Q Flag Quandry

The book mentioned a Q flag. We knew this was supposed to be yellow, but the great Jimmy Cornell and his editorial staff neglected to include a picture.

q flag
Beginner’s mistake: Nowhere in the guidebook did it specify that the ­quarantine flag doesn’t actually have a Q on it.CW

To Q or to q? That was the burning question my husband, Josh, and I were bickering over as we sailed toward our first port of call. It was the honeymoon to end all honeymoons. No, seriously, if this were what all honeymoons were like, honeymoons wouldn’t be a thing anymore. There was no room service or candlelit dinners — heck, there wasn’t even dinner most nights, just night watches and seasickness. Lots and lots of seasickness.

Our wedding was a small family affair on an island in Maine, followed by a casual beach potluck back home on Maui with friends. We registered with West Marine and REI, and our gifts were bilge pumps and paper charts.

We found our boat in a small marina on Oahu. She was a Pacific Seacraft 25, and she looked small but mighty and very, very neglected. She wasn’t for sale, technically, but we made an offer and it was accepted. She was in worse shape than we expected, but she was ours and we were thrilled. We began by removing the shag carpeting along the walls and gutting most of the inside. We attempted to revive the 30-year-old Yanmar but gave up and yanked it out, never to be replaced. After living aboard for a year and doing some shakedown sails to Lanai and Molokai, we sailed to the Big Island of Hawaii, where we hauled out and painted the bottom. Then, we pointed the bow south and were off.

We'd been gifted a beautiful hardcover copy of Jimmy Cornell's World Cruising Routes, and on around Day 15, we broke it out and started to prepare our courtesy flag for our first port of call, Fanning Island.

Fanning is one of the many islands that make up the nation of Kiribati. The flag is incredibly intricate, with a rising sun over waves and a frigate bird. We had pre-cut an old sail into flag-size pieces, and since my sewing skills left much to be desired and my co-captain was busy taking sights with one of our wedding gifts, a plastic sextant, I broke out my trusty markers and began coloring in our first courtesy flag. It was hard work, and it was a good thing I had plenty of time, because I had to stop frequently due to seasickness and to help with hank-on sail changes as we crawled through the convergence zone.

Eventually, our little line on the enormous paper chart of the whole Pacific started to look more like an inchworm than a flea, and it was confirmed by our only other piece of navigational equipment on board — a small handheld GPS unit — that we were getting close to our first landfall. It was time to break out the trusty Cornell tome and make sure all our official ducks were in order for our first check-in. My marker-stained hands held the finished Kiribati courtesy flag and U.S. flag (thankfully pre-­purchased and ready to go), prepared to fly off our port quarters. But the book mentioned the need for a Q flag. We knew this was supposed to be yellow and signified that we were quarantined until we had been cleared into the ­country by officials, but the great Jimmy Cornell and his editorial staff neglected to include a picture. So, we argued, is the Q capital or lowercase?

Teachers by profession, we both leaned toward the more obvious capital, but who knew, maybe the lowercase was used? We really didn’t want to look like landlubbers sailing into our first port. How embarrassing! We finally decided to go with the safer option, a capital Q, but just to be safe, I gave my yellow marker a real workout and made two. The second one I left blank, figuring I could hurriedly add a lowercase q if needed.

After a mere 20 days at sea, we joyfully shouted the obligatory “Land ho!” and broke out our lukewarm bottle of bubbly. The lagoon of Fanning Island was clearly in sight, and we could make out the ­narrow opening. Our 1,100-mile journey was coming to an end, and we had visions of ice-cold drinks and laundry machines in our heads.

We began to make our way into the narrow opening of the atoll, one tack, followed by a second, then a third. So close we could taste it, see the placid water of the lagoon, picture our anchor dropping into the sugar-white sand and holding strong. Then we started sliding, sliding backward, and before we could say hard-a-lee, we were spit back out from whence we came by the 6-knot countercurrent. Day 20 at sea, and land ho was not to be ours until the turning of the tide the next morning. We licked our wounds, shed a few tears and tacked about until we found a lumpy but secure spot to drop the hook on the leeward side of the atoll.

In the meantime, we still needed to call customs and prepare to be checked in. We proudly hung our flags and did a quick practice of our VHF protocols. "Fanning Island, Fanning Island, this is S/V Tiny Bubbles."

“Tiny who?” an American voice answered back. Apparently the lone Norwegian Cruise Line employee manned the office and the only VHF on the island, and since the cruise line stopped in just once a month, he had lots of time to answer radios and meander down to the village and alert the proper “authorities.” But not today, and not for little sailboats that couldn’t even muster the strength to make it into the lagoon.

“Where are you? I can’t see you from the beach,” said Roland, the first outside voice (other than the automated NOAA radio ones) we had heard in almost three weeks.

“Well, we are, um, anchored outside until the next tide.” The ensuing explanation made him curious enough to jump in his Zodiac and pop out of the lagoon to meet (ogle?) us. We offered him some lukewarm champagne, which he politely declined, and then he admired our impressive flags.

“But what is that one?” he said, pointing at our starboard spreader. “Oh, our Q flag, but I have one with a lowercase q downstairs. I, um, thought it might be wrong,” I answered, eager to show that while we might not be right, we were prepared. A period of silence ensued at which point he explained that most sailors just forgo the Q altogether.

I must have looked puzzled, because he sighed deeply and said, “Look, there’s no Q on the flag; it’s just yellow, OK?”

Right. Thanks, Jimmy.

– – –

A few months after their ­wedding, Heidi and Josh Holloway set off on a three-year honeymoon sail through the South Pacific aboard their first boat, *Tiny Bubbles. Now they are cruising the coast of Maine, and planning more sailing adventures to embark on with their three young crewmates aboard Tiny ­Bubbles II.*