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A Discussion on Flying Burgees

(Please feel free to join this discussion at the bottom of this article)

Having developed over many years etiquette in any form tends to be a very touchy subject. “This is the way it has always been done.” As opposed to: “Times have changed and so should the way things are done.”

For many yachties Burgee Etiquette is just such a touchy subject. So rather than trying to impose one opinion over another, it is hoped to start a fruitful discussion, and then try to attain a consensus of what is ‘acceptable’ given today’s circumstances. I suppose, with the last few words of the preceding sentence, I have attempted to set the tone of where I believe this discussion will wind up. However, I do believe and agree that there should be some uniformity on what is done.

Flying personal signals and burgees is something that has evolved over many centuries – along with the evolution of ships and pleasure craft. Along with the vessel’s national flag or ensign as well as any courtesy flag flown while visiting a foreign port these ore some of the flags a ship’s captain might and in most instances should fly while aboard his or her vessel. Secondary to any national flags, these are both signals that show a captain’s affiliation or loyalty. They are thus important and should indeed be prominently displayed. Hence the traditional positioning of the burgee or personal signal at or above the mast top(s) using what is known as a pig stick.

In recent times many people have ceased flying their club’s burgee or their own personal signal, as this tends to get tangled with the various instruments and antennae atop their mast. I find this to be a serious quandary. We are proud to be members of our yacht club, and we also wish to fly our personal signal. In fact, I think every vessel should where possible show their affiliation and loyalty whenever possible. One might even construe that it is an affront to the club to not fly its burgee.





Modern masts often have little room for a pig stick with a burgee.

In the old days, the top was clear and
meant to have things hoisted up to it.


  1. A pig stick is hauled up the mast using a spare halyard or a dedicated flag halyard if it is not long enough it will most assuredly get tangled with the mast top electronics – The VHF antenna extends a meter (3 feet) above the mast.

  2. A very long (at least 3 meters or 10 foot) long pig stick keeps the burgee free from the electronics.

    In both A & B it is difficult to haul the pig stick up or down in anything but light air.

  3. As an alternative to the pig stick, a vertical gaff with a flag halyard can be attached to the mast. The only difficulty arises when the burgee is raised or lowered, when it may tangle in the electronics.



Following are several extracts of expert opinions as found online. There are some interesting contradictions in these, but there is also room for consensus. Most do agree that there are alternatives to where the burgee may be flown. John Rousmaniere, in his comprehensive flag etiquette article published on (see excerpt below) illustrates two possible places besides the masthead. Below the starboard spreader on the main mast having become the most prevalent. Many people agree with his thesis. The RYA does go one step further, which solves another dilemma many vessels including our own face: where to fly a secondary burgee or burgees. Their assertion is simply from the port spreader.

Opinions found online:

New York Yacht Club

“Only one yacht club burgee should be flown at any one time. If you are in the home waters of one yacht club, you should fly that yacht club's burgee. If you are in "neutral" waters, you can fly either burgee. If you are in neutral waters, but on a cruise sponsored by a yacht club, however, you should fly that yacht club's burgee. I consulted the New York Yacht Club's highest authorities in researching this question.”

Bill Watson, Librarian

Eastern Yacht Club (Marblehead, Mass.)

“Proper etiquette for flying a club burgee is not to fly more than one at a time. While in port at a particular club, one should fly the appropriate burgee to the yacht club that one belongs to. If a dual membership to clubs in the same port exists a choice must be made to fly one or the other. The above is opinion based on questioning members of the Eastern Yacht Club, as well as, information on pages 581 through 590 of the 1999 Chapman's Piloting. Aside from flying flags, members of multiple clubs and organizations often display crossed burgees on the varnished nameplates on their vessels. I have seen as many as four different clubs represented on one yacht.”

Michael S. Smith, Dockmaster

San Diego Yacht Club

“When vessels owners belong to more than one yacht club, only one burgee is flown; usually the club's where the yacht is based. However there are exceptions: A. When a vessel is, for instance from SDYC NHYC and also belongs to Catalina Island Yacht club; this vessel would fly the Catalina burgee while in the vicinity of Catalina.  B. If the vessel belongs to SFYC and SBYC; based at SFYC but participating in a SBYC event {no matter where} it should display the SBYC burgee.  In summary, only one burgee is flown depending on the location and /or the event.”

John X. Tsirimokos, Protocol Advisor for the San Diego Yacht Club.

Seattle Yacht Club

“The short answer if you are a sailor the highest place of honor is the starboard halyard on spreader. You decide which is the senior club, in your mind. Other pennants would be flown under it in declining order of importance, e.g. when in Canada, you fly the Canadian courtesy flag on top, then the SYC burgee and then your officer’s or house burgee.”

“The Burgee is a small flag displaying the symbol of the skipper's yacht club or other sailing organization. It may be flown day and night. Most people opt to fly the burgee lower in the rig, hoisted to the end of the lowest starboard spreader on a thin flag halyard. While purists rail this practice, it is an accepted adaptation of another tradition, which is that the starboard rigging is a position of honor (when you visit a foreign port, that's where we fly the host country's flag). Besides being reasonable, flying the burgee in the starboard rigging is such a widespread custom that to try to end it would be close to impossible.

The Private Signal is a small, custom-designed and custom-made flag that carries symbols standing for the owner, so it can basically be anything. The signal may be flown day or night, but is not displayed when another sailor is in command. (The rule is: the private signal and burgee follow the sailor, not the boat.) On a multi-masted boat, the private signal is flown at the head of the aftermost mast. On a sloop, the private signal may be flown from the starboard rigging, either below the burgee or alone.”

Bob Schimmel found on

“Almost every Yacht Club has a unique Burgee (flag) that identifies a member's boat. A modern sloop rigged sailing vessel should fly their burgee from a lanyard under the starboard mast spreader, while an older style sailing vessel flies the burgee from the main masthead. Powerboats fly their burgee from a short staff on the bow.”

Alberta Offshore Sailing Association

“Most yacht clubs have a unique burgee (triangular flag) that identifies a member's boat. A modern sloop rigged sailing vessel should fly it's burgee from a lanyard under the starboard spreader. On an older style sailing vessel the burgee is flown from the main masthead. A Powerboat flies its burgee from a short staff on the bow.”

Abstracted from an article "Flags for Yachtsmen", Yachting Magazine, September 1981

“Single masted sailboats normally have three possible locations from which to display flags - the masthead, the starboard spreader and aft (the mainsail leech or the stern staff). Underway under sail alone, the traditional recipe has been that the burgee appears at the masthead and the ensign at the gaff or two-thirds the way up the leech of the main. An organizational flag, a courtesy flag when in foreign waters or a signal may appear at the spreader hoist.

The ensign has migrated from the mainsail leech to the stern staff, a move formally recognized in the early '70s by both the New York YC and the USYRU. Purists resisted the change, but it seems safe to say that a vast majority of Bermudian sloops now carry their ensigns at the stern under sail or power.

Another change that's taking place - albeit unrecognized by any authority - but now apparently standard, is the descent of the burgee from the masthead to the starboard spreader. Now that most mastheads have become electronics forests, it has become not only difficult but potentially expensive to plant a flag among all the delicate feelers.”

John Rousmaniere;

“Traditionally, the burgee is flown at the head (top) of the forward most mast on a small pole (called a pig stick) hoisted on a light halyard (flag halyard). Hoisting a pig stick is an art. When sailing on a beam reach, pull it up quickly on the leeward side, then pull down hard on the halyard to steady and straighten the stick. The halyard may be secured on the mast (at the risk of clanging against it), on a cleat on a shroud (which may foul jib sheets)—my preference is to make it fast to a toggle or turnbuckle at the bottom of a shroud.

We don't see masthead burgees much these days because flying them up there risks damaging some expensive equipment and destroying the flag with chafe. This is why many people opt to fly the burgee lower in the rig, hoisted to the end of the lowest starboard spreader on a flag halyard. While this practice is decried by purists, it is a reasonable adaptation of another tradition, which is that the starboard rigging is a position of honor (when we visit a foreign port, that's where we fly the host country's flag). Besides being reasonable, flying the burgee in the starboard rigging is so widespread a custom that to try to end it would be like attempting to hold back the tide. Opposing popular usage is rarely successful in any activity, and never in the field of communications, where relevance triumphs over tradition. In this case, the new tradition is more relevant than the old one, which was developed by sea captains and long-ago yachtsmen who never had to deal with VHF antennas.

There's a third possibility for the burgee that makes good sense. This is to fly it from a short flag staff (called a jack staff) on the center of the bow pulpit. There the flag is visible on both tacks (unlike the starboard rigging), and won't damage any equipment. A forward location for the burgee on a short staff is common in powerboats. Oddly, it's rarely seen on sailboats even though it's approved by the most stringent of all guides to flag etiquette, the Yacht Routine of the New York Yacht Club.”

The Royal Yachting Association

“Flag etiquette is a combination of law, good manners and tradition. Being ill-informed of your obligations could lead you to cause insult at home or abroad by giving a signal you do not intend to give, or could lead you to a fine for breaking the law.

It is now common practice to fly the burgee at the starboard spreaders, however, no other flag may be flown above the burgee on the same halyard. You also may not fly any other flag above a national courtesy flag on the same halyard. If you fly your burgee at the starboard spreaders and are sailing in the territorial waters of another country you have a dilemma, however you choose to solve this, unless you fly your burgee at the top of the mast you will be contravening one or another element of flag etiquette.

House flags are flown from the port spreaders. A house flag may indicate membership of an association (i.e. the RYA House Flag) or society or may be to indicate membership of another club, if the burgee of a more senior club is already being flown. More than one house flag may be flown on the port halyard, but with caution that they are flown in order of seniority.”



This ketch is flying a national courtesy flag below her main mast starboard spreader, three yacht club burgees from her port spreader, and a personal signal from the mizzen starboard spreader.


This yawl is flying a burgee from a pig stick atop her main mast and a personal signal from a pig stick atop her mizzen.

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