Morse signals and flags still got the message through

19:58, Jan 20 2013

"Never use that bloody thing again," the angry captain shouted at me, his new fourth mate. He was pointing at the brass voice tube that went from the bridge down to his bunk. It was five in the morning and I had just used it to give him the message that we'd raised a light on the Azores Islands. I was only following his command written in his "night order" book - I felt ill done by. In those days it was the accepted means of communication; one blew down the brass tube to activate a whistle by the captain's bunk. He would pull it out and listen to the message shouted down the tube.

The following morning I found out why this normally mild captain had blown his stack at me. His tiger [steward] came up to the bridge at breakfast time and mentioned that he was having to clean up a pile of cigarette ash and butts that his boss had, over the last two voyages, put in the upturned piece of his voice tube; he'd used it as an ashtray as he read in his bunk.

How the ways of sending messages has changed in the last 50 years. I watch today's kids non-stop texting and wonder what they have to say; but it's good that they communicate. Long removed from brass voice pipes and flags.

The young lieutenant and the captain of a small Royal Navy corvette slipped too closely under the bow of his commodore's flag ship, giving all on board the battleship's bridge heart attacks. "And what is your next move?" a furious and sarcastic commodore flashed on the Aldis light to his young lieutenant. "I'm thinking of buying a chicken farm," came back the quick quip from the bridge of the corvette. His adroit sense of humour probably removed him from the hook.

We met half way across the Pacific during the middle watch. The lookout, perched up forward in the eyes of the ship had rung his bell as soon as the green and white lights had appeared on the horizon on our starboard bow. "Light on the starboard bow," the young seaman had yelled. A beautiful star-lit night and we talked to each other by Morse lamp. "What ship," he asked? " Royal Mail passenger ship Rangitane, bound Wellington to London."

"Cargo ship Haparangi, bound London to Auckland," he responded. And then, sensing we were perhaps alone in our messaging in the middle of the Pacific, he flashed, "Swap you two cases of beer for a virgin!" I felt someone standing behind me on the wing of the bridge. The old man, in his pyjamas, said: "Send him a message third. Tell him that Commodore Rees sends his compliments to Captain Bevis." I could imagine my opposite number receiving this terse response and thinking that his career in the New Zealand Shipping Company had just taken a huge jolt backwards. We sailed on to our different destinations, in the dark.

A Royal Navy petty officer was dancing with a lovely young lass and he noticed she was wearing a brooch made up from three signal flags. These sets of signal flags were used in the olden days to send messages from the mastheads. There was an international code for their use. "How did you come by that brooch?" he asked his attractive dancing partner. "Oh my boyfriend, who is also in the Royal Navy, gave it to me. It means ‘I love you.' "

"That's lovely; he must surely be very sweet on you." He was puzzled because there was no international code for ‘I love you', of that he was sure. On his return to his ship he checked the meaning of the three-flag code that was incorporated in her brooch. It all became clear when he read. "Permission to lie alongside!"

Communications have changed so much, but some of the messages retain their splendour.