Beach Flags: Everything You Need To Know

Ever been to the beach and seen vibrantly colored flags on poles erected on the sandy shores? Maybe, just like other people out there, you thought they were just decorations to make the beach more appealing and inviting to visitors, or maybe you thought they were there for photo ops, you know, to add a little bit more color to your Instagram post while on the beach.

Well, you aren’t entirely wrong because they do make your Instagram photos on the beach pop a little; however, you aren’t right either because these beach flags mean so much more than just beach decorations.

Meet the International Life Saving Federation (ILS)

In the quest to make sure that people who enjoy any water activity stay safe and the number of casualties because of drowning incidents is lowered, the world has decided to band together and form what could be called the Avengers or the Justice League of Life Saving, the International Life Saving Federation or ILS for short.

The ILS involves around 130 national life-saving organizations and federations that are all aimed at one goal, and that is to improve water safety, prevent drowning incidents, conduct proper water rescues, lifeguarding, and lifesaving duties, as well as conduct the occasional lifesaving sports competitions.

Like any international organization, the ILS  is governed by a General Assembly with members from the 130 nations well represented and headed by a president. This General Assembly has its headquarters in Leuven, Belgium. 

Although this international organization is mainly credited with lifesaving activities and sports, it was also the ILS that was credited for deciding standardized signals, flags, and markers that are used everywhere to warn people of possible dangers that they may encounter on beaches when they swim or even in some selected resorts or public pools.

The signals they opted to use are different colored and styled flags because, with this ingenious idea, they can eliminate possible language barriers that might arise with using spoken or written language per se. 

A list of Approved Beach Warning Flags Used by the USLA

Locally, meaning in the motherland US of A, the United States Lifesaving Association or USLA has used flags and other warning signages to warn swimmers, surfers, and the like about the current conditions of the water, the hazards they might encounter and the areas that are safe and unsafe to go into for several decades now and as the ILS was formed the USLA has taken it into a point that they use the same global standards set for international safety. 

Here are some of the flag designs and colors being utilized by the USLA:

Green Flags

Beach Flags

Although there are green flags in the repertoire of the ILS and the USLA’s list of warning flags, they are not often flown as it means that there are no impending dangers and that all is well.

This is not a fact, and in no time, there might be some weather disturbances or sea creatures that can disrupt a rather peaceful day. So, these green flags are seldom flown. 

Yellow flags 

A yellow flag usually means Medium Hazard. It is defined by the presence of moderate surfs and or currents are present.

When a yellow flag is flown or placed, lifeguards on duty usually warn those who are planning to swim that the currents may be powerful enough to wear down and overthrow a non-swimmer, a beginner, and a weak swimmer.

The shade of this particular yellow is not just any yellow but is also standardized to make it all the same for everyone using these warning flags. This yellow is in the PMS-124. 

Red flags

A step up from the yellow flags would be the red flags. Like in any relationship you have, you would be looking for green flags and red flags although this red flag isn’t for your emotional safety but for literally your safety, especially in the water.

The red flags for High Hazards are put up when there are rough conditions like strong surf and currents. Everyone is advised not to be on the water during these times as even the strongest swimmers could end up drowning.

However, there are still some occurrences where the public may still be able to swim, no matter how much authorities may advise against it. 

Double Red Flags

Now, here is a situation where nobody is allowed to go for a swim or surf. The double red flags leave no other interpretation but that the ocean is closed for public use until further notice because it’s too hazardous for anyone to be in the waters.

Cases like storms brewing on the horizon or other natural phenomena can cause monstrous swells and man-eating currents.  

Purple Flags

If you're into K-pop then you might mistake a piece of the purple flag by the beach as a sign that the locals are supporting the superstar K-pop idols BTS, but this is way before BTS and beyond any artist representation.

The purple flags flown on beaches are intended as a way of letting you folks know that there are some sea creatures present in the water that might cause harm directly and indirectly.

These sea creatures can range from a swarm of jellyfish to some stingrays here, and there that can be an inconvenience to your planned vacation. Oddly enough, though, this flag was never purposely used to signify sharks in the water. 

Red Over Yellow Flags

Beach Flags

This half-and-half combination is used as a way to let everyone know that that specific area is being closely monitored by your friendly neighborhood lifeguard. Swimming, surfing, and other water activities can be done in this particular area, and you can rest assured that you're being watched while you're having fun, but in a lifesaving kind of way.

They can be individually placed as two pieces of equal rectangular cloth in shades of red and yellow with a little distance but not too far apart as it might confuse when there is a pre-existing red and yellow flag denomination. 

Black and White Quartered Flags

These checkered-looking flags are the USLA and the ILS’ way of saying they didn't forget other folks who also enjoy the water. This flag is used to indicate an area designated for waterborne activities like surfing, jet skiing, kayaking, and other activities that use watercraft. This only means that there is a place for everyone. 

Blackball Flag (Yellow Flag with a Black Circle)

Beach Flags

Well, that was a mouthful, but to compensate for its rather long name, it only means a simple thing, and that is that the area where the flag is flown is no watercraft area. It means that surfboards, kayaks, jet skis, and other watercraft are not allowed within its vicinity. Surprisingly, this flag also somewhat resembles the flag of Brazil, although it is of different colors. 

Orange Windsock

This odd,  brightly, and vibrantly colored cone-shaped piece of cloth is put up where the offshore wind is currently blowing. It shows visitors, travelers, and locals alike the direction and even the strength of the breeze blowing on the beach’s shores, thus allowing them to know that any light objects and inflatables will most likely be blown away if you put them toward the direction of the breeze. 

Red and White Quartered Flags

When you see this flag, it means you need to get out of the water. It is used to signal emergency evacuation due to dangers in the water like sharks and or the water is contaminated by some substance like maybe some harmful algal bloom or that the rescuers and lifeguards on duty need to search a specific area in the water because a child or person is missing.

This red checkered flag can be used interchangeably with the double Red Flags, which means the area is closed off to the public. 

Keeping Safe While Having Fun

It's always fun when you play around with your friends under the summer sun. However, your vacation might be more enjoyable and less of a hassle if you keep in mind some of these tips for keeping safe while having fun on the beach. 

Right off the bat, it is very important to always check your local weather report. There are times when we just want to be spontaneous and go to the beach, but it doesn't mean that we forgo any important preparations.

Some people have fallen into dangerous situations for not paying attention to weather reports like an impending cyclone or hurricane warning coming towards the vicinity of the beach, and they have put themselves in harm's way by ignoring weather reports of that day. 

If you're not a local, check with the designated lifeguards on the beach about the tides and currents in the particular beach you visited. There might be riptides and fast-flowing currents or even undercurrents that you need to watch out for. It pays to ask around about the current and tide situation wherever you are. 

1. Be cautious and aware of your surroundings

If you are not a local, you might want to scan the area first and observe others, especially the locals, before heading into the water. This will show you the areas and places that they tend to flock to and the places that they stay away from. 

2. Never ignore warning flags that are put up on the beachfront

They are meant to warn you and not just a colorful display. Nobody likes a know-it-all, but it doesn't hurt if you do know certain things like these warning flags and what they mean. It could one day save your life. 

3. Always have a buddy with you, and never swim alone

This goes not only for swimming, surfing, and other water-borne activities but for much everything else in life. Having someone with you will always give you that sense of security and safety that even the most lonesome loners out there desire. 

4. Always swim in designated swimming areas and don’t stray too far from the lifeguard's line of sight

In most cases of drowning, the victims sometimes are those who are rule breakers, intentionally or unintentionally. They stray from the designated areas for swimming and venture too far until it's too late for anyone to help them. You might not like being square, but sometimes it pays to stay in the right place and not put yourself and those around you in danger. 

5. Follow basic safety precautions when going to the beach

It also pays, no matter how spontaneous your trip to the beach is, to follow basic safety precautions like bringing necessities like sunscreen, beach umbrellas, water for rehydration (you can’t drink seawater after all), and bringing emergency medicine like your prescriptions and allergy medications. You can also bring some life jackets, other life-saving floating devices, and proper identification tags like IDs or name tags, especially if you're bringing along children who can be a bit of a handful when on the beach.

6. Extend a helping hand

If you see someone in dire need of help, you should extend a helping hand. You don’t have to wait for the authorities, but you can also alert the authorities immediately if they don’t notice the person in need immediately. If you were in those people’s shoes, you would want help to come as fast as it could. 

If there are no lifeguards or authorities around, take extreme precautions when swimming or doing water activities. You could also make sure that you know local helplines that you can call when an emergency does happen and have with you the information of the nearest hospitals that you can go to for help…

Conclusion

Warning flags may have been created and implemented by the ILS and USLA to help save lives, but the flags themselves were never meant to substitute for any lifeguards or first responders. 

Both the ILS and the USLA  stress that these flags as stand-alone warning tools may prove effective only to a certain degree, which is why it is still in the best interest of all those who go to beaches to swim, surf, or any other water activity, the flags should only be used only by trained and certified lifeguards.

Flags are only tools used to make it easier to save people’s lives, and they may or may not be useful depending on the situation and circumstances. 

James Davis

Written by James Davis

I'm a true California local, and I've spent my life riding the waves along our stunning coastline. Surfing has always been my greatest love, and in my writing, I try to capture its genuine essence. My words aim to transport you into the heart of the surf culture, where the ocean and surfers come together in perfect harmony.

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