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Your 2024 Guide to Nautical Flag Etiquette

Ever wonder why there are so many boat flags ? How do the sailors know which flag to put first and when? Nautical flag etiquette is an essential part of sailing. The seven most common types of boat flags are Skin Diver flags , Storm Warning flags , Coast Guard boat flags , US Jack flags , Maritime flags and Pennants, Yacht Ensign & Officer flags , and most importantly the International Code Signal flags .

Code signal flags and are frequently used by boats to send messages to other boats. They are made with a sequence of twenty-six square flags that represent a letter of the nautical alphabet. Ten numbered flags, one answering pendant, and three repeaters also form part of the nautical flag sequence.

As with most yesteryear traditions, the popularity of boat flags as a common communication tool is slowly reducing with the introduction of technology. This does not mean that we should discard this sacred tradition.

The world of nautical flags is broad, and we cannot possibly cover them all in this article. Navies, yachts and fishing boats have variations in the meaning of some flags.

While the need for nautical flags might be dwindling in the boating world, they are still pleasing to the eye. Learning when to use nautical flags and how to use them is a skill every sailor and thalassophile should have. Not only is it essential for safety reasons, but boat flags can also a lot of fun. Take a gander at our fun maritime flags and pennants !

Word of the Day: A thalassophile is someone that loves the sea!

This article will teach you the hows and whens of nautical flag etiquette. We will also provide you with a glossary of terms because, let's face it, some boating terms are pretty confusing even for a seasoned sailor.

So put your best sailor's cap on and join us on this great sea signal voyage.

What is Nautical Flag Etiquette?

Glossary of flag terms, flag courtesies.

As silly as it might seem, boat flag etiquette is crucial. In a worst-case scenario, it could mean the difference between life and death. Generally speaking, the nautical flag etiquette is a combination of years of maritime tradition and laws that help boats communicate messages to each other.

Different countries have varying legal requirements that should be observed for boats that enter and leave their waters or ports. So it is helpful to be mindful of sailing the vessel’s legal obligation for various countries. No one likes to pay a fine for something as simple as forgetting or putting up the wrong flag signal.

As we have stated before, the world of boating is vast and sometimes confusing. The terminology used is pretty unique. The key to understanding nautical etiquette is to know what everyone is talking about first.

Even professional sailors don't always get it right. So to help you brush up on your boating terms, we've put together this glossary with definitions. We hope this will help you to understand the nautical phrases that we will use in this article.

ABAFT - refers to the rear end or stern of a ship

AFT – means towards stern of the boat (the back of the boat)

ASTERN – it means to go towards the back of the boat

BOW - refers to the front of the ship

BUTT DIAMETER - is the width of the bottom of the flagpole.

CANTON - the rectangular part of a flag, usually at the top hoist corner of a flag, which occupies about a quarter of the total surface area of the flag

CLOSE UP - it means that the flags are now fully hoisted

COLORS - refers to the raising and taking down of the flags at 8:00 am and at sunset, respectively

COURTESY FLAG - is the national flag of the country that a boat is entering. Ex: Boats entering the United States would display an American flag as a courtesy flag.

DIP - means to lower a flag by turning it forward from an upright position to 45° or horizontal as a sign of deference or respect

ENSIGN - means a flag showing nationality of the boat, i.e. the country where the boat is registered. Ex:

  • The Red Ensign can be flown by a merchant vessel
  • The White Ensign can be flown by war or naval ships
  • The Blue Ensign can be flown by public or government vessels
  • The Civil Ensign is flown by civilian vessels
  • The Yacht Ensign is flown by yachts and is typically the largest flag on board; the flag may be flown at stern staff
  • The USPS ensign is flown by the United States Power Squadrons and is flown to signal that the boat is commanded by an active member of the USPS.

FLAG STAFF AT THE STERN - a pole at the stern/ back of the ship where the ship's country of registry flags is flown

FLY - refers to the length of the flag, measured from the heading to the fly end

GAFF - is a rig that extends from the flagpole that allows for more flags to be hoisted, which usually rises at an angle and represents the mast of a ship

HALYARD - rope or stainless steel cable used to hoist and lower flags

HOIST - the raising of flags

HOIST END - the edge of the flag that is closest to the flagpole

HOUSE FLAG - refers to the emblem that shows the company or commercial house that a merchant ship belongs to and also refers to a yacht owner's personal flag

INTERCO - stands for the International Code of Signals used in the maritime system

JACK - mean the additional national flags flown by warships (and certain other vessels) at the head of the shi

MASTHEAD - is the tallest part of a ship's mast or the lower section of a mast

NAUTICAL –refers to everything associated with maritime travel

NAUTICAL FLAGPOLE --refers to a flagpole with a yardarm and or gaff

PENNANT - is a triangular-shaped flag

PRATIQUE - refers to the license or permission to use a port from the host country

STARBOARD - is the right-hand side of the boat when you are facing the bow.

STARBOARD SPREADER - is the most forward part on the mast (if there is more than one) where the courtesy and q flags are flown

STEM – refers to the most forward part of the bow

STERN – refers to the back of the boat

STERN LINE – is the docking line that comes from the stern

TACK LINE - is the length of the halyard; it's used to separate the group of flags

UNDERWAY – means a vessel in motion

YARDARM - refers to the horizontally mounted and tapered pole attached to a flagpole to create a "t" or a cross

Now that we are familiar with some common terminology used in nautical language, let's move on to the order in which the flags must be arranged in terms of nautical flag etiquette rules.

This order is universal across the globe. We must follow the order to avoid confusing other ships. The flag with the highest honor should be flown at the highest point.

The order is as follows:

  • Gaff (reserved for the national ensign/ country flag)
  • Flagstaff at the stern
  • Starboard yardarm (Halyard)
  • Truck of mast (masthead)
  • Port yardarm (Halyard)

First, we need to establish the system that governs these nautical flag rules. INTERCO is the International Code of Signals. The system is used worldwide to communicate nautical messages related to navigation, safety, and maritime.

Signal flags like the ones we are discussing in this article form part of INTERCO's signals. The other signals include radiotelegraphs or radiotelephones, ALDIS lamps, hand signals and some sound signals to name a few.

Knowing and understanding the basics of the INTERCO signaling system is extremely important for anyone interested in sailing. Whether privately or otherwise.

The National Ensign/Flag

Let's talk about nautical etiquette rules that apply for the most critical flag signal, the national ensign.

The U.S. national ensign is the preferred flag for all U.S. vessels. This ensign is also known as the “50-star of “Old Glory.” This is also the preferred ensign for yachts, especially when sailing in international or foreign waters.

Great honor is given to the national flag of the country in which the ship is registered. On the order of positioning for the flags, the national ensign is given that most senior position; the gaff. If your boat does not have a gaff, then you should fly the ensign from the flagstaff at your boat's stern.

The second rule is that you can fly no other flag above the national ensign on the same halyard. Additionally, the Jack and the National Ensign should not be hoisted together. The Jack is only hoisted when the ship is at anchor or made fast to the shore or to buoy, never when the ship is underway, when the last line is cast off, and when the anchor is aweigh. We do not recommend hoisting the Jack for recreational purposes.

The scenarios where a national ensign should be flown include:

  • When dressing the ship
  • When occupying foreign waters during the daylight hours
  • When moving along a foreign port or a combat ship (man of war)

The Courtesy Flag

Flying the courtesy flag is a centuries-old tradition that is still relevant in these modern times. The act of flying a foreign nation's flag as your ship passes through or enters its waters is not only a sign of respect, it is an essential etiquette to observe. While there is no legal requirement to fly a courtesy flag, it is a polite custom to which you should adhere.

The only legal requirement for vessels in foreign water is to fly the red ensign flag.

Where does the courtesy flag fly? As per tradition, the courtesy flag is flown at the starboard spreader. If your boat has more than one mast, you must fly the courtesy flag from the forward most mast. The courtesy flag is tied and hoisted after the authorities have granted your vessel clearance to enter their space.

Key rules for courtesy flag etiquette include:

  • Never fly the national ensign and the courtesy flag on the same mast because that will be interpreted as a sign of you are challenging the foreign nation's authority
  • Never fly a courtesy flag that is in terrible condition; this is a sign of disrespect
  • If you have guests on your boat that are of another nationality, then you should also fly their national flags as a courtesy, but never on the same mast
  • When you return to your home country, always take down the foreign country's flag

Additional courtesy flag etiquette includes:

  • If your boat is mastless, then the courtesy flag can replace any flag which is normally flown at the bow of the boat
  • If your boat has a mast with a spreader, the courtesy flag is flown at the starboard spreader

However, you must keep in mind that these rules or traditions vary from one country to another, so always make sure that you look for the correct information.

Nautical Flag Etiquette Entering a Foreign Port

The Q flag is the first flag that you must raise when entering foreign waters or a foreign port. It signals to the port authorities that your ship is healthy and you require free practice.

We always fly the Q flag in international waters before customs clears you for entry. After clearing, you then replace the Q flag with the courtesy flag. You often fly the Q flag on the starboard yardarm.

Dressing the Ship

Certain occasions require that your vessel be decked up with all the flags that it can hold. We call this dressing the ship.

It is reserved for special occasions such as public holidays or when the ship is beginning its maiden or last voyage. Dressing the ship is only done when the ship is not underway.

The ship's full splendor will be on display, so this is the time to have fun. The dressing begins at 08.00 am at anchor unless it is the ship's maiden or last voyage, then the dressing can occur at sea.

The national ensign is first. All the other flags will follow, lining up from the waterline forward to the waterline after using the stem or bowsprit end and the masthead.

We have barely scratched the surface of all the rules and customs you need to follow to observe proper nautical flag etiquette. However, we hope that we have simplified some of the most important customs in maritime tradition. Hopefully, the next time you are on a boat, you will understand the meaning of the signals and flags better. Happy sailing!

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Ensign / national flag

The most senior position for a flag on a vessel is reserved for the national flag (or Ensign, in many cases); and this should be flown as close to the stern of the vessel as possible. The national flag shows the country of registry of the vessel and indicates its nationality. It is often the country or territory’s maritime flag – rather than national flag – that is flown.

National flags are required to be flown, typically from 8:00am until sunset, and should not be flown at night. It is also important to take the flag down prior to leaving the yacht if the vessel will be unmanned at the time of sunset.

Flying incorrect, damaged, wrongly sized, or otherwise-invalid national flags is a breach of law and is strictly enforced around the world. The national flag should be the largest flag flown on any vessel.

Courtesy flag

A courtesy flag should be flown – typically at the starboard spreader – to show respect to the country whose waters you are operating in. It is smaller, but flys higher than the national flag. Whilst technically not a ‘legal requirement’ everywhere you could possibly go, there’s never a time when not flying a courtesy flag would provide any kind of benefit. Many authorities will fine you for having a tatty courtesy flag, and some will even refuse entry if one isn’t flown.

Courtesy flags should traditionally be hoisted and lowered along with the national flag, though this practice is typically adhered to less strictly in modern times; some captains may still expect their crew to follow vessel flag guidelines and etiquette more traditionally, as a mark of respect and pride to the vessel, and the greater industry as a whole.

The customs observed in various foreign waters differ from one another. Try to learn the correct procedure for the country you are entering. For example, in some countries it is customary to fly the courtesy flag only after the quarantine flag (the yellow 'Q' flag) and the vessel has been granted pratique by the appropriate authorities.

The Q flag – a solid yellow flag – is flown by a vessel that declares itself free of quarantinable disease, and requests boarding and inspection by Port State Control to allow the grant of "free pratique".

Opinion seems to be split on whether the Q flag should be flown above the courtesy flag on the starboard spreader, or alone and to be replaced with the courtesy flag once clearance is complete. If you’re not sure what protocol you should follow, it’s worth speaking with other local yachts and captains, to see what usually happens in the area. As there’s no real official governance on the displaying of Q and courtesy flags, local know-how is usually the way.

Yacht burgees and private flags

Burgees are distinguishing flags, regardless of shape (although triangular, similar to a pennant, is commonplace), of a recreational boating organisation like a yacht club or other kind of club membership. Burgees should be flown on their own halyard or below the courtesy flag on its halyard.

Likewise, private flags that are hoisted when the owner is on board or in close proximity, follow the same rules as burgees.

Red ensign

Superyacht flag sizes and recommended dimensions

For national flags, the standard rule of thumb that many use when determining how big a vessel’s flag should be, is one inch on the fly per foot of vessel length. Typically, you’ll be ordering flags at set sizes, so it’s best to order the first size that exceeds the dimensions of what you need.

Superyachts, being rather large, typically use some of the larger flags produced but may fall under the ‘one inch per foot’ guideline, due to the sheer size. Whatever size is chosen, it’s essential it has 360-degrees of fly space around it – otherwise your flag will be in tatters before you know it.

Burgees and courtesy flags are often seen on superyachts at around a quarter to a half of the size of the national flag or ensign. There is no fixed rule on this – much like national flags – but they must be smaller, and they are never flown on the stern.

For assistance with yacht and superyacht registration and classification, including advice and information on flag states, visit yacht registration and classification companies on Yachting Pages .

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Marine Insight

Understanding Nautical Flag Etiquettes

From the time that ships started sailing, flags were in place as a mode of communication or expression of intent. Traditionally speaking, flags have always formed an integral part of shipping but the necessity and extent of usage have obviously reduced over time owing to advancements in technology.

However, much like other so-called ‘arts’ pertaining to the shipping industry, flag etiquette have stood the test of time and if not extensively, flags are still displayed when absolutely important (e.g, entering a port). The order of importance, points and honour of the flags have long been established and are a tradition albeit with new designs and meaning in some cases.  


Flag related terms are of the old school and may cause some difficulty for candidates appearing for competitive examination! While the INTERCO meaning of single letter flags is easily grasped, the terminology is something that requires basic understanding.

  • Canton: This refers to any quadrant of a flag but mostly, the upper left quarter (one that is hoisted)
  • Hoist: The edge of the flag nearest to the flagpole
  • Fly: The edge farthest away from the flagpole
  • Courtesy Flag: The national flag or the civil ensign of the country you are visiting
  • Dimension: Varies, but usually the fly is twice as long as the hoist
  • National Ensign: The flag of the country your ship is registered to
  • House Flag: Usually, the company flag
  • Tack Line: Length of halyard about 2 metres used to separate group of flags
  • Halyard: Ropes used for hoisting flags
  • Pigeon Hole: Flag locker hole
  • Close Up: Flags fully hoisted
  • Dip: Not to be confused with the dip of a sextant! Dip means that an upright flag is lowered to 45 degrees or horizontal. This is done as a sign of respect

Worn and Flown

There is some confusion with regard to this (much like underway and making way!)- vessels wear flags; people fly flags on their vessels. Each flag has a specific meaning along with the appropriate location for it to be worn and the time that it can be flown. Next up will be the order of the points of honour signifying the order of preference, i.e., the highest in the points of honour will fly the most important flag (which is basically your own ensign)

How to Read Flags  

  • Mast – Top to Bottom
  • Triatic Stay – Forward to Aft (stay connecting mastheads is termed Triatic Stay)
  • Starboard Yardarm – Outer to inner
  • Port Yardarm – Outer to inner

Order (Points Of Honour)

In order of preference:

  • Flagstaff at the stern
  • Starboard Yardarm
  • Port Yardarm

Fly the flag at the highest point of honour to which that particular flag is entitled. The highest place is always given to your own national ensign. All other flags must be placed below.

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The National Ensign

The gaff holds the highest importance. Second to that is the stern flagstaff (more common for the ensign in modern merchant vessels). So there might be a confusion with regard to ‘height’ being a factor seeing as the stern staff is much lower; although another flag might appear higher, no flag is ever flown above the national ensign on the same halyard. Gaff is used for holding the ensign flag when the ship is underway. Ensign on the gaff and Jack on the jack staff do not go together

Jack is to be hoisted only when the ship is at anchor or made fast to the shore or to a buoy. The jack is lowered immediately when the ship is underway, when the anchor is aweigh or the last line is cast off

Red Ensign Worn by a merchant vessel

White Ensign Worn by warships/naval establishments

Blue Ensign Worn by ships belonging to public offices

Instances when Ensign is flown

  • When the ship is dressed
  • In foreign waters during daylight hours
  • When going alongside foreign port, man of war, day or night

The Courtesy Flag

It is a custom among merchant ships when entering or leaving a foreign port and during their stay in the port to fly the colours of that country. as a mark of respect; the exact details of flying such a flag with regard to timings can be obtained from the port control. The dimensions of the national ensign must always be larger than the courtesy. Also, never fly one country’s flag beneath another’s on the same mast. This is a sign of conquest and projects disrespect, ignorance and bad seamanship. Also, do not hoist the courtesy flag upside down. As mentioned, follow the port country’s rules with respect to the courtesy; some countries might have a rule wherein to fly the courtesy only after the Q (quarantine) flag has been secured. The courtesy flag comes second in order of preference after the national ensign.

As per INTERCO, the Q flag denotes “My vessel is healthy. I require free pratique”. It is a flag that is hoisted inevitably by all vessels prior to entering the port to denote that the vessel is healthy and disease free and requests clearance. Preferably, fly it on the starboard yardarm and take it down after the vessel has been cleared by the health authorities of that country.

The national ensign or the courtesy should not be flown from sunset to 0800 hours unless specifically mentioned to do so (Mexico requires their flag to be flown after sunset as well). At 0800 when raising the flags, the national ensign should be raised first followed by the courtesy and the rest. The reverse order is applicable during lowering.

Blue Peter  

Commonly flown by merchant ships to denote that the ship is about to sail and that all crew who may be out of the ship to return back to the ship immediately.

Half Mast  

The concept of half mast is to denote respect. Flags are flown at half mast when saluting another vessel (naval vessels of war). The Naval ship reciprocates by lowering and raising their national ensign after which the own ensign is returned to full hoist.

Also, the Ensign is worn at half mast to indicate death. Usually on the day of the funeral only and from the time the body of the deceased leaves the ship or place where it has been lying until the time when it is buried

Dressing The Ship  

On special occasions such as Republic Day, Independence Day and the likes, ships or other vessels may dress their ships in full regal splendour. This includes displaying a set of 40 flags representing numbers, letters and other signals. A vessel is dressed only while not underway. This might also be done for a special time such as her maiden or final voyage.  

INTERCO refers to the International Code of Signals.  It is an international system of signals and codes for use by vessels to communicate important messages regarding safety of navigation and related matters. Signals can be sent by flag hoist, ALDIS lamp, semaphore, radiotelegraphy, and radiotelephony. To make sense of the above, it is important to know the INTERCO (at least the single letters) for the purpose of the oral examinations as well as a matter of interest as a sailor.  It contains 14 chapters, complement tables for the general section, complement tables for the medical section appendices. This code provides a means of communication seeing as there might be language difficulties among stations which affect the safety of the ship and the personnel. INTERCO contains single letter signals (A to Z) which are urgent, important and of very common use; two letter signals (AA to ZZ) for vocabulary; three letter signals (MAA-MVU) containing medical signals.

The single letter signals are used regularly and meanings of all must be known. They’re used in COLREGS (flags for vessels engaged in fishing have a separate Annex attached to it namely flags Z, G, P, T) as well as for emergency situations where communication might be urgent such as man overboard (O), when dragging anchor or when another vessel is dragging anchor onto the own ship etc. Two letter signals also have immense importance as with the NC flag (Distress flag as per Annex 4 of COLREGS) and YG (for TSS).

Code and Answering Pendant

3 red and 2 white stripe vertically placed at hoist and at fly. Various uses of answering pendants by hoisting are:

  • At Dip- Signal is seen
  • Close Up: Signal is understood
  • Haul down/return to dip after close up- signal is received


1st Substitute- yellow triangle with blue border

2nd Substitute- Blue and white. Blue at hoist, white at fly

3rd Substitute- White with black horizontal stripe

Examination Service

In certain circumstances, it is necessary to take special measures to examine ship’s desire to enter a port and to control the entry. Generally, it is enforced when the security of the port is threatened or expected to be threatened. Examination vessel flag is a blue rectangular flag with two rectangles in the centre. Vessels authorised to display the examination flags are examination vessel, traffic control vessel and pilot launch when assigned to examination duty

Flags when entering a port

This has become a common question across Indian MMDs for the Second Mate oral examinations and therefore included in the article.

  • Flag G or H (depending on whether pilot is yet to board or already boarded)- Port Yardarm
  • The National Ensign (stern post)
  • The Courtesy Flag (Starboard Yardarm)
  • Flag B (if carrying IMDG cargo)- Port Yardarm
  • House Flag- Port Yardarm

These are age old techniques and are here to stay. There is far too much information with respect to flags which cannot be covered under one article and it is advised to go through the INTERCO publication for a better understanding.

With the reasons for hoisting a certain flag at a certain point on the ship made easier and comprehensible, the next time a flag is hoisted should seem more interesting.

Disclaimer:  The authors’ views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of Marine Insight.  Data and charts, if used, in the article have been sourced from available information and have not been authenticated by any statutory authority. The author and Marine Insight do not claim it to be accurate nor accept any responsibility for the same. The views constitute only the opinions and do not constitute any guidelines or recommendation on any course of action to be followed by the reader.

The article or images cannot be reproduced, copied, shared or used in any form without the permission of the author and Marine Insight. 

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sailing yacht flag etiquette

About Author

Shilavadra Bhattacharjee is a shipbroker with a background in commercial operations after having sailed onboard as a Third Officer. His interests primarily lie in the energy sector, books and travelling.

Thanks for all the detailed information about flags!

You mentioned there is a difference between “underway” and “making way.” Would you mind explaining what it is?

Thank you again for the article. I’ve bookmarked it for future reference.

cool i loved it

Great article. But why can’t you fly the ensign and the Jack at the same time? So when the Jack is hoisted, you have to lower the ensign? Thanks for answear.

Good article, I would like permission to use extracts from your article in our sailing club newsletter. I feel that the flag protocols and traditions are not fully understood or even followed.

@Deon: You are allowed to do so after giving proper credit to the author and

Underway is when a vessel is free floating in the water (I.e. not at anchor or moored at a pier). Making way is when a vessel is moving through the water under power or sail and being navigated via it’s rudder.

Thank you for the comment Captain GB

How do you make full dressing of merchant tanker?

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Boat Flag Etiquette: A Comprehensive Guide for Boaters

  • Blog | Marine Depot Direct

Boat Flag Etiquette: A Comprehensive Guide for Boaters

Boaters and marine enthusiasts share a deep respect for maritime traditions and customs. Flag etiquette is an essential aspect of boating culture, symbolizing national pride, respect for other nations, and displaying proper boating etiquette. In this comprehensive guide, we will explore the significance of flag etiquette and provide boaters with valuable insights to ensure they navigate the open waters with honor and respect.

Flying the National Flag

Flying the national flag on your boat is a powerful expression of patriotism and respect for your country. Here are some key considerations:

Placement: The national flag is traditionally flown from the stern (back) of the boat. This location ensures maximum visibility and recognition. There is no specific side that is preferred (starboard or portside), so that is up to the individual boater and available space on their boat.

Secure Attachment: It is crucial to securely attach the flag to prevent it from falling or getting entangled in the wind. Use high-quality flag clips , a stainless steel flag pole , and a secure flag pole mount designed for marine use. Using the proper hardware will ensure your flag withstands the elements and remains securely attached to your boat.

Hoisting: When raising the national flag, make sure it is hoisted high enough to be seen clearly by other boaters and vessels. A fully unfurled flag enhances its visibility and grandeur.

By flying the national flag with pride and adherence to these guidelines, you'll exemplify your love for your country and contribute to the age old boating traditions.

sailing yacht flag etiquette

Sailing yacht etiquette & marina rules: an in-depth guide

Explore the unwritten charter of sailing. Read this guide and get accustomed to marina rules, yacht etiquette, and unique traditions on the water.

Stepping aboard a sailboat, whether as a new boat owner or a first-time guest, opens the door to thrilling liberty and unparalleled experiences. More than just setting foot on a vessel, it's an introduction to a broader community that shares a unique code of respect and camaraderie. This ethos is embraced by everyone who spends time at sea, from those dipping their toes into sailing to seasoned sailors living on their yachts .  

In this guide, we'll drift through the essentials of marina rules and sailboat etiquette. From understanding the intricacies of docking and communal responsibilities at a marina to mastering the nuanced norms onboard a yacht, we've got it all covered.  

Informal sailing yacht rules 

Yes, boat rules set by maritime regulations abound, dictating everything from handling to safety measures. However, there is a tacit understanding, an unwritten charter, if you will, that presides over life aboard. It establishes the expectations for every individual setting foot on the deck and forms the cornerstone of the singular culture that is yachting.  

Sailboat safety rules  

Both written rules and the unwritten charter of yachting converge on one primary tenet: boating safety . Essential gear such as life jackets, flares, fire extinguishers, and first-aid kits must always be readily available. Additionally, sailboats should be equipped with safety harnesses for secure movement during rough seas, an emergency tiller in case of steering failure, and a man overboard recovery system, critical for immediate response to such incidents.   

Safety equipment on a sailing yacht

Boat rules for passengers during sailing trips  

First-time guests on sailing trips should be briefed on the basics and personal conduct - such as understanding the critical role of deck gear, sails, and rig equipment. Everyone should be cautious against handling winches, cleats, or line clutches, and avoid standing under the boom to prevent sailing accidents.

Other practical considerations are equally important, such as removing shoes to protect the deck from scuff marks, not entering the cockpit or touching navigation instruments without permission, and being mindful of personal space in shared quarters. Active adherence to yacht crew etiquette and duties should be encouraged to instill respect for the sea and the vessel and promote responsible enjoyment, ensuring festivities do not hamper navigation safety or disturb the peaceful marine environment.  

Adhering to the smoking policy  

Clear yacht rules regarding the smoking policy are indispensable. Typically, it's best to discourage it due to the inherent risk of fire and the impact on the comfort of non-smoking guests. However, if it’s allowed, specific smoking areas should be designated and cigarette butts should be disposed of responsibly - never overboard.  

Understanding marina rules 

Apart from being a safe haven for boats, a marina serves as a diverse community hub - a melting pot where seafarers from all walks of life come together. Everyone finds a niche in this unique community, from those who have chosen the tranquility of waterborne homes as permanent liveaboards to weekend enthusiasts savoring their brief maritime escapades. The rules and etiquette here exist to keep things orderly and maintain a harmonious environment, ensuring that the marina remains a peaceful refuge for all.

An overview of a marina  

A marina has a distinctive layout and includes specific features that distinguish it from a standard harbor or port. Here are some of the primary elements:

Breakwater: This is a barrier built offshore to protect the marina and boats from waves and wind. It reduces the intensity of the wave action within its shelter, thus providing calm waters for the docked boats.  

Berths : Designated spaces where boats are moored, often facilitated with mooring lines or docking aids.  

Fueling docks : Areas for boats to refuel.  

Boat ramps : These are the structures used to launch boats into the water.  

Washrooms and showers : Basic amenities for boaters and liveaboards.  

Electricity and water hookups : Essential services for boat maintenance and comfort, usually located at each berth.  

Laundry facilities : Often provided for the convenience of long-term guests.  

Waste disposal stations : Designated areas for waste management, usually including facilities for recycling and disposal of marine-specific waste like oil or bilge water.  

Restaurants and shops : Many marinas feature eateries and retail outlets catering to boating-related needs.  

Marina etiquette: the unspoken code of conduct for new boat owners  

Boat dock etiquette  .

At the heart of marina etiquette is the practice of docking and leaving. This process begins with clear and compliant communication with marina staff , who can assist in guiding your boat to its assigned berth. Manage your docking lines efficiently and pay heed to the safety and space of surrounding vessels. The objective is to disembark with as minimal disruption as possible.   

People talking in front of sailing yachts

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Flag Etiquette on a sailing boat today

sailing yacht flag etiquette

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sailing yacht flag etiquette


Boat Sailor

Sailing flags 101: navigating maritime communication with confidence.

Sailing Flags 101

Ahoy, fellow sailors and sea enthusiasts! If you’ve ever set sail on the open waters, you’re likely familiar with the vibrant array of flags fluttering aboard vessels. These seemingly humble pieces of fabric hold significant importance in maritime communication, allowing sailors to convey messages, assert their intentions, and navigate safely. Join me on this journey as we delve into the world of sailing flags, decoding their meanings, understanding their etiquette, and unlocking the secrets they hold.

Introduction to Sailing Flags

Sailing flags, often referred to as nautical flags, play a pivotal role in the language of the sea. These distinct flags serve as visual signals, enabling sailors to communicate with one another across the vast expanses of water. Whether you’re a seasoned mariner or a novice adventurer, understanding the art of flag communication is essential for a smooth and safe voyage.

Understanding Different Types of Sailing Flags

The ocean is a realm governed by its own set of rules, and sailing flags provide the key to deciphering these rules. From the International Code of Signals flags that convey messages in an internationally recognized manner, to the specialized flags used in competitive racing, each type of flag holds a unique significance that guides sailors through a myriad of situations.

Decoding Sailing Flag Colors and Symbols

Colors and symbols within sailing flags are not mere aesthetics; they carry vital meanings that help sailors convey messages effectively. From the bold red of a “C” flag representing “Affirmative” to the stark white and blue of the “H” flag indicating “I have a pilot on board,” these visual cues serve as a silent language shared by sailors worldwide.

Choosing the Right Sailing Flags for Your Vessel

sailing yacht flag etiquette

Proper Display and Etiquette of Sailing Flags

As with any language, flag communication has its own set of protocols. The position and arrangement of flags on your vessel communicate specific messages to fellow sailors and maritime authorities. Mastering flag etiquette not only enhances communication but also demonstrates your respect for time-honored seafaring traditions.

Enhancing Safety with Sailing Flags

Safety at sea is paramount, and sailing flags play a crucial role in avoiding collisions and navigating tricky waters. By hoisting the right flags, you signal your intentions and help prevent misunderstandings among vessels. Clear communication through flags can be a lifesaver in situations where verbal communication isn’t feasible.

Sailing Flags in Competitive Sailing

In the world of competitive sailing, flags take on an even more strategic role. Racing flags convey information about starts, penalties, and course changes, giving sailors a competitive edge when interpreted correctly. As a savvy sailor, understanding these racing flags can be the difference between victory and defeat.

Signaling Distress and Emergency Situations

Though we set sail with optimism, it’s vital to be prepared for unforeseen emergencies. Sailing flags, particularly distress signals, are designed to attract attention and summon assistance when needed most. Familiarizing yourself with distress flag protocols can ensure a timely response in critical situations.

DIY Guide: Making Your Own Sailing Flags

For those seeking a personal touch, crafting your own sailing flags can be a rewarding endeavor. With a few basic materials and a touch of creativity, you can design flags that reflect your vessel’s character and your maritime spirit. Handcrafted flags also make for cherished mementos of your seafaring adventures.

Maintenance and Care of Sailing Flags

Flags endure the brunt of wind, salt, and sun. To ensure they remain vibrant and effective, proper maintenance is essential. Storing flags correctly and periodic cleaning can extend their lifespan and maintain their legibility, ensuring you’re always ready to communicate with confidence.

Navigating International Waters with Sailing Flags

When traversing international waters, the language of sailing flags becomes a universal means of communication. Adhering to internationally recognized flag standards minimizes misunderstandings among vessels of different nationalities. A clear understanding of these standards fosters a sense of camaraderie among sailors worldwide.

Sailing Flags as Collectibles and Souvenirs

Beyond their practical applications, sailing flags can hold sentimental value. Collecting historical or unique flags can be a rewarding hobby, connecting you to maritime history and preserving the legacy of seafaring adventures. Each flag tells a story, and as a collector, you become a guardian of these maritime tales.

Flag Communication Beyond Sailing

The symbolism of flags extends beyond maritime use. From national flags that symbolize countries to flags that represent causes and movements, these banners serve as potent tools for expression. By understanding the power of flag symbolism, you can appreciate their broader cultural significance.

Eco-Friendly Options for Sailing Flags

As stewards of the sea, sailors have a role to play in environmental conservation. Opting for sustainable materials when creating or replacing sailing flags minimizes the ecological footprint of maritime activities. By making conscious choices, you contribute to the preservation of the oceans you love to explore.

Embarking on a sailing adventure is more than a journey; it’s an opportunity to embrace a unique language of communication—the language of flags. From conveying messages to ensuring safety and commemorating experiences, sailing flags are essential tools for sailors worldwide. As you hoist your flags and set sail, remember that every fluttering banner tells a story, connecting you to a rich tapestry of maritime history.

Can I use any type of fabric to make my own sailing flags?

While you have some flexibility, it’s best to use durable, weather-resistant fabrics like nylon or polyester for longevity.

Are there regional variations in sailing flag meanings?

The International Code of Signals strives for global consistency, but local variations can exist. Familiarize yourself with regional practices if sailing in unfamiliar waters.

What’s the significance of the “O” flag in racing?

The “O” flag indicates a false start in racing. Boats crossing the line prematurely are required to restart.

Can distress signals be communicated using light signals at night?

Yes, distress signals can be communicated using lights in addition to flags. The SOS signal, for instance, can be conveyed through Morse code with a flashlight.

Can I fly multiple flags at once?

Yes, you can fly multiple flags, but ensure they’re properly arranged and that their meanings won’t conflict or confuse other sailors.

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Michael Thompson

Embarking on a lifelong love affair with the sea, I found solace and exhilaration in the art of sailing. From navigating treacherous waters to harnessing the wind's untamed power, my passion has evolved into a mission to inspire others. Join me on a voyage of discovery as we explore the vast horizons of sailing's timeless allure.

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  • Sailboat Flag Etiquette

Sailboat Flag Etiquette: What You Need to Know

Sailboat flag etiquette is steeped in maritime tradition and enshrined in law. If you're new to the world of sailing, you may have wondered about the various flags that you see flying on other sailboats or that you are expected to fly on your own. What do they mean? How should they be displayed? What are the rules and traditions that govern them?

Flag etiquette on Bowman 57

An experienced sailboat skipper will know that flag etiquette is a way of showing respect, courtesy and recognition to other vessels, countries and organizations.

It also helps you communicate important information, such as your nationality, your club affiliation, your intentions or your distress.

For the less experienced we'll explain the basics of sailboat flag etiquette and how it should be applied in practice:

  • The types of flags that you can fly on your boat;
  • The sizes and positions of the flags;
  • The occasions and situations when you should fly certain flags;
  • The common mistakes and pitfalls to avoid when flying flags.

The skipper of the Bowman 57 staysail ketch shown here is correctly flying a burgee (the Flying Fish burgee of the Ocean Cruising Club ) from the port spreader, and a courtesy ensign (of Spain in this case) from the starboard spreader.

The ensign, in this case that of the Republic of Ireland, is flown from a flag halyard fom the mizzen mast to the end of the missen boom. Alternatively the ensign could be flown from a staff attached to the taffrail.

The Types of Flags

There are many types of flags that you can fly on your boat, but the most common ones are:

  • The ensign: This is the flag that shows the country of registry of your boat and indicates its nationality. It is usually flown at the stern of the boat, as close as possible to the waterline. It is the most senior position for a flag on a boat and it should always be larger than any other flag. A UK flagged boat (sail or power) must wear the national maritime flag, the Red Ensign, unless entitled to wear a special ensign.

Yachtclub burgee at masthead

  • The burgee: This is the flag that shows the yacht club or association that you belong to. It is usually flown at the main masthead of the boat above any other flag, but can be flown from the port spreader unless otherwise stipulated under a special warrant. 
  • The courtesy flag: This is the flag that shows the national flag of the country that you are visiting or whose waters you are sailing in. It is a sign of respect and goodwill to the host country and it should be flown at the starboard spreader. It should be hoisted as soon as you enter foreign waters and lowered as soon as you leave them.
  • The Q flag: This is a yellow flag that indicates that you are requesting clearance from the local authorities when entering a foreign port. It is also flown at the starboard spreader of the boat, below the courtesy flag if there is one. It should be hoisted before you enter the port and lowered after you have been cleared.
  • The signal flags: These are flags that have specific meanings in the International Code of Signals. They can be used to spell out messages or to convey information such as your position, your course, your speed, your intentions or your distress. They can be flown individually or in combinations at various locations on the boat.
  • The private signal: This is a personal or family flag that has no official meaning or recognition. It can be flown at the port spreader of the boat, below any other flag. It is optional and purely decorative.

The Sizes and Positions of the Flags

The sizes and positions of the flags on your boat are important for both aesthetic and practical reasons. They should be proportionate to your boat size, visible from a distance and clear from any obstruction.

The general rules for sizing and positioning flags are:

  • The ensign should be one inch on the fly (the length) for every foot of overall length of your boat. It should be flown on the stern staff or on a gaff if there is one.

Ensign incorrectly flown at top of mizzen

  • The burgee should be half an inch on the fly for every foot of overall length of your sailboat or five-eighths of an inch for every foot of overall length of your powerboat. It should be flown at the main masthead or on a pigstick (a vertical extension) if there is one.
  • The courtesy flag should be the same size as the burgee or slightly smaller. It should be flown at the starboard spreader, preferably on its own halyard.
  • The Q flag should be the same size as the courtesy flag or slightly smaller. It should be flown at the starboard spreader, below the courtesy flag if there is one, on its own halyard.
  • The signal flags should be sized according to their function and meaning. They can be flown individually or in combinations at various locations on the boat, such as the masthead, the yardarm, the bow or the stern of the boat.
  • The private signal should be the same size as the burgee or slightly smaller. It should be flown at the port spreader, below any other flag, on its own halyard.

The Occasions and Situations When You Should Fly Certain Flags

The occasions and situations when you should fly certain flags on your boat depend on where you are, what you are doing and who you are with. Some flags are mandatory, some are optional and some are forbidden.

The general rules for flying flags are:

  • You must fly your ensign at all times in daylight, especially when near to or in sight of land or another boat. You must also fly your ensign when entering or leaving a foreign port and on demand. You can fly your ensign at night if you wish, but it is not required.
  • You can fly your burgee at any time, but it is customary to hoist it at 0800 and lower it at sunset. You can also fly your burgee at night if you wish, but it is not required.
  • You must fly the courtesy flag of the country that you are visiting or whose waters you are sailing in as soon as you enter their jurisdiction and until you leave it. You must also fly the Q flag when entering a foreign port until you have been cleared by the local authorities. You can lower the Q flag after you have been cleared, but you should keep the courtesy flag until you leave the port or the country.
  • You can fly signal flags whenever you need to communicate with other boats or shore stations using the International Code of Signals. You can also fly signal flags for decorative purposes, such as dressing your boat for a special occasion, but you should avoid using flags that have specific meanings or that could cause confusion.
  • You can fly your private signal whenever you want, but it has no official significance or recognition. It is purely a personal or family emblem.

The Common Mistakes and Pitfalls to Avoid When Flying Flags

Flying flags on your boat can be fun and rewarding, but it can also be tricky and challenging. There are some common mistakes and pitfalls that you should avoid when flying flags, such as:

  • Flying an incorrect, damaged, wrongly sized or otherwise invalid ensign. This is a breach of law and etiquette and could lead to fines or penalties.
  • Flying a special ensign without being entitled to do so. This is a privilege granted by a warrant from the Admiralty or by an Act of Parliament and it requires certain conditions to be met.
  • Flying a burgee that does not match your ensign or that is higher than your ensign. This is a sign of disrespect and ignorance and could offend other boats or authorities.
  • Flying more than one burgee at a time. This is considered sloppy and excessive and could imply that you are showing off or indecisive.
  • Flying a courtesy flag that is larger than your burgee or that is above your burgee on the same halyard. This is a sign of subservience and inferiority and could insult your own country or club.
  • Flying a Q flag when you have already been cleared or when you are leaving a port. This is unnecessary and confusing and could cause delays or misunderstandings.
  • Flying signal flags that have specific meanings or that could cause confusion for decorative purposes. This is irresponsible and dangerous and could lead to accidents or incidents.
  • Flying a private signal that resembles an official flag or that has an offensive meaning. This is misleading and rude and could provoke anger or hostility.
  • And you should never, ever, fly a skull-and-crossbones flag. There is nothing amusing or glamorous about pirates.

Sailboat Flag Etiquette: A Few FAQs...

Why do some British sailboats fly a White or Blue Ensign rather than the traditional Red Ensign?

Some British sailboats fly a white or blue ensign because they belong to certain yacht clubs or organisations that have special permission to use these ensigns.

The white ensign is a variation of the national flag that is normally used by the Royal Navy, but it can also be worn by yachts owned by members of the Royal Yacht Squadron , which is a privileged yacht club with a long history and close ties to the monarchy.

The blue ensign is another variation of the national flag that is normally used by government vessels, but it can also be worn by yachts that belong to one of the 32 yacht clubs or associations that have a warrant from the Admiralty or the relevant authority to use the undefaced blue ensign.

Additionally, some yachts can wear a blue ensign defaced with the badge of their club or association, if they have a warrant for that as well. There are 57 yacht clubs or associations that have this privilege.

These special or privileged ensigns are considered a mark of distinction and honour, and they should only be flown with proper authorisation and following the rules and regulations of wearing them.

What is the difference between an ensign and a burgee?

An ensign is a flag that shows the nationality of the vessel and must be worn at the stern or as close to it as possible. A burgee is a flag that shows the membership of a yacht club or sailing association and can be worn at the masthead or the port spreader.

What is a special ensign and how can I get one?

A special ensign is a variation of the national flag that can be worn by certain yachts that belong to a privileged yacht club or organisation. To get one, you need to apply for a warrant from the Admiralty or the relevant authority and follow the rules and regulations of wearing it.

How big should my flags be and how should I hoist them?

The size of your flags depends on the length of your vessel, but as a general rule, your ensign should be about one inch for each foot of overall length. Your burgee and courtesy flag should be smaller than your ensign, but not too small to be seen. You should hoist your flags using halyards or staffs and make sure they are not tangled, faded, or torn.

When should I raise and lower my flags?

You should raise your flags at 0800 hours or when you leave harbour, whichever is later, and lower them at sunset or when you enter harbour, whichever is earlier. You should also lower your flags when out of sight of other vessels or when nobody is aboard.

Can I fly more than one burgee or other flags on my vessel?

Traditionally, you should only fly one burgee at a time, but some yachts may choose to fly more than one to show their affiliation with different clubs or associations. However, you should always make sure that your burgee matches your ensign if you are wearing a special one. You can also fly other flags, such as signal flags, house flags, or personal flags, but they should not take precedence over your ensign, burgee, or courtesy flag.

How should I salute other vessels or authorities with my flags?

You can salute other vessels or authorities by dipping your ensign, which means lowering it halfway down the staff or halyard and then hoisting it back up. You should only do this if you receive a salute first or if you are passing by a naval vessel, a Coast Guard vessel, or a foreign warship.

What are the rules for flying flags in a race?

The rules for flying flags in a race may vary depending on the organising authority, but generally, you should not fly your ensign during a race, as this signals that you are not racing. You should also follow any instructions given by the race committee regarding signal flags, class flags, or protest flags.

What are the consequences of not following flag etiquette?

Not following flag etiquette may result in fines, penalties, or even confiscation of your vessel if you break the law or offend the host country. It may also cause confusion, misunderstanding, or disrespect among other sailors or authorities. Therefore, it is advisable to learn and follow the proper flag etiquette whenever you go sailing.

I wrote this article using GPT-4, OpenAI’s large-scale language-generation model, as a research assistant to develop source material. I wrote the final draft in its entirety and believe it to be accurate to the best of my knowledge.

Dick McClary

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  • Regulations

Flag etiquette

Flag etiquette is a combination of law (what you must do) and maritime tradition (expectations of behaviour within the sea faring community).

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.

For many who go to sea, flag etiquette and flag rules are an essential part of the overall sailing process. Only with the right flag, correctly positioned, can you to be sure that you are giving the correct message and that any signal you are giving is clear.

For RYA members

The original RYA book (C4/01) has been reorganised into 3 parts for publication on the RYA website and is available to RYA members to download .

For all website users

A brief overview designed to demystify the basics of flag etiquette follows:

What to put where

The most senior position for a flag on a vessel is reserved for the Ensign - this is as close to the stern of the vessel as possible.  The Ensign shows the country of registry of the vessel and indicates its nationality. A UK flagged vessel must wear her ensign as required by the Merchant Shipping Act, which includes when entering or leaving a foreign port and on demand. It is recommended that the ensign is worn at all times in daylight, especially when near to or in sight of land or another vessel.  A UK registered vessel should wear the national maritime flag, the Red Ensign, unless entitled to wear a special Ensign . Wearing anything other than an authorised Ensign is a violation of British and International Law.

As the Ensign takes the senior position on a vessel, the order of precedence for positions for flying other flags is: 2) masthead, 3) starboard spreader, 4) port spreader. This assumes a simple plan of one halyard per spreader; other combinations including motor boats are discussed in the Members’ section.

Traditionally, the burgee is flown at the main masthead. A burgee must match a special Ensign if one is worn and it should always be higher than the Ensign. Flag etiquette states that only one burgee is flown at a time, but it is not uncommon nowadays to see yachts flying more than one burgee. Although this might cause offence to some, there is nothing legally wrong with this practice provided the rules governing the wearing of a special ensign are adhered to.

The starboard spreaders are used for signalling. This is where both a courtesy flag and the Q flag , as signals, should be flown. These days it is becoming increasingly common for yachts to fly a burgee from the starboard spreaders because of instrumentation sited at the main masthead. Again, legally there is nothing wrong with doing so but this practice presents a number of problems for those who wish to adhere to the traditions of flag etiquette.

More than one flag may be flown on a halyard except that flag etiquette states that no flag can be above the burgee on the same halyard and no flag can be worn above the courtesy flag. If you fly a burgee at the starboard spreaders and are sailing in the territorial waters of another country this presents something of a dilemma, particularly if you must fly a burgee to match a special Ensign. Unless the burgee is in its traditional position at the masthead, you risk flouting one or another element of flag etiquette. How you choose to resolve this is a matter of choice.

A word on courtesy flags, most countries use their national flag at sea and it is therefore not uncommon to see a foreign visitor flying a Union Jack as a courtesy flag when visiting UK waters. This is wrong; the correct flag is always a Red Ensign. There is no legal requirement to fly a courtesy flag; it is a courtesy that acknowledges that the vessel will respect the laws and sovereignty of that country. However, if one is not flown or it is tatty or faded, it may cause grave offence and in some countries can lead to a fine.

The port spreaders are used for house flags . A house flag is normally but not always a small rectangular version of a burgee. It may indicate membership of an association (e.g the RYA) or society or may be to indicate membership of another club should that club have a house flag.  More than one house flag may be flown on the port halyard, but with caution as too many might appear vulgar to some.

The Union Jack, Welsh Dragon, the Crosses of St Andrew, St George and St Patrick and the EU flag are primarily land flags and must not be flown at sea as an Ensign by cruising yachtsmen. At sea the cross of St George is the flag of an Admiral and it should therefore not be flown by anyone else, without special dispensation. A vessel flying the St Andrew’s Cross could be mistaken as saying "my vessel is stopped and making no way through the water" as this is the meaning of code flag M which has the same design and the St Patrick s Cross could be misinterpreted as code flag V "I require assistance".  

Union Jack or Union flag?

There is often a lively debate about which term is correct. In fact both terms are acceptable having been given parliamentary approval in 1908 when it was stated that "the Union Jack should be regarded as the National flag".

Sizing your flags

The sizes and condition of flags are important. They should not be tatty and should not hang in the water, but should still be large enough to be seen.

The best advice is "what looks right" but a rough guide is:

The general guideline for the size of Ensign used to be an inch per foot of yacht, but on many modern yachts this is found to be a little on the small side for the vessel to look "well dressed". Roughly speaking a 3/4 yard Ensign should look right on a boat of 21-26 ft, 1 yard for 27- 34 ft, 1 1/4 yard for 35 - 42 ft, 1 1/2 yard for 43 - 50 ft and 1 3/4 yard for 51 - 60 ft, but some discretion may need to be applied.

A burgee of 15" in the fly (the horizontal measurement) should look appropriate on vessels up to 34ft. This increases to 18" for up to 42ft, 24" for up to 50ft and 30" up to 60 ft.

Courtesy Flag

Having an undersized, faded or tatty courtesy flag in many places is worse than having no courtesy flag. Again as a guide only, 12" in the fly should look appropriate for 21-26 ft, 15" for 27- 34 ft, 18" for 35 - 42 ft, 22" for 43 - 50 ft and 30" for 51 - 60 ft. Availability may however end up dictating the size of the flag.

House flags

A house flag of a similar size to those listed for the courtesy flag will generally be appropriate.

Special Ensigns

In addition to the national maritime flag, the Red Ensign, there is a White Ensign, a Blue Ensign and there are a number of Red Ensigns with a badge, Blue Ensigns with a badge and a light blue Ensign with a badge. These additional Ensigns are special or privileged Ensigns may only be worn with permission, which is granted ultimately by the King.

A warrant grants this permission and the Ensign must be worn in accordance with the warrant, which will in most cases require the corresponding burgee to be displayed. In most cases the warrant is granted to a Yacht Club, which in turns gives its members permission to wear the Ensign under the conditions of the warrant, by issuing the members with a permit.

The RYA has no power to police the wearing of ensigns or prohibited flags other than by spreading the word about flag etiquette and encouraging good practice.

The RYA flag etiquette book C1/04 has been re-written and is published online for the benefit of RYA Members.

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Usa boat flag etiquette is unique, a word on boat flag size, boat flag etiquette extends beyond size and symbolism, boat flag verbiage everyone should know, boat flag courtesies, why the national ensign nautical etiquette rules are so important, additional boat flag rules you should know.

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When it comes to the subject of etiquette, most people are aware that proper manners are expected at the dinner table, in public settings and especially on the golf course.  However, few people outside of the boating community are aware that boat flag etiquette exists.  Moreover, some newbie boaters are unaware that there are expectations for the presentation of a vessel’s flag.

Here’s an inside look at everything you need to know about boat flag etiquette and boat flags meaning.

Boat Flag Etiquette

Boat flag etiquette differs by geography.  In particular, the conventions for the presentation of a boat flag in the United States are highly idiosyncratic.  The United States Coast Guard Auxiliary devised the code for boat flag etiquette with assistance from the United States Power Squadrons and the Auxiliary Coast Guard.  Though few know it, the code for boat flag presentation in the states details the points of honor whereupon the flags are flown.

The flag can only be displayed at the highest possible permitted point of honor that is permitted.  The order of the points of honor from top to bottom are:

  • Flagstaff positioned at the stern
  • Halyard or yardam on starboard
  • Truck of mast
  • Yardam at port

Every boating vessel in the United States must reserve the most elevated point of honor for the national ensign.  The national ensign is a flag with 50 stars originally implemented by the country’s Continental Congress in the summer of 1777.  The national ensign has been in use by the Navy dating back to the mid-19th century.  This ensign is typically displayed on the stern.  However, boating etiquette in the United States permits the use of a yacht ensign as opposed to a national ensign presented on the stern.

Boat flag size holds importance.  Most boat flag sizes are sold in a set series of standard sizes.  National ensign flags are to be an inch for every foot of length.  As an example, if the boat is 35 feet, the ensign is to be 35 inches.  Ideally, the national ensign will be presented an inch on the fly for each foot of the boat’s length.  The remainder of flags are to be 5/8-inch on the fly per foot of boat length.

Flags other than the national ensign such as courtesy flags, private signals and club burgees displayed on boats are to be half an inch for every foot per the highest mast.

Nautical flag etiquette is one part function, one part form.  The purpose of boat flag etiquette is to facilitate communication between boats.  However, it is the subtleties of boat flag etiquette that shape perception of the boater as well as his or her vessel.

Each country has its own nuanced requirements for boats that enter and depart local ports, meaning the boat flag etiquette described above and below will not be appropriate for waters outside of those near or within the United States.  Though not guaranteed, there is the potential for the failure to comply with boat flag etiquette to result in a fine.

If you aren’t well-versed on boat flag etiquette, take comfort in knowing you are not alone.  Even some of the most experienced boat owners have forgotten or simply failed to learn boat flag etiquette lingo.  Let’s take a quick look at some of the most common terms used when discussing boat flag etiquette.

The flagpole’s bottom width is referred to as the butt diameter.  A flag that is fully hoisted is close up.  The word “colors” refers to the elevating and dropping of flags at 8 in the morning and at sunset.  Courtesy flags are national flags are hoisted for presentation when entering a new country.

To dip is to lower the boat flag by moving it forward from its original upright position to a horizontal position or a 45-degree angle to display a sign of respect.  Ensign is the flag that displays the boat’s nationality, meaning the country where it was first registered.  The canton is the flag’s rectangular portion at the upper hoist corner that takes up ¼ of the flag’s surface area.

The phrase “flag staff at the stern” refers to the pole at the ship’s stern used for the flying of the nation’s registry flags.  The gaff is a rig that protrudes from the flagpole for additional flag hoisting, elevating at an angle.  The rope or cable that raises and lowers flags is referred to as the halyard.

The order of flag arrangement in regard to etiquette is particularly important.  Such order is the same throughout the world.  If the order is not adhered to, it will present communication challenges with other vessels.  Flags with the highest level of honor are to be displayed at the highest elevation.

The order is as follows:

  • Gaff for the nation’s flag
  • Flagstaff at stern
  • Starboard yardam
  • Truck of mast port yardam

What is INTERCO in the Context of Boat Flag Etiquette?

INTERCO is an acronym that is short for the International Code of Signals.  If you are a boat owner or considering taking to the water, you should know and understand the INTERCO signaling system.  This system is used across the globe to communicate information pertaining to maritime travel, boat safety, navigation on the waters and more.

INTERCO signals include boat flags and plenty more.  Additional examples of signals include:

  • Audio signals
  • Signals made by hand
  • ALDIS lamps
  • Radiophones and even radiotelegraphs

The United States national ensign is the flag used for designate vessels traversing waters in or near the United States.  This honorable flag must be presented with care.  The ensign takes the senior spot in the gaff.  However, some vessels do not have gaffs, requiring the flying of the ensign from the boat stern flagstaff.

Every boater should be aware that no other flag can be flown higher than the national ensign within a single halyard.  It is also a violation of boat flag etiquette to hoist the National Ensign and Jack together.  The Jack can only be hoisted when the boat is anchored or travels fast toward the shore instead of when the boat is underway or when the final line is cast away.

Though the nuanced rules of boat etiquette differ by country, there are general themes applicable to the waters across the globe.  As an example, regardless of where you are sailing, a mastless boat should have a courtesy flag used to replace flags that are displayed at the boat’s bow.  A boat with a mast containing a spread requires display at the starboard spreader.

If your courtesy flag is weathered, torn or otherwise in bad condition, do not display it on your boat.  Presenting a worn courtesy flag is a blatant indication of disrespect.

If you are traveling in international waters, do not use the same mast to display the courtesy flag and national ensign as it will be viewed as an indication that you are rivaling the sovereignty of a foreign country.

Moreover, if you are boating internationally or are traveling with riders of a different nationality, display their country’s flag(s) as a gesture of courtesy.  However, these flags should not be displayed on the same mast.  Be sure to remove the foreign flag from your vessel upon returning to domestic waters.

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  • Basic Flag Etiquette

Basic Flag Etiquette

sailing yacht 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.

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.

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!

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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Boat Flags & Boat Flag Etiquette

The United States Flag Code provides advisory rules for display and care of the American Flag, but there are also specific guidelines for flying flags on recreational boats. In fact, boat flag etiquette not only ensures that the flag is displayed respectfully, it actually helps boaters to identify one another and communicate while on open water.

Boat Flags: When & Where to Fly Them

The five most common types of boat flags are Ensign, Burgee, Private Signal, Courtesy and Signal Flags.

National Ensign Flags

Ensign Flag

The ensign flag is the largest, most important flag on a boat because it identifies the nation of origin. The preferred U.S. national ensign flag is the traditional American Flag , however, the United States Yacht Ensign may be flown in its place, provided the boat remains in domestic waters. Similar to the Betsy Ross Flag , but with a fouled anchor in the center of the 13 stars, the yacht ensign should never be used in international or foreign waters.

Always flown off the stern, on a staff-pole that is long and angled, the ensign may be offset to one side to allow it to fly clear of the rigging and engine exhaust. In addition, American boat flags should only be flown from 8:00 am until sunset, and when entering or leaving port during daylight or at night, weather and rig permitting. When leaving your boat in port, the flag should be taken down if you will not return before sunset.

Burgee Flags

Typically triangular or swallow-tailed in shape, the burgee flag is a small flag with a symbol signifying the skipper’s sailing organization or yacht club. Many yacht clubs have rules about when their burgees are flown, but generally speaking, burgee flags are flown from the bow staff or under the starboard spreader. These flags are flown day and night, and follow the skipper from boat to boat.

Private Signal Flags

Private signal flags are personal flags, sometimes referred to as house flags, which are custom designed and made specifically for the boat owner. Custom Boat Flags usually feature a personal interest, hobby, family tradition, initials or some other symbol to identify the boat owner. These boat flags are flown day and night, but only when the owner is in command of the boat. Custom boat flags are flown at the head of the aftermost mast, from the bow staff on mastless vessels, or on the starboard rigging below the burgee.

Courtesy Flags

To show respect, courtesy flags are flown when entering or operating a boat in foreign waters and, in some instances, when there is someone from a foreign country on the boat. Courtesy flags represent the host nation or state in whose waters you are traveling, and are flown from the starboard spreader on a sailboat, the starboard spreader of a powerboat with a mast, or the bow staff of a mastless boat.

Signal Flags

Signal Flags are an international standard in maritime, used for nautical ship-to-ship communication, primarily related to safety and navigation. Each signal flag corresponds to a number or letter of the alphabet, and when displayed by itself or in conjunction with other letters and numbers, the flags relay important messages and information to other vessels. Although radio transmissions have largely replaced the use of signal flags, they are still required on commercial vessels and in foreign ports of call.

Signal Flags

Other Boat Flags

Fishing boats often fly flags denoting their catch. Known as Fishing Flags , these boat flags can feature marlin, sailfish, tuna, albacore, tarpon, wahoo, striped bass, bluefish, shark, mako shark, king mackerel, swordfish and more. They are flown from the port outrigger or spreader, and are flown upside down if the catch is released.

Gettysburg Flag Works also carries a variety of Nautical & Marine Ensigns , as well as Jolly Roger Pirate Flags , and several fun and humorous boat flags, including Mother-in-Law On Board , Baby on Board , Wife On Board and Husband on Board .

Boat Flags: How to Order

When ordering an ensign, or American Boat Flag , we recommend a flag that measures one inch for each foot of boat length. For smaller vessels, a 12x18” flag is usually suffice, while larger boats may opt for the 2x3’ flag. Burgee and personal Custom Boat Flags are generally smaller than the ensign, but can measure up to half an inch for each foot above water of the tallest mast.

Need help ordering a flag for your boat? The flag experts at Gettysburg are happy to help. Give us a call at 1-888-697-3524 or contact us online .

Practical Boat Owner

  • Digital edition

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Boat flag etiquette: Everything you need to know about ensigns and burgees

Andy Du Port

  • Andy Du Port
  • April 20, 2022

Andy Du Port draws upon 50 years’ experience to share the customary way of doing things when it comes to boat flag etiquette…


Illustration by Jake Kavanagh

Almost everything we do, ashore and afloat, is governed by laws, which we must obey, and guidance, which we can accept or ignore.

When driving, we are governed by the Road Traffic Regulation Act and guided by The Highway Code.

At sea, we are bound by the Merchant Shipping Act and guided by advice from the likes of the Royal Yachting Association (RYA).

For example, the law requires us to wear our national ensign on specified occasions, but we are only advised to hoist it at 0800 and lower it at sunset.

And then we have etiquette, which may be somewhat perplexing but soon becomes second nature.

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It can be specific or it can simply reflect good manners, courtesy and common sense, thus avoiding awkward or embarrassing pitfalls.


All sports have their etiquette, some of which is quite prescriptive. You only have to google ‘golfing etiquette’ or ‘football etiquette’ to see what I mean.

Sailing etiquette tends to be more relaxed but, nonetheless, you should be aware of it – even if you then decide to ignore it.

The dictionary description is along the lines of: The customary code of polite behaviour among members of a particular group.


Photo: iWebbtravel/Alamy

In other words, in this context, it is ‘what most people do’ when afloat in their boats. To add confusion to this somewhat prickly subject, boat etiquette is continually changing.

When I started sailing yachts in the late 1960s it was de rigueur to conduct Colours and Sunset, with due ceremony, when in harbour.

Many a snooty look would be directed at a yacht who was two minutes late or whose crew was not smartly turned out. Nowadays, the custom has all but disappeared.

Some etiquette is founded on tradition, but most is based on practicalities which, if observed by the majority, just makes life afloat even more agreeable.


Boats under 7m LOA are not allowed to wear special ensigns. Photo: Peter Alvey/Alamy

At one end of the scale you will meet yachtsmen or women who are sticklers for what they regard as inflexible etiquette.

If you don’t conform they will glower at you from under the peaks of their yachting caps and splutter into their gin.

At the other extreme are those who are quite content for their boats to resemble Steptoe’s yard while they themselves ignore all around them. Most fall somewhere in between.

Boat flag etiquette explained

Few topics generate more discussion, irascibility and confusion than boat flag etiquette. As far as I can determine, only one boat flag (the ensign) is governed by the rule of law; if you get it wrong, you could be prosecuted.

The flying of all others is either the subject of well-founded recommendations – usually for safety reasons or to avoid confusion – or simply by what has become common practice.

This is the flag you must get right. Almost every boat which puts to sea wears an ensign. The rules are strict and enforceable under the Merchant Shipping Act: the law requires that only the relevant national ensign may be worn, in the right position.

The law also requires the ensign to be worn on certain specific occasions, such as entering a foreign port or when asked to do so by a warship.

You would be breaking the law by hoisting any boat flag other than a national ensign at the ensign staff or other authorised position.


River Class Will O’ The Wisp with ensign on the Norfolk Broads. Photo: Anglia Images /Alamy

By all means fly regional flags elsewhere in the rigging. It is a nice custom, for example, to fly the Cornish flag in Cornwall or the Breton flag in Brittany – usually at the port spreader.

Should you hoist your ensign in the morning and lower it at night? This is not compulsory and most people now do not.

Theories abound about the origins of Colours and Sunset, the most likely being that all boat flags, not only ensigns, were taken in at night for two very logical reasons: no one could see them, and it saved bunting.

This then developed into the ceremonies of Morning Colours (usually at 0800 in the summer and 0900 in the winter) and Sunset (referred to as Evening Colours when conducted at 2100 if sunset is later).


Traditionally, an ensign is ‘worn’ while all other flags are ‘flown’. Photo: Stuart Pearce/Alamy

I can find no evidence to support the various beliefs that these ceremonies show veneration for those who have lost their lives at sea or that they demonstrate respect for the monarch.

However, etiquette also comes into play. Many yacht clubs conduct Colours and Sunset, and require their members to do so.

So if you find yourself berthed for the night in sight of such a club, or in the company of its members, boat flag etiquette suggests that you should follow their lead.

Similarly, it would be remiss of you not to lower your ensign at the same time as a nearby warship.

Lowering or hoisting the ensign on a short staff is not really practicable, so it is widely accepted that the staff may be removed, with the ensign attached, and stowed for the night.

Avoid wrapping the ensign round the staff and leaving it in situ; it looks scruffy and is neither one thing nor the other.

Most other boat flags demand no such angst, but the burgee comes a close second. If you are entitled to wear a ‘special ensign’ i.e. white, blue (plain or defaced) or red (defaced), your permit will dictate that the relevant burgee must be flown at the same time.

If this applies to you, you will know all about it. If not, don’t worry. Some clubs insist their members fly the burgee at the masthead. Otherwise, the starboard spreader is an acceptable alternative.


A defaced blue ensign

Courtesy flags

Standard practice is to fly a courtesy flag when in the territorial waters of another nation, usually hoisted at the starboard spreader (never at the masthead). Some countries require a courtesy flag to be worn, and you could cause considerable offence if you do not comply.

A tricky situation arises if you normally fly a burgee at the starboard spreader, as a courtesy flag should take precedence. A solution is to transfer the burgee to the port spreader.

If the country you are visiting also requires you to fly a Q flag, your problems just get worse. There doesn’t seem to be much agreement on this but I suggest you should leave the courtesy flag on its own to starboard, and fly the Q flag below the burgee to port.

The situation will resolve itself as soon as you have been cleared by customs and can put the Q flag away.

Other flags

Basically, you can do what you like but common sense indicates that you should not fly any boat flags which could be misinterpreted.

For example, almost all the International Code Flags (A-Z and 0-9) have specific meanings. If you decide to fly flag Juliet because its blue and white stripes match your topsides, you will also be signalling ‘On fire and have dangerous cargo on board; keep well clear of me’.

For much the same reason, there is a recommended order for boat flags when dressing overall. If you follow it, not only will the flags give a pleasing appearance, you can also be sure that you do not unintentionally spell anything which you may regret.

You often see boats flying all sorts of bunting. A common boat flag is the Jolly Roger (also known as the Skull and Crossbones), or those with young children may be seen flying a kite in the form of a fish from the backstay.

Does it matter? Not really, but boat flag etiquette suggests that too many flags is a bit sloppy and makes your boat look like a fairground.

As for burgees (again), I see no reason not to fly more than one (being careful to obey the special ensign rules if relevant), but too many could imply that you are either showing off or indecisive.

You can read more boat flag etiquette guidance on the official Royal Yachting Association website .

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  • Boat flag etiquette


Flag etiquette has been transmitted to us by generations of mariners. Although not often appropriately respected these days, especially not by charterers, we might add, observing flag etiquette can provide some pride of perpetuating a very old tradition as well as some fun. We will not get into deep details and purist fanaticism. However, we will try to show charterers the minimum that is expected for basic respect of rules.

Therefore, we will only talk here about 4 main flags, potentially used by charterers and charter boat owners: the Ensign or the National flag; the club burgee; the Private Signal; and the Courtesy Flags.

Boats should fly the National Flag. Most pleasure boats in US waters have a choice of 2.

The yacht ensign, with its fouled anchor over a circle of 13 stars, the "Betsy Ross" flag. Originally restricted to documented vessels only, it is now commonly flown on recreational boats of all types and sizes instead of the National Flag (see picture).

The 50-star flag "Old Glory" you are familiar with.

The appropriate time to fly the ensign is from 0800 to sunset, except when racing. It is also important to take the flag down prior to leaving the yacht if the ship will be unmanned at the time of sunset.

However, whenever a boat is taken into international or foreign waters, the 50-star U.S. ensign is the proper flag to fly and the yacht ensign cannot to be displayed . In other words, if you own a US boat in the British Virgin Islands, you should not fly the Ensign, but the National Flag.

Boats today fly the ensign from the stern, which provides the best visibility, but it can also be flown from the leech of the most aftersail. When flown from the stern, it should be on a staff (pole) that is sufficiently long and angled, and that is offset to one side (traditionally the starboard side), so the flag flies clear of engine exhaust and rigging.

It 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.

Private Signal

It 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.

Courtesy Flags

As a matter of courtesy, it is appropriate to fly the flag of a foreign nation on your boat when you enter and operate on its waters. There are only a limited number of positions from which flags may be displayed. Therefore, when a flag of another nation is flown, it usually must displace one of the flags displayed in home waters. However, it is hoisted only after the appropriate authorities have granted clearance. Until clearance is obtained, a boat must fly the yellow "Q" flag . All charter boats should carry the national flags of neighboring islands as well as the yellow flag, in case charterers want to visit those islands.

The courtesy flag is flown at the boat's starboard spreader, whether the United States ensign is at the stern staff, or flown from the leech. If there is more than one mast, the courtesy flag is flown from the starboard spreader of the forward mast.

As a side note, some authorities are not amused at all if you fly their courtesy flag using an old, raggy flag. Some will even fine you for disrespect! It happened to a friend of mine who was chartering in Turkey.

Lastly, it is also a common courtesy to fly the national flag(s) of your guest(s) on board, if they have a different nationality than the ensign is showing.

Flags' Dimensions

Flags come in standardized sizes, but there are guidelines about selecting the proper size for your boat.

The size of a nautical flag is determined by the size of the boat that flies it. Flags are more often too small than too large. So in the rules below, round upward to the nearestlarger standard size.

The flag at the stern of your boat: U.S. ensign or national flag should be about one inch for each foot of overall length. For example, on a 40ft. boat, the ensign should be 40 in. i.e. about 3.5ft.

Other flags, such as club burgees, private signals and courtesy flags used on sailboats should be approximately 1/2 inch for each foot of the highest mast above the water. For example, on a 30ft. boat, with 50ft. between the masthead and the water, the burgee should be about 25 in. The shape and proportions of pennants and burgees will be prescribed by the organization which they relate to.

Raising and Lowering Flags

Fly the ensign from morning (8:00 a.m.) to evening (sunset) whether the boat is at rest, under sail, or under power. The exception to this rule is: The ensign is not flown by a boat in a race, which signals to other boats that you are racing.

To prevent wear and tear, the flag may not be flown when out of sight of other vessels or when nobody is aboard. The flag is flown while entering or leaving a port, even at night. For purists: In the morning, the ensign is hoisted rapidly before other flags. In the evening, it is lowered slowly and with ceremony after other flags come down.

Additional sources:  Seaflags

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Yachting etiquette from A to Z

  • Yachting etiquette from A to Z

Like a social event, there are written and unwritten rules to follow on a boat and in the harbour. It doesn't matter if you're sailing with a group of friends, racing or a lone sea dog, everyone should know the basics of sailing etiquette. Do you know the basic rules and customs on a yacht?

General rules of sailing etiquette

Sailing, boating, yachting and all ways of navigating the waters have a very long tradition. Over this time, rules have evolved about how to behave on boats and in harbours. Most of these rules have a practical rationale to ensure a smooth and accident-free voyage, whilst others are rather ridiculous nowadays and stem from the superstition of ancient sailors venturing into the unknown. Still, some of these are worth heeding as well and you should never needlessly try the patience of Poseidon or Neptune.

In general, yachting etiquette can be divided into two main categories. The first is behaviour on board when sailing and the second is etiquette in port. Sub-topics include  observing the applicable rules of yachting , the correct placement and display of flags and greeting crews of passing yachts .

YACHTING.COM TIP: Before every voyage,  pay your respects to Neptune  by pouring a small amount of alcohol in the sea. Superstition though it may be, no one wants to antagonise the King of the Seas. Also, don't whistle on board. They say it disturbs the souls of dead sailors, who will retaliate with a foul wind. Do you know all the  patrons  who have protected sailors and seafarers for centuries?

The pouring of alcohol into the sea for Neptune is a well-respected tradition.

How to behave on board when under sail

The first and most fundamental rule is that  the captain always has the final say . They are responsible not only for the boat and the smooth running of the voyage, but also for the whole crew. In addition, a yacht provides a relatively limited space in which a group of people must get along together. If a conflict arises, which is not uncommon in tense situations, the captain acts as the chief arbiter and conciliator.

Next, during the voyage, the crew should not stand on deck unless absolutely necessary. Either crew members are on deck as part of manoeuvres, sitting on deck, acting as a so-called 'live ballast' when the ship is heeling, or resting in the cabin. This rule is purely practical. A standing crew member could obstruct the helmsman's view of the boat and its course, and there is also a risk of losing balance and falling overboard.

An experienced crew should also never, as a matter of yachting etiquette, have fenders out of the boat along the sides or have ropes and lines dragging in the water. Aside from the fact that loose ropes and untidy fenders hinder the boat, it shows an ignorance of the basic rules of sailing that is an embarrassment to the crew.

YACHTING.COM TIP: A skipper's licence is required to operate a boat at sea. Unfortunately, unlike a driving licence, there are several options — how do you choose the right one? If offshore sailing appeals to you, try our  Academy where you can get a  C skipper's licence  or a  Royal Yachting Association RYA licence .

How to behave in port

There are two main areas of yachting etiquette in the harbour. One is the arrival of a sailboat or ship into the harbour and the other is behaviour on the moored ship and ashore. This is where you need to be well versed in yachting etiquette, as the eyes of experienced seafarers will be watching you and they will be able to tell at a glance how experienced and knowledgeable your crew is. There are many rules, but above all — consideration for others is fundamental. Never get in anyone's way and only do what you wouldn't mind from others.

A group of people on board a ship celebrating, having fun, having a drink.

The boat should always be in top condition when in port. This means a tidy deck ,  properly packed sails and furled lines, and an overall orderly appearance. Different shoes should be worn on deck than ashore, or at least shoes with white soles and only after checking that there are no stones stuck there that could scratch the boat.

Woman in a marina with high heels.

Yachting etiquette in port also includes camaraderie and empathy . No one will like a crew that is unhelpful to others in distress, loud late into the night, disrespectful of marina rules and regulations, disrespectful of service, and otherwise out of step with other customs, including local ones.

Sailing flags, greetings and other wisdom

Not only should an experienced crew know how to behave during a voyage and in port, they should also understand other written and unwritten customs. It certainly pays to know the flag alphabet and the location of yachting flags. A yacht should always carry the national flag of the country where it is sailing, the flag of its country and possibly the flag of its yacht club. For each type of boat, the placement of the flags varies. Generally, however, the national flag is placed at the stern mast, the courtesy flag goes under the starboard spreader or from the leech with the placement of the club flag being relatively arbitrary.

Croatian flag on the bow of the ship.

Sailors use specific jargon which is true in greetings, where there are two common ways. On smaller boats, helmsmen greet each other with a shout of  "Ahoy" , while on larger boats a raised hand is sufficient. In both variations, it is always the helmsmen and never the crews who are saluted.

If you get your sailing clothes wet during the voyage or need to change your clothes in port, they can be dried on the line, rails or boom on the boat. However, it is essential to stow all laundry on board before setting sail.

There are many other rules and customs associated with yachting etiquette, but you should always know the basics first.

YACHTING.COM TIP: Ethics  – a theoretical science and doctrine that summarises a set of rules for proper conduct Etiquette  – a code that specifies written and unwritten rules of conduct and social customs within a particular group of people or community (family, state, interest group) A final piece of advice   – if you are unsure about anything, ask the skipper.

Despite all the rules, a holiday on a boat is an incredible experience. I will be happy to help you arrange it.

Denisa Nguyenová

Denisa Nguyenová

sailing yacht flag etiquette

Boats & Flags: 11 Answers You Should Know (For Beginners)

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The flags on a boat can signify many different things.

Mostly, they can seem confusing to a layperson or a new boater.

Flying the wrong flag at the wrong position can confuse other boaters and result in a fine!

Here’s what you need to know about how and when you can use flags on a boat:

Table of Contents

sailing yacht flag etiquette

1. What Are The Main Types Of Flags Flown On Boats?

On any non-commercial vessel, you can usually find these four different types of flags:

  • Ensign – a variety of national flag
  • Burgee – a flag representing a boating organization
  • Private Signal – a small custom-made flag for the boat owner
  • Courtesy – the flag of a foreign country for an onboard guest or when you are in foreign waters

2. What is an Ensign Flag, and When Do I Use It?

An ensign is a flag from the nation from which the boater originates.

They are slightly different from their national flags. Ensign flags used to be restricted to documented vessels only.

Now it is common courtesy to fly the national flag on all types of recreational boats.

It is proper etiquette to only fly ensign flags from 0800 to sunset unless you’re in a boat race outside those hours. It is also important to take this flag down before leaving your boat if it is unmanned at sunset.

If you take your boat into international waters, you should fly your national flag. These days ensign flags are flown off of the stern.

If you do this, make sure it is on a staff-pole and that the pole is long and angled.

If you offset it to one side (like the starboard side), it’ll fly clear of the engine’s exhaust.

This will also keep it clear from the rigging.

3. What is a Burgee Flag, and When Do I use That?

A burgee flag is a small flag with the skipper’s sailing organization or yacht club on it.

It follows the skipper from boat to boat. These are flown day and night.

Traditionally, sailing vessels hoisted these flags on a “pigstick” at the top of the highest mast.  Because of instruments that are often at the top of the mast, it is more common to hoist a burgee on a spreader halyard. 

Of course, this is the modern way to fly it.

The starboard rigging is known as a place of honor (when it comes to flags). That’s why you fly the host country’s flag there when visiting a foreign port.

4. What is a Private Signal, and When Do we use Those?

These are small flags that are custom designed (and custom made) specifically for the boat owner.

It’s flown day and night but is only flown when the owner is in command of the boat.

If a different sailor is in command, they are to fly their own private signal.

Private signals are flown at the aftermost mast’s head (if you have a multi-mast boat). On a sloop, fly private signals on starboard rigging, below the burgee.

Unless you don’t have a burgee, then you can fly it alone.

5. What’s a Courtesy Flag, and When Do I Fly That?

Courtesy flags are flown when you are in a foreign nation’s waters.

It also comes into play when you have someone from a foreign country on your vessel.

You can only fly a courtesy flag if certain conditions are met:

  • Only after authorities from the country have granted you clearance.
  • After you remove your yellow “Q” flag.
  • If you have a flag that is in the proper condition.
  • If you fly a courtesy flag, do so at the boat’s starboard spreader.
  • If there is more than one mast, then it must be flown off the starboard spreader of the forward most mast.

By “proper condition,” you must fly a flag that is not old or in a disrespectful state.

If you do fly a ratty old flag, you could be fined for being disrespectful!

6. What About International Signal Flags?

There is a system of internationally recognized numerical and alphabetical pennants and flags known as the International Code of Signals.

This helps communicate when you’re out in the open water.

The messages these flags send can be about navigation or even safety.

Signals can be sent by:

  • Flag semaphore
  • Signal lamp (otherwise known as “blinkers”)
  • Radiotelephony
  • Radiotelegraphy

There are so many different communication methods because it is important when the crew’s safety is concerned—especially when you’re in open water.

Boaters use nautical signal flags in several different ways:

  • With each spelling out a letter of a message
  • With a flag symbolizing a specific message (For example, an “A flag” is flown by diving support vessels when they can’t move from their current location.)
  • In a yacht or dinghy race, with each flag flying as code (For example, a “P flag” is used to stand for “Prepare,” which indicates that the race is about to start.)

Some boaters use signal flags to dress their ships for holidays by hoisting the national ensign at the stern staff first.

A rainbow of flags can then be arranged, reaching from the waterline forward to the aft, from the bowsprit end (or stem).

7. Why are There so Many Boat Flags?

Flags are flown for multiple reasons but remember that when you’re out at sea, this is the easiest way to recognize other boats.

It’s like the license plate on a car. Different countries have different license plates.

Within each country, different states or provinces can also have different license plates.

Then, you can have symbols that signify clubs or organizations on your license plate in each state.

This is a way you can express yourself on your vessel.

Check out our article about what colored flags on houses are all about.

8. Why are Some Flags Flown at Half-Mast?

Just like on land, flags are sometimes flown at half-mast in respect for someone who has passed.

This isn’t required in all places, nor is it mandated by any law.

However, it’s good to note why you might see this when you are out in the water.

Some boaters will also dip their flags (drop it down to half, then raise it again) as a friendly signal to a passing boater.

9. What Size Are Boat Flags?

Generally, boat flags come in different sizes, depending on the type of boat that you have.

For aesthetic purposes, most flags are roughly 1” per foot of the length of your boat.

Also, the staff should be twice the length of the height of your flag.

For example, if you have a powerboat that is 33’ long, you should have flags that are 24” x 36” on a staff that is 48”.

This is the recommended proportion of ensign flags. Burgee and private signals are approximately half that size. For the same powerboat example above, you might get burgee and private signal flags, which are 12” x 18”.

10 What do “Fishing Flags” Mean?

Fishing flags are signal flags that have representations of various types of fish on them.

Flying one (or more, if you’re lucky) lets other boaters know what sort of fish you’ve caught that day. It also lets other boaters know what sort of fish are in the area that day.

Fishing flags should be placed on the port rigger, spaced at least one flag length apart. This will let the proper authorities or other boaters count your catch easily.

It should also be placed in order of size, with the biggest species of fish on top.

Certain rules follow certain types of fish so make sure you read up on the fish flag etiquette in fishing manuals.

In the past, if a fisherman tagged a fish, they would fly the species flag with a white “T” under it to let others know of their tag. If they hoisted the species flags upside down, that signifies that they had caught and released that particular fish.

If they did so with multiple fish of the same species, they hoisted several red triangle pennants under that species flag.

However, today most fishermen are doing the opposite when they practice catch and release. They fly a fish right-side-up to signify that it swam away healthy after being released.

While an upside-down species flag signifies a fish caught and harvested.

11. How Much do Boat Flags Cost?

Boating flags can range from $12 for a single flag to $175 for a set.

The average cost for an ensign flag is roughly $20.

Final Thoughts

There is a long history of nautical flag use.

Using the wrong flag or flying a flag in the wrong position can get you into trouble. Thus, it is important to brush up on the meanings of different flags before using them.

It is important to have a boat handling book or flag manual on your boat in case of emergency.  The US Power Squadron is a good source for their publication “ How to Fly Flags, Nautical Flags Display .”

If you are out with your family and an emergency occurs, they must know how to call and signal for help in different ways: including using a flag signal.

Flags aren’t just important for you and your boat, however.

It is also important to recognize what different flags may mean when you run across other boats.

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Flag etiquette Ensigns & flags

sailing yacht flag etiquette

National flags or ensigns

Courtesy flags.

Courtesy flag of Croatia

International code of signals

Another useful flag.


Flag Etiquette

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.

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.

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

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

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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sailing yacht flag etiquette

How to Clear Customs in the Bahamas

sailing yacht flag etiquette

How To Buy a Boat

What is proper boat etiquette.

Knowing local boating laws is essential before heading out for a fun day of fishing, cruising, and watersports. However, it's also important to understand the unwritten rules of boating. Following these rules for proper boating etiquette can ensure that you and your guests stay safe, remain courteous to other boaters, and comply with boating regulations when visiting distant places.

Boat Flag Etiquette

One of the unspoken rules of boating is flying the appropriate flags. As a nod to mariners of old, displaying the correct flags lets you honor boating history and communicate effectively while on the water. There are four basic flag types to choose from:

  • Ensign Flags

Burgee Flags

Private Signal Flags

Courtesy Flags

Each flag has a specific purpose that signifies when their display is appropriate.

Flag Sizes Each nautical flag's size should be proportional to the vessel itself.

In general, an ensign flag should be about one inch long for each foot of a yacht's overall length. Other flag sizes are based on the distance between the highest mast and the water.

Burgees, signals, and courtesy flags are roughly ½ inch long for each foot of the mast's length.

Flag Condition In some cultures, flying a damaged or faded flag indicates disrespect, so it's important to keep your flags in good condition. Though you can remove flags to protect them when out alone on open water, be sure to raise them when entering or leaving port. Courtesy flags, in particular, should remain clearly visible, even at night.

ensign flag

Etiquette at the Marina

Around a marina slip, safety and cleanliness are the hallmarks of boating etiquette. Be considerate of others by keeping dock lines, cables and gear stowed neatly away when not in use. When fueling or loading up supplies, move as quickly as possible so as not to block another boater's access. Keep noise levels appropriate and closely supervise any children so that others can enjoy their experience.

Boating Etiquette on the Water

Practicing proper boating etiquette on the water means understanding and obeying the rules regarding boating right of way and passing. When two boats come head-on, each vessel should turn starboard and pass port to port. If a boat approaches you from the right, they are the "stand-on vessel" with the right of way, while you are the "give-way vessel" and must accommodate them.

Boating right of way rules can sometimes change depending on the type of vessel you have and the types of vessels you encounter while on the water. For example:

  • Sailboats under sail have the right of way over powerboats. A sailboat that runs on an engine is considered a powerboat whether its sails are up or down.
  • In an encounter between two sailboats under sail, the one on the starboard tack has the right of way over the vessel on the port tack. If both boats are on the same tack, the leeward vessel has the right of way.
  • Human-powered vessels such as kayaks and canoes always have the right of way over other vessels, even sailboats.
  • Vessels with limited maneuvering abilities due to draft, size, or other reasons have the right of way, while other boats must accommodate them.

All boaters should know and obey these guidelines for boat passing etiquette. However, avoiding collisions and maintaining safety is the main priority, regardless of which vessel technically has the right of way. If another boat is overtaking you, maintain course and speed if you can do so safely. Otherwise, slow down and allow the other vessel to pass.

Boat Docking Etiquette

When entering the marina or approaching a slip, slow your speed to six knots or less for safety. Though the goal is to get situated as quickly as possible, this will give you more time to react to other boaters and help minimize noise levels. If you're boating at a new location, watch a few other boaters before you approach to gauge the traffic flow.

When it's your turn, enlist a friend to help so the process goes as smoothly as possible. Move as quickly as possible to secure your boat and avoid causing damage to it or the dock. Once you've secured your vessel, rather than immediately unloading your extra fuel and equipment, move away from the ramp to give other boaters room.

Boat Etiquette for Guests

Like the captain and crew, guests must practice proper boating etiquette to ensure everyone stays safe and has a good time. If you receive a boating invitation, ask if there is anything the host would like for you to bring (food, drinks, sunscreen, extra towels, etc.). Or, offer to chip in on expenses like food, fuel, or boating fees.

On the day of the boating trip, be sure to arrive at the docks on time to ensure that everything remains on schedule. Volunteer to help out with the boat prep, loading, and launching processes however you can and perform whatever tasks the host gives you to the best of your ability. Before boarding, remove your shoes to avoid damaging or scuffing the vessel.

Since the captain is responsible for the safety of everyone aboard the boat, following their instructions is essential once you're out on the water. Ask your host if you have any questions, and avoid the following actions:

  • Standing while the vessel is in motion
  • Distracting the captain
  • Touching any of the controls
  • Smoking (unless the captain permits it)
  • Throwing anything (garbage, cigarette butts, etc.) into the water

If the captain asks, assist with boat retrieval at the end of the trip. Help unload the vessel once you return to the staging area, remembering to clean up any messes and take all your personal items with you when you disembark. Lastly, be sure to thank the captain or host for inviting you onto their boat and showing you a good time.

Prioritize Safety and Maintain Courtesy

Again, safety and courtesy are the key tenets of proper boating etiquette. Follow all written regulations for your yachting or boating location, and use these tips on launching, passing, boating right of way, boat docking, and guest etiquette to ensure that your day on the water is fun and accident-free.

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Flag Etiquette

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The Royal Engineer Yacht Club Which Flags should I fly? Guidance on Flag Etiquette.

Introduction ..

All users of REYC yachts are to fly the correct Ensign and a Club Burgee, and REYC Members should fly the correct flags when sailing on their own and other yachts. Flying flags incorrectly can upset the traditionally minded, and in theory constitutes an offence under Section 4 of the Merchant Shipping Act and is liable to a fine. In practice it is unheard of for yachts in UK waters to be prosecuted for a flag offence, however flying flags incorrectly in foreign countries can not only cause offence but also lead to difficulties either when clearing in or clearing out, or when a yacht is approached by police or other maritime officials.

All REYC yachts should have both a Red and a Blue Ensign on board of the correct size. They should also carry an in-date Blue Ensign Permit.

Size Yachts between 21-27 ft should fly a ¾-yard ensign (680x340mm), those between 27-34 ft a 1-yard ensign (910x450mm), those between 35-42 ft a 1¼-yard ensign (1140x560mm) and those up to 50ft a 1½-yard ensign (1370x680mm).

Position . Ensigns should be flown on an Ensign Staff at the stern of the yacht. Particularly when at sea, yawls and ketches may fly their ensigns at the top of the mizzen mast, but see the note on Burgees below.

Red or Blue? On Club-owned yachts, if there is a Full, Honorary or Associate Member of the REYC on board, the yacht should fly the Blue Ensign. At any other time, even if the skipper is a member of another Blue Ensign Yacht Club, the Red Ensign must be flown.

When Flown:

At Sea . At sea, the ensign is normally flown constantly, though legally it only needs to be flown for the purpose of identification (ie if in sight of another vessel or land).

In Harbour . In harbour, the ensign should be raised at Sunrise (0800 local time or 0900 1 Nov 14 Feb) and lowered at Sunset (or 2100 local time even if the sun is still up). If in a naval port or a naval vessel is nearby, their timings should be followed.

Windy Conditions . In order to save wear and tear, in winds above F7 Club boats should remove their ensigns, burgees and other flags (except when racing).

Racing . When racing, the Ensign should be removed and a Class Flag flown from the 5 minute gun. The Ensign should be re-hoisted having finished or on retirement.

When on-board or nearby their own yachts, Full, Honorary and Associate REYC Members may fly a Blue Ensign provided they have an in-date Ensign Permit, available for a small fee from the Honorary Secretary. The Permit is for the yacht, and does not entitle a Member to fly a Blue Ensign on any other vessel. When used by other than the Owner, an owner's yacht is not entitled to fly the Blue Ensign.

Burgees . The REYC Burgee must always be flown by a Club-owned yacht, either on one of the spreaders or at the masthead (the latter is the most senior position). For Members' own yachts, when flying the Blue Ensign, the Club Burgee must also be flown, and particularly owners of Yawls and Ketches should note that the Burgee should be flown above the Ensign (ie, at the main-masthead if the Ensign is atop the mizzen-mast).

Special Flags . Flag Officers and holders of Special Flags may substitute their flags for the Burgee on the spreaders. Strictly speaking, it is preferable also to fly a Club Burgee at the masthead as well as the flag on the spreaders.

Courtesy Flags . An appropriate courtesy flag should be flown when in a foreign port or when in the vicinity of official vessels whilst in foreign waters. In practice, courtesy flags are normally flown at all times when within the territorial waters of another country. The courtesy flag should be flown in the senior position but not at the masthead, ie on the Starboard Spreader. If the Club Burgee is being flown on the Starboard Spreader, it must be moved to the Port Spreader when a courtesy flag is flown.

Q Flags . Flag Q should be flown when arriving into or from a foreign port that is (presently) outside the EU. Technically a Q Flag should also be flown if arriving in or from the Channel Islands or the Isle of Man directly from an EU Country, although this is virtually never done. When clearing into or from a foreign port, the Q Flag ought to be removed as soon as the yacht has been cleared in by Immigration Officials; technically no-one may go ashore until this has been done.

Dressing Overall . When dressing overall, the following is the normal order for stringing the International Code Flags (from Stemhead/Pulpit) Top of Mast(s) Stern/Pushpit). For a sloop:

(Pulpit) E, Q, P3, G, p8, Z, p4, W, p6, P, p1, I, AP, T, Y, B, X, 1st, H, 3rd (Masthead) (Masthead) D, F, 2nd, U, A, O, M, R, p2, J, pO, N, p9, K, p7, V, p5, L, C, S (Stern)

The official days for dressing overall are: Accession Day (6 Feb); Coronation Day (2 Jun); HM The Queen's Birthday (21 Apr); Commonwealth Day (2nd Mon in Mar); HM The Queen's Official Birthday (usually first Sat in Jun); and HRH The Duke of Edinburgh's Birthday (10 Jun). In practice, REYC yachts should dress overall if they are being used on the Queen's Official Birthday and the Duke of Edinburgh's Birthday (he is the Club's Patron), and members are asked to follow suit if on-board their own yachts. When abroad, yachts should follow local customs. Of course an owner or skipper can dress their yacht overall for any good reason.

Saluting . Members should salute warships of any nationality, and by custom the Club Flag Officers (ie any yacht that is flying a REYC Flag Officer's Flag), by dipping their ensign as they pass. When saluting, the ensign should be lowered 2/3 of the way down its staff and not re-hoisted until the vessel being saluted has acknowledged the salute by lowering and raising its ensign.

Unofficial Flags . In Port, House Flags may be flown from anywhere where it is convenient. Whilst it is not customary, when on REYC yachts members of other yacht clubs may wish to fly their own burgee below that of the REYC's. And if a foreign national is crewing on a Club yacht, they may wish to fly a small courtesy flag of their own nation on the port-hand spreader below the Club's Burgee.

Further Reading . More comprehensive guides to Flag Etiquette may be found in the following sources: 1. The RYA Flag Etiquette Book (C1/104 available free on line to RYA members) 2. Naval Flags an Ensigns A note by the Naval Staff Directorate (possibly available on MoDWeb or see: 3. Reeds Nautical Almanac

Last updated 22:49 on 11 December 2023


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