Safety First

by | Sep 12, 2023 | Around Town, Education, Topsail Beach

Learn the history and meanings behind the colorful flags around Topsail Island.

Have you ever noticed the colorful flags flying above the beaches of Topsail Island? If you have, you might have wondered who is behind them or what they mean. If you have not, you should pay attention — they are important indicators of the safety of Topsail’s glittering oceans.

Although the local towns of Topsail Beach and Surf City implemented the flag program in recent years (North Topsail Beach does not fly the flags), the use of flags to foretell ocean conditions dates back decades, used in one form or another the world over.

Town of Surf City Flag Color

In 2002 the International Life Saving Federation (ILS) based in Leuven, Belgium, developed a set of guidelines for warning flags to help foster worldwide cohesion. Although colors, symbols and shapes may still vary from country to country due to expense, cultural norms about colors and patterns or language differences, Surf City’s flag system adheres to the standards of the system outlined by the ILS. The system was also adopted by the United States Lifesaving Association (USLA), a nonprofit association of beach lifeguards and open-water rescuers.

So what do the different flags mean? Although the ILS system outlines nine different flags, you might see four on the local beaches.

Red – A single red, rectangular flag indicates a strong hazard is present and it is recommended to stay out of the ocean, although it is only the second most critical alert.

Double Red – Double red flags (one stacked on top of the other) are the strongest warning, and the public should remain out of the water. Furthermore, rescue attempts may not be possible due to the hazardous conditions.

Yellow – When yellow, rectangular flags are flying, conditions — while not at the maximum level of danger — are not ideal for swimming, and everyone should use caution while in the ocean.

Beach Flag Color Safety

Purple – If you see purple rectangles, take heed. While the currents may not be an issue, it is an indication that dangerous marine life such as jellyfish or stingrays may be present.

To help make this important daily decision, local officials analyze a combination of factors including wind direction, wind speed and tidal ranges, all of which are important indicators of current conditions. If conditions change during the day, the flag color may also change.

Since both red (a standard color usually associated with danger) and yellow (used to indicate caution) are both employed in the flag system, you might be wondering why there are no green flags utilized by the ILS or the USLA. When working to create the set of universal standards, the ILS determined that when it comes to the perpetually changing and often-unpredictable ocean, it was better to focus on clear communication of the conditions present at any given moment, rather than suggesting it is ever 100 percent safe to swim in the ocean.

It is important to note, however, that Topsail Beach will occasionally fly a green flag when it is entirely safe to swim in the ocean, but officials there say it is rare for them to fly green flags.

Should you need a refresher on the different flag colors and their various meanings, metal signs are on display at accesses and walkways to the beach. And remember that an absence of flags does not mean that there is no hazard present. Swimmers should always proceed with caution. And, as always, in case of an emergency, one should always dial 911.

Flag Color Safety Topsail Beach NC

The next time you decide to spend time on the beautiful shores of Topsail Beach or Surf City, make sure to check out the flags flying that day. And remember, they are subject to change given any variances in conditions.

In case you do happen to encounter a rare day when you cannot go swimming, there are plenty of other exciting things to check out in the area. This fall in Topsail, there are so many beautiful days ahead — be sure to get out there and make the most of them and remember, there is no wrong way to spend time in this little slice of North Carolina paradise.

About the author

Kathryn Greene

Kathryn Greene

As a lifelong Southerner (with the exception of five years living in New York City), I spent many summers enjoying North Carolina’s beautiful beaches and coastline. Since receiving my bachelor’s degree from the Grady College of Journalism at the University of Georgia, I have been a freelance lifestyle and travel writer. My work has been published by national and regional print and online publications including TripSavvy, Culture Trip, Southern Bride and Edible Manhattan. When I am not writing articles, I am either at work on my upcoming thriller novel, studying wine to become a Level 1 sommelier, or my favorite activity of all — spending time at the beach with my feet in the sand and a drink in my hand.