WHAT SHIP, WHERE BOUND? A HISTORY OF VISUAL COMMUNICATION AT SEA

Reviewed by: ANDY FIELD

The evocative title comes from the question apparently most asked between passing ships at sea. I’d previously seen this book in booksellers and hitherto, had not paid it much attention, so I was intrigued to be asked to review it. Despite points which may be seen as flaws, it was an enjoyable, if brief, introduction to visual signalling at sea. The publishers have aimed the book at a wide audience, and this is perhaps the greatest flaw. They hope that it will appeal to experienced mariners, naval enthusiasts, historians, marine and graphic artists, and ship modellers, perhaps an over-ambitious aim that leaves the book spreading itself too thinly. In appearance, the book struck me as most closely resembling an exhibition catalogue, and it certainly reflects the author’s background as a graphic artist and exhibition designer who focuses on maritime heritage.

The text, which is easily followed, is reasonably well laid out thematically, which can lead to confusion over chronological developments. Text is supported by timelines and numerous, coloured, and black and white illustrations. Topics covered include developments in flag signalling, both naval and commercial, from as far back as the rudimentary signalling of 450 BC. This section includes sections on ‘Ensigns and Etiquette’, ‘Knowing Who’s Who’, the development of various commercial and naval codes, and signalling between ship and shore. The Battles of Martinique, in 1780, Chesapeake Bay in 1781, and, of course, the 1916 Battle of Jutland, are all mentioned as examples where flag signalling had its limits and resulted in what the author refers to as “unintended consequences”. And, of course, poor old Admiral Tryon and the loss of HMS Victoria in 1893 gets a mention.

There then follow brief sections on the continued use of flag signalling, the marketing appeal of signalling flags, (no doubt reflecting the author’s own professional background), a large section on Semaphore at Sea, using both shapes and shutters in varied combinations. The Admiralty’s use of semaphore arms, both from the Admiralty Buildings to the major naval bases, and on ships, are mentioned. Again, reflecting the author’s graphic design background, the use of semaphore in popular protest, (especially with the CND symbol) is covered.

The section on the use of lights, flares, fixed and flashing lights, Morse Code and Aldis lamps  also allows the author makes to reference the use of Morse Code in popular culture, be it the 1952 ‘I Like Ike’ badge of Eisenhower’s Presidential campaign, the theme to the Inspector Morse series of TV dramas or the visual representation of the distress signal sent by SS Titanic, a part of the display in the museum at Belfast.   I personally would have liked some reference to the use of humour, particularly in the Royal Navy’s signals, but sadly, Captain Jack Broome’s two books, Make A Signaland Make Another Signal only merit a mention in the Bibliography.

There is, however, an intriguing, but sadly, underdeveloped, exchange of signals between a US destroyer on blockade duty off Vietnam and the MV Somali, on passage between Singapore to Hong Kong, which could have been used to illustrate the quick thinking and humour traditionally in signalling at sea was still alive 50 years ago.

Overall, the book may not appeal to everyone, especially not serving or former Naval officers. Topics were covered informatively, but briefly, and well supported by illustrations. However, readers wanting to know more about signalling would need to delve further and only some of the books in the Bibliography would help with this. What Ship, Where Bound? is an interesting, brief, introduction to aspects of signalling at sea, written by an enthusiast, for the enthusiast, rather than the professional.

I don’t think that the book quite lives up to the publisher’s hype, at least not as far as experienced mariners are concerned. Despite my reservations, though, I enjoyed reading it, as it introduced me to something I knew of, but knew little about, and I certainly liked the many, coloured, illustrations. Would I recommend it to members of The Naval Review? Regrettably, probably not, unless, of course, you are looking for a different sort of present for someone, or just want an attractive book for the coffee table.