On March 16, 2020, the San Francisco Yacht Club, in accordance with the Shelter-In-Place Mandate issued by the County of Marin, shut the doors to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. Since then, SFYC, like every yacht club in the country, has been closely monitoring the situation, preparing for an eventual reopen, and conceptualizing what ‘reopening’ will look like in this new reality.
Meanwhile, SFYC’s staff commodore Jim Robinson was working on an idea behind the scenes. The idea grew from a service he provides to the club as the chair of the Eight Bells Committee, which supports families of a member who has passed. Robinson and his wife, Martha, often welcome the bereaved family aboard their boat, Flyer, a 47-ft catamaran, to sprinkle ashes on the Bay. During these trips, the signal flags A over I fly from the mast of Flyer signaling, “I Will Not Abandon You.”
Robinson derived this concept from the 1926 story of the SS President Roosevelt, which heroically stood by the British steamship Antinoe during an Atlantic gale on January 20, 1926. According to the story, as recorded by the San Francisco Marine Exchange, the passenger ship President Roosevelt was bound for the English Channel when she answered a call to rescue the Antinoe in a torrential storm. It was “one of the worst storms ever to be recorded on the North Atlantic, as far as violence and duration were concerned.”
Upon arrival, the situation appeared hopeless. The President Roosevelt stood by the Antinoe for 85 hours and 40 minutes. They launched several rescue attempts, losing two of their own crew along the way. Eventually, every single life aboard the Antinoe was saved. On the Antinoe, “Their only hope and comfort during those long hours were the two little signal flags, ‘A over I’, whipping in the gale from the President Roosevelt’s yardarm.”
During SFYC’s closure, Robinson’s idea was to fly the A over I signal flags from the club’s flagpole until the clubhouse could welcome her crew back.
Before enacting his plan, Robinson wanted to confirm that these signal flags still had the same meaning they held in 1926. He sent queries to several maritime agencies, including the National Maritime Museum in England, the Netherlands National Maritime Museum, Mystic Seaport and the United States Coast Guard.
Alas, these enterprises were all shuttered because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
On April 16, the mystery was solved when Gina Bardi, who was sequestered and working from home, responded to Robinson’s query. Bardi, a reference librarian for the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park’s Maritime Research Center, was able to access some of her research material and determined that the signal flags’ meaning had changed since 1926. In fact, they have changed several times. It was determined that the correct signal flags to fly are C and G over 1, meaning “I will stand by to assist you.”
Equipped with this information, Robinson, aided by fellow members Admiral Jim Ellis, USN (Ret); David Jampolsky; and Rear Commodore Christopher Lacey, hoisted C and G over 1 at SFYC.
Says Robinson, “These flags are a message not only to the club’s members, but to the community at large. There is no reason that such a signal couldn’t be flown from the masts of yacht clubs across the nation — the globe for that matter. The book of maritime signals is an international publication and is the same in every language. This specific message binds us together. The simple act of offering assistance to someone in need is universal.”