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Flag Etiquette

Flag Etiquette has become somewhat controversial in recent years. Purists insist that tradition must be upheld.  But even John Rousmaniere concedes that, given the vast array of expensive electronics now found at the top of many masts, sticking to tradition may not always be prudent.  Hopefully, this will not cause too much controversy.

Back in the days before radio and other communications devices, flags were the primary means for communicating while aboard ship. As a result, strict protocol was adapted to ensure accurate communication and avoid misinterpretation of signalling intentions. Today, the tradition has much less significance but we still need to follow acceptable protocol, especially as it relates to display of national flags.

When one refers to "making colors," the phrase normally includes several flags, one of them the national ensign.  The basic rule is that colors are made at 0800 local time and struck at sunset. Flags may be displayed before or after the hours for colors when entering or leaving port.  Sailboats normally have three primary locations from which to display flags: the masthead, the starboard spreader and aft (the aftermost sail leech or the stern staff).

Several types of flags concern the yachtsman. Most important is the nation’s flag, often called the ensign. There are three choices of ensign.  One is the traditional stars & stripes, the second is the yacht ensign with a fouled anchor over a circle of 13 stars.  Discretion often lies with the owner, except that the 50-star flag must be flown outside US waters and by documented boats in all waters. Seldom seen aboard yachts today is the Union Jack, a national flag that derives from naval usage. The Union Jack is displayed only in the U.S. at a vessel's bow or jack staff, only at anchor or tied up, and only on Sundays or holidays.  Members of the US Power Squadron, the largest private boating association in the world, may fly the special USPS ensign. The ensign designates the nationality of the vessel not the skipper.

Traditional Stars & Stripes
Yacht Ensign 
 Union Jack 
  US Power Squadron Ensign
United States Coast Guard Auxiliary
U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary Patrol

Traditionally, the ensign may be flown from a stern staff or the leech of the after sail (normally about 2/3 up the leech). When a single masted sailing yacht is underway under power, or a combination of power and sail, older tradition called for the ensign to be removed from gaff or leech and reappear on the stern staff. Now, the ensign is normally flown from the stern staff to begin with. The flag usage aboard double-masted vessels is essentially the same as aboard single-masted sailing yachts, except that the ensign can be carried on the leech of the mizzen at all times.  An ensign flown upside down is a signal of distress and should be treated as a mayday call.

A yacht club burgee
Next most common aboard yachts is the burgee, most often a triangular flag that denotes membership in a yacht club or other local boating organization. The yacht club burgee is flown from the masthead on a short pole called a pig stick, but it may also be flown from a jack staff on the bow pulpit or the starboard rigging.  Although many protest the latter practice, it is acceptable given that this position holds greatest honor secondary only to the ensign. An organizational flag, a courtesy flag when in foreign waters, or a signal flag (e.g., quarantine) may appear at the spreader hoist. 

Ensigns and burgees should NOT be flown while racing. At anchor, under normal circumstances, the flag conformation is the same as underway.  

The White Seahorse, personal signal of Alex
and Daria Blackwell

Next is an owner's private signal, which is most often a swallowtail shape, although triangles and rectangles are not uncommon.  Related to the private signal is the organizational officer's flag, such as yacht club commodore, Coast Guard Auxiliary Flotilla Commander, and so on.  It is improper to hoist an officers' flag from one club with burgees from another or two burgees at once.  The private signal is most often flown at the masthead of a single-masted vessel or at the masthead of a double-masted vessel if a burgee is flown from the main mast, although more recent convention allows it to be flown at the forestay.

The private signal and burgee follow the sailor, not the boat.

Nautical officer flags

There are also numerous signal flags, such as Race Committee banners seen at regattas, International Code flags, and various “decorative” flags suggesting open house, personal interests, and questionable taste.

Note that on national holidays and days of special yachting significance you may fly the flags of the International Code on a conspicuous hoist.   A dressed yacht wears the flags she would normally hoist under the circumstances, as well as the 39 code flags. Since there are 26 square alphabet flags, three triangular repeater pennants and 10 truncated numeral pennants, alternating two letters with every number or repeater makes a pleasing arrangement. There is no absolute arrangement, but it is supposed to run in an unbroken arch from the waterline at the bow to the waterline at the stern, so both ends will have to be weighted to hold it down in the water.  Although technically not part of the dress ship procedure, other flags such as the owner's personal signal may be flown from the yards or equivalent positions. Storm signal flags shall be flown from the left yardarm facing the sea while any other foreign or state ensign shall be flown from the right yard arm facing the sea.  It is important NOT to include ensigns, racing or private flags in the dressing lines which are for code flags only.

As a matter of courtesy (although in some countries it is considered a necessity), it is proper to fly the flag of a foreign nation on your boat when your vessel enters foreign waters. The courtesy flag occupies a place in the hierarchy second only to the vessel's own national ensign. This is usually at the foreward starboard spreader on a sailboat or high on an antenna or outrigger on power vessels that have no mast. There are only a limited number of positions from which flags may be displayed, and consequently when a flag of another nation is flown, it usually must displace one of the flags commonly displayed in home waters. It is not hoisted until clearance has been completed and the yellow "Q" flag has been removed, and the vessel has been granted passage by the appropriate authorities. For more information, consult Chapman Piloting. The U.S. ensign, club burgee, officer flag, and private signal are flown as in home waters, unless of course you fly the burgee at the starboard spreader. Don't fly a foreign courtesy flag after you have returned to U.S. waters. Although this may show that you've "been there," it is not proper flag etiquette.

Whatever a flag's shape, its vertical dimension is its hoist, and its horizontal measurement is its fly.  The rule of thumb calls for the ensign to be one inch on the fly for each foot of boat length overall. The burgee, house flag and officer's flag should be half an inch on the fly for each foot above water of the tallest mast (this could obviously be too large for many instances). The courtesy flag used in foreign waters is normally half the size of the yacht’s own ensign. Flags intended for meaningful communication (code signals, etc.) should be as large as can be conveniently carried.

In summary,  on a larger sailing vessel, there are five or sometimes six places from which flags may be flown: a) the stern staff (national ensign under power or under sail); b) the leech of the aftermost sail (national ensign under sail); c) main or foremast peak  (yacht club burgee, or in the case of a single masted vessel the owner's private signal or officer's flag); d) mizzen peak (owner's private signal or flag officer's flag); e) forward starboard spreader (organizational flag, courtesy flag when in foreign waters); and f) the bow or jack staff (Union Jack at anchor on Sundays or holidays).


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