Basic Flag Etiquette

The flying of flags on a boat might seem, to some, to be a practice passed down from history, which has nothing to do with the modern concept of water sport. How wrong can they be? Yes – flag etiquette is indeed a very old tradition, but it is also a combination of law and good manners. It is important to know what flags to fly and where to fly them and being ill-informed could easily cause insult or even result in a fine for breaking the law. Only by flying the right flag in the correct position can you be sure that you are giving the right message. If you are new to sailing, are thinking of chartering, or buying your own boat for the first time, it is worth reading up on the basics of the mystery which is flag etiquette.

The Priority of Flag Locations

The most important position is at the stern (or poop) or as close to the stern as possible. After that it depends on the rig of the vessel. With schooners, sloops and ketches the starboard yardarm or spreader is the second most important position followed by the port spreader and main mast head.

The Ensign

This denotes the nationality of the vessel and occupies the most important position on the boat as close to the stern as possible. A UK registered vessel should wear the Red Ensign (the national maritime flag) unless it is entitled to wear a Special Ensign. The ensign is usually required to be flown when a vessel is entering and leaving harbour and sailing through foreign waters. It should be flown from sunrise to sunset, except when racing. Motor boats without masts should fly the ensign from an ensign staff at the stern. This may seem odd to those who think of the bow as the important part of a boat, but as it is steered from the stern it gives this position priority.

The Special Ensign

The special ensigns are usually blue, with or without badges, or red with a badge. They are privileged ensigns, known as "defaced ensigns", which can only be worn with permission granted by the monarch. Royal Navy vessels fly the white ensigns.

The Burgee

This is a small flag displaying the symbol of the skipper's yacht club or another sailing organisation. It is flown on the main mast head and only one burgee may be flown on a vessel.

The Courtesy Flag and the Q Flag

These are flown from the starboard spreaders (which are used for signalling) on a single-masted vessel, the foremasthead of a multi-masted vessel, or the jackstaff of a vessel without mast. The national courtesy flag is flown by a vessel in foreign waters as a token of respect by a visiting vessel and is often smaller than the vessel's own ensign. Although most countries use their national flag at sea, it is actually wrong for a foreign visitor to the UK to use the Union Jack as a courtesy flag. The correct one should always be the Red Ensign. Motor boats without masts should fly their courtesy flag from a staff on the bow. It is hoisted only after the necessary clearance to enter is granted. The Q flag, or Quarantine Flag, is flown when a vessel wants to enter a foreign country by sea and is requesting permission to enter port. This is referred to as "free practique". It is a plain yellow flag and it gives the message that the boat is in good condition, is not carrying any disease and is seeking clearance to enter. Any other flags flying in the same position should be moved to the port spreader until clearance is granted and the Q flag can then be removed.

The House Flag

A house flag indicates membership of a particular society, club or association. It should be flown on the port halyard, but if more than one is flown, they should be in order of seniority, which is a can of worms in itself!

Land Flags

These include the Union Jack, Welsh Dragon, and the Crosses of St George, St Andrew and St Patrick and should not be flown at sea by cruising yachtsmen, as they often have a different significance. The St George's Cross is an Admiral's flag and cannot be flown by anyone else; the St Andrew's Cross gives the message "my vessel has stopped and is no longer making way"; while St Patrick's Cross means "I require assistance".

Letter Flags (International Code of Signalling – ICS)

These have specific meanings and although the recreational cruising sailor will not normally need to fly any of them, except probably the "Q" flag, it is as well to do a little research in case you see them on other vessels. For example, the "A" flag informs boats that the vessel has a diver down and to keep clear at low speed, while the "N" and "C" flown together is a distress signal.

Size and Condition of Flags

The flags you fly should be of a sensible size so that they look right for the comparative size of your boat. They should not be ragged and should not hang in the water. A general estimation for the size of an Ensign is roughly an inch per foot of vessel, although a slightly larger flag may look better "dressed".

A 15" Burgee will look right on vessels up to 34ft, increasing up to 18" up to 42ft, 24" up to 50ft and 30" up to 60ft. The Courtesy Flag should definitely not be undersized, ragged or faded, as this defeats the object of "courtesy" and could be interpreted as an insult. Again a rough guide is the length of the vessel itself, so the flags should range from 12" to 30". House flags should be of similar size.

"Dressing Overall"

This is used as a sign of celebration for vessels in harbour. International Code Flags, arranged at random are flown from bow to masthead, from masthead to masthead (for multimasted boats) and then down to the stern. When a vessel is fully dressed the ensigns should be flown from the masthead. They may be dressed for special national, local or even personal events, occasions and anniversaries. A vessel underway would not fly these signal flags, but the ensign at the mast would show that she was "dressed".

To Conclude (or confuse)

The rules are – that there are no hard and fast rules. Customs observed in some foreign waters differ significantly from others. In some countries, flying the courtesy flag incorrectly or not at all may be regarded as impolite, whereas in others you may be breaking the local law. Officials occasionally do impound passports or deal out fines until the proper flag is hoisted. If you are in doubt, do seek guidance from other sailors and observe the behaviour of other boats.

Author – Dee White
(With thanks to Marc Kerry for proof reading)

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