Flag Etiquette When Sailing

Written by jenni wiltz
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Flag Etiquette When Sailing
Flag placement depends on the ship's construction, including the number of masts. (sailboat image by bright from Fotolia.com)

The traditional ceremony during which flags are hoisted aboard a ship is called "making colors." Boats should always carry the national flag of the country in which the boat is registered; other flags, such as a sailing club flag or captain's individual flag, are optional. The national flag should be carefully sized so as to be visible from far away. Etiquette calls for 1 inch per foot of boat length (i.e., a 50-foot boat should have a 50-inch-long flag).

The Ensign

Also called the national flag, the ensign is the flag of the country in which the boat is registered. Proper etiquette calls for the ensign to be flown from 8 a.m. until sunset, as well as any time the boat enters or exits a port (no matter the time of day) and any time the boat is anchored or tied up in a harbour. Where the ensign is flown depends on the construction of the boat. Two of the most common locations are the stern's flag staff or the end of the mast's aft-facing spar.

The Club Burgee

This is a small flag representing the sailing club to which the captain belongs. Boats should only fly one burgee at a time. Sailors on a pleasure cruise should fly their club's burgee; racers should fly the burgee of the club holding the race. Burgees can be flown from the bow staff, the mast truck, a spreader halyard or a pigstick attached to a halyard. Although it isn't strictly correct, many sailors fly the burgee on the end of the lowest starboard spreader, in the traditional place of honour accorded to a host country's flag.

The Private Signal

This is a unique flag designed by the boat owner as a personal mascot. It can also be called the "house flag." When designing a private signal, the boat captain should make sure it doesn't look too much like another country's flag---especially if the boat will ever venture through international waters. Depending on the construction of the boat, the private signal can be flown from the bow staff, the truck of the mast or from a spreader halyard.

The Quarantine Flag

This plain yellow flag should be flown when a boat enters foreign waters. It doesn't imply anyone aboard is ill---it simply means the boat is requesting clearance. Until the boat is cleared by authorities in port or by a local coast guard, the quarantine flag should be flown from a starboard spreader on the forward-most mast. Any other flags flying on the starboard spreader should be moved at this time to the port spreader.

The Courtesy Flag

Once a boat is cleared by authorities, the quarantine flag can be removed and the host country's ensign can be flown along with the ensign of the boat's country of registration. This is called a "courtesy flag," traditionally flown from the starboard spreader or (on a mastless ship) at the bow. Courtesy flags should be taken down once the boat re-enters American waters.

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