or blue flags aren't together. That's it.
Joe McMillan, 21 May 2007

Joe is certainly right in stating that there is here a deliberate avoidance of any possible order of flags which might be interpreted as actual signals or which might be read as messages. This insistence on randomising the flags in dressing lines suggests to me that there might well have been occasions in the past (sailors being sailors) where yeomen of signals, not then having a laid down guide, could have sneaked in embarrassing meanings when making up their dressing lines!
Andries Burgers, 22 May 2007

Yachting recommendations

United Kingdom

In Britain the recommended order (Royal Yachting Association) is;

E-Q-3-G-8-Z-4-W-6-P-one-I-Code-T-Y-B-X-1st sub-H-3rd sub-D-F-2nd sub-U-A-O-M-R-2-J-zero-N-9-K-7-V-5-L-C-S.

David Prothero, 21, 22 May 2007

United States

The recommended sequence for private vessels in the US (recommended by the New York Yacht Club and others) is:

A-B-2-U-J-1-K-E-3-G-H-6-I-V-5-F-L-4-D-M-7-P-O-3rd Sub-R-N-1stSub-S-T-zero-C-X-9-W-Q-8-Z-Y-2nd Sub.

As you can see, this order is two letter flags and a pennant, two letter flags and a pennant, repeated over and over.
Joe McMillan, 21 May 2007

Naval practice

South Africa

Every Navy now uses its own sequence of flags for the dressing lines. When I was appointed Staff Officer Communications in 1975 at Naval HQ in Simon's Town, one of my first tasks was to write the Communications and Ceremonial Chapters in SANGP 1, the first of the SA Navy's General Publication series which replaced QR's and AI's after the abrogation of the Simon's Town Agreements by the then Labour Government in Britain. This action cut the South African Navy (SAN) off from further supply of the British publications used in the Royal Navy (RN) and we had to develop our own replacement publications. At that time I based the pattern for dressing lines to be used in the SAN on that of the pattern as laid down in one of the ACPs (Allied Communications Publication - the number of which I've forgotten). As this was a NATO publication this pattern was then presumably applicable throughout NATO, including of course the United States Navy and the RN.

Just recently I had to make a vector drawing of a ship fully dressed as an illustration for my forthcoming book (which is now hoped to be out before end of July and in time for the ICV 22 in Berlin). In order to make the dressing lines in the drawing as authentic as possible, I consulted with the SAN Signal School and were given the order of flags for dressing lines as currently in use in the SAN for a two-masted frigate-size ship as follows:

Fore Down (foremast to jackstaff):
Echo, Quebec, Desig, Golf, pennant 3, Whiskey, pennant 9, flag 7, pennant 6, Romeo, pennant 8, Papa, pennant 4, India, pennant 1, Tango, pennant 7, flag 6, Corpen, flag 8, pennant 2, X-ray, Preparative, Hotel, Turn, flag 5, Subdiv.

Central Span (between the masts):
Speed, flag 5, Desig, flag 2, pennant 3, flag 3, pennant 7, Papa, Corpen, Mike, Turn, Romeo.

After Span (mainmast to ensign staff):
Formation, flag 9, Answer(Code), November, pennant Zero, Kilo, pennant 3, Victor, penannt 5, Bravo, Interogative, flag Zero, Church pennant, X-ray, pennant 7, flag 4, pennant 2, Lima, flag 3.

Whether this is still the same pattern that I wrote into SANGP 1 in 1975, I do not know, but it is certainly different from that posted by David as currently used in the RN. The only discernable pattern in the make-up of these SAN dressing lines are that, except for the beginning of the Fore Down and the end of the After Span where there are two flags in succession, the lines are made up of alternating flags and pennants. Not all the flags in the NATO flag locker is in use in this pattern - not even all the alphabeticals.
Andries Burgers, 22 May 2007

United Kingdom

From photographs it appears that the Royal Navy use the NATO signal flags.
David Prothero, 22 May 2007

You can find information at this good site: It's a study on the flags used by the Royal Navy when dressing ship between 1889 to 2006.
Dominique Cureau, 23 May 2007

United States

The US Navy sequence (which uses almost the entire NATO flag bag) is:

F3-F4-1-S-1stsub-A-Prep-C-M-Speed-J-5-R-9-Z-Corpen-F8-U-F6-X-Negat-F2-Port-N-2-T-2ndsub- B-D-Turn-F5-Station-K-6-W-zero-F1-O-3rdsub-H-E-Emerg-L-7-Fzero-Int-Div-4-F9-4thsub-P-Form-V- G-Starboard-I-F-Q-8-Y-Desig-F7-3-Squad-Answer

(with F1, F2, F3, etc. referring to the rectangular NATO numeral flags, and 1, 2, 3 to the ICS numeral pennants).

There's a photograph of USS Coronado fully dressed for its 2005 decommissioning ceremony (and transfer to the civilian-crewed Military Sealift Command fleet as USNS Coronado) at (click the photo for a larger photo.

Unfortunately, while the sequence of the flags is correct within each line, they seem to have the forward line reversed, with the sequence beginning at the masthead instead of the jackstaff. The US Navy flag directive, NTP 13(B) seems to be clear that the sequence should start at the jackstaff:

On occasions of full-dress ship, in addition to dressing the mastheads with the U.S. or foreign national ensign(s), a rainbow of signal flags and pennants, arranged in the order prescribed herein, shall be displayed. The rainbow shall reach from the foot of the jackstaff to the mastheads and thence to the foot of the flagstaff. Pecularily masted or mastless ships shall make a display as little modified from the rainbow effect as is practicable.

A later note provides "If one set of flags does not complete the rainbow, repeat the sequence starting with Flag 3, Flag 4, etc."
Joe McMillan, 21, 22 May 2007


The English "dressing ship" is called "Grand Pavoisn" in the French Navy. According to the current Instruction about Ceremonial in the the Navy (1986), the Pavois is composed with the alphabetical pennants and the first substitute of the International Signal Code.

Excluded are specific pennants and numeric flags.

The flag "Tango" is also excluded , being obverse to the French flag.

One mast vessel:

From the mast to the bow: 1st-Y-D-U-K-F-C-H-L-V-N-O-P-E-G-Z-X-Q-2nd
From the mast to the aft: 1st-D-U-K-F-C-H-L-V-N-O-P-E-G-2nd

Jean Gacic, 22 May 2007