SailingAlamancwhite1a1 Flag Etiquette Reference



Dress Overall


Flags and signal flags have been flown at sea for centuries - primarily as a means of national identity and communication respectively. In addition to this, today's leisure craft fly a broad spectrum of flags ranging from club burgees to flags supporting associations like the RNLI or RYA, and then of course modern racing yachts like to fly personal battle flags and sport their sponsors colours. In the UK, we are perhaps the only country in the world that's not allowed to fly its national flag at sea, and tradition dictates that we must fly the 'ensign'. All UK citizens are entitled to fly the 'red' ensign, however members of yacht clubs with a royal warrant are entitled to fly the 'blue' or 'white' ensign.

Being an ancient country of tradition there is a certain code or form as to how one should fly all these flags. Getting it wrong domestically in one's own country, will at worst cause the odd frown or dagger looks from passers by. But, getting it wrong abroad could cause offence, and at worst, an officious tap on the top sides from the local authorities.

We therefore have 'flag etiquette' which in essence sorts out the hierarchy and position of flags - albeit in the order of importance.

The Position

SenioritymicroThe most important place on a yacht is the stern (1). This stems from the days when the ship's officers were messed at the aft end of sailing ships. If it's not possible to fly the ensign on the stern, the nearest practical place should be used. Possible locations are; the foot of the mainsail topping lift or sewn onto the mainsail leech, or at the head of a mizzen mast. After the stern the next most important location are the spreaders or crosstrees. The starboard side (2) is superior to port side (3), and flags on top have superiority to flags beneath (4). If you only have one halyard from a spreader, make sure it's on the starboard side, with flags flown in descending order of importance. The masthead is for club burgees only. However, this isn't always possible if the mast head is cluttered with instrumentation. In such a case, it is acceptable to fly the club burgee from the starboard spreader (2) in UK waters only, but NOT abroad! (see below)

The Order or Seniority
The boat's national ensign (if a special ensign is worn, you must have the respective warrant to do so onboard)

Courtesy flag of country being visited
Quarantine flag
Burgees of associations e.g. RYA, RNLI
House flag (e.g. own flag, battle flag, event flag, sponsor)
Sunrise and Sunset

Having established the position and seniority of your flags, you then need to know at what hours you hoist and strike them. This isn't suggesting one conducts a ceremony of colours, to the exact minute, akin the Royal Navy - but roughly following these guidelines;

In UK harbours, hoist ensign at 0800 hrs (summer) 0900 hrs (winter) and strike the ensign at sunset or 2100 hrs, which ever's earlier. When abroad, courtesy flags are NOT lowered -likewise for burgees, whether in the UK or abroad.

If leaving a vessel unattended, in terms of weeks, then strike all colours.