In my merchant mariner deck officer days, I was the designated flag officer onboard—responsible for signals. I was taught that the right flag flown in the wrong position could not only give unintended messages, but also give offense where none was intended.
My more recent experience working at my local yacht club and being responsible for “colors”, the tradition of raising and lowering the national ensign and flag signals, brought back these memories. A quick look at nearby boats flying flags in “dress ship’ fashion over Labor Day weekend made me realize that not everyone was as tradition-bound, knowledgeable, or courteous on this topic.
Naval vessels perfected a way to communicate with flag signals long before radios were around, and many civilian boaters have adopted the pomp and circumstance of this colorful tradition. The United States has its own laws and flag etiquette, but flying flags onboard in combination has a well-established precedence and etiquette world-wide.
Much of the following description was derived from the Royal Yachting Association website—no strangers to pomp, circumstance, or etiquette.
Please note, this discussion does not cover flag signals used during yacht racing or signals ashore.
The most senior position for a flag on a vessel is reserved for the Ensign – this is worn as close to the stern of the vessel as possible and denotes her nationality. The burgee (the distinguishing flag, regardless of its shape, of a recreational boating organization), takes the next most senior position on the vessel, which is the main masthead. Only one burgee may be flown on the vessel. Members belonging to a yacht club or sailing organization may fly their club’s unique burgee both while underway and at anchor (however, not while racing). Sailing vessels may fly the burgee from the main masthead or from a lanyard under the starboard spreader on the mast. Power boats fly the burgee off a short staff on the bow.
The starboard spreaders are used for signaling. Most countries use their national flag at sea and it is therefore customary to see a vessel visiting a foreign country fly that country’s national flag on the starboard spreader as a courtesy. Please note when visiting UK waters the correct flag is always a Red Ensign, that country’s national maritime flag, not the Union Jack.
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; the solution is to always fly your burgee at the top of the mast (powerboats on the bow). Otherwise you will be contravening one or another element of flag etiquette. The outboard halyard has precedence, so a national courtesy flag would be flown on the outboard starboard halyard.
House flags are flown from the port spreaders. A house flag may indicate membership of an association 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 make sure they are flown in order of seniority. Merchant ships often fly the house flag of the company that owns the vessel.
Order of hoists is not something people usually pay attention to, but again there is etiquette here too. Ensigns should be the first up and the last down. Flag precedence generally determines hoist order.
Flags are typically flown only in daylight, from sunrise until sunset, and ensigns should never be flown in the dark unless especially lit or sanctioned.
Sizing your flags
The sizes and condition of flags are important. They should not be tattered and should never hang in the water, but should still be large enough to be seen. A rule of thumb for sizing your ensign is 1 inch for each foot of your vessel’s length. This Formula means that if your vessel is 20 feet long your ensign measures at least 20 inches in length. Courtesy flags are ½ inch long for each foot of boat length, making them half the size of your ensign.
Other Flags seen onboard
The Q flag is flown from your vessel when entering a foreign port and requesting health clearance from customs. Typically it is flown from the starboard spreader but it may also be flown from the masthead and in boats with no mast it may be flown on the bow flag staff. When cleared, the Q flag is lowered and the national courtesy flag is raised.
Jacks are additional national flags flown by warships (and certain other vessels) at the head of the ship. These are usually flown while not under way and when the ship is dressed on special occasions. Jacks in the Navy are run up when the first line is ashore when coming alongside. Civilian power boats fly burgees in place of national jacks both underway and in port.
A pennant, historically called a pennon, is a long narrow flag which conveys different meanings depending on its design and use.
As a sign of celebration, vessels in harbor may be ‘dressed overall’ by stringing International Code flags (arranged at random) from stemhead to masthead, from masthead to masthead (if the vessel has more than one mast) and then down to the taffrail. When a ship is properly dressed, ensigns (in addition to the one flown in the usual position at the stern) should fly at each masthead, unless displaced by another flag – e.g. that of a flag officer. Ships may be dressed for occasions, anniversaries and events, whether national, local or personal. A ship underway would not array herself with signal flags, but the masthead ensign(s) would still signify that she is dressed.
Yacht clubs and individuals have no power to police the wearing of ensigns or flags other than by spreading the word about flag etiquette and encouraging courtesy. If you have a question or comment on flag etiquette afloat, I’ll do my best to answer you.