Lessons Learned - December 2019

Flag Etiquette

It seems that anytime a group of boaters gets together, one of the discussion topics is flag etiquette, and this was a topic at a recent dockside cigar and port gathering. There are several rules and regulations attached to the hoisting of flags on ships. Apart from the national flag which the ship belongs to, there are various other types of flags used for signaling and navigational purpose.

Large vessels display flags for primarily three reasons, to display the nationality of the ship, to display the status assigned to them because of the services they offer and to provide a courtesy in accordance with the international rules and regulations. Whether you are sailing a ship, ferry or yacht, flag etiquette at sea remains the same for all.

Some of the primary flags used on ships are: 1) ensigns, which are flags with the color of nationality, (2) jacks, flags smaller than the ensign and are used for signaling and distinction, (3) house flags, with the owner or company, (4) pennant flags, used by ships to signal they are warranted by the navy to be used as war ships and (5) signal and rank flags.

It is a general rule that all the flags should be raised at 0800 whether the ship is at port or at sea. According to the United States rules for flag usage at sea, the ensign flag should be the first one to be hoisted in the morning at the stern of the ship. Then the jack is to be hoisted at the bow and then the house flag at the main mast. There are rules that govern the position or the height of the flags as well. For example, the ensign flag that marks the nationality of the ship should be flown above all the other flags and the pennant should be flown above the house flag which is flown from the starboard yardarm. The rule that the highest flown flag takes precedence does not apply on board a ship. A flag flown at the stern is always in a superior position to a flag flown elsewhere on the ship, even if the latter is higher up. Motor yachts without masts should always fly the ensign from an ensign staff at the stern, and other countries courtesy flags are flown from the jack staff at the bow. This seems, to some landsmen, as being a reversal of priorities. However, a boat is steered by the stern and this gives it pride of place.

When the ship leaves port, the flag of the destination country is hoisted at the jack staff or foremast of the ship along with a signal flag at the starboard. When a pilot is on board a vessel, the signal flag H or hotel is hoisted. Should a vessel continue to maneuver after sunset and the pilot remains on board, all flags except the pilot flag are hauled down. When the ship reaches the destination country, the ensign flag of that country or courtesy flag is flown from the yardarm of the ship, and is always flown above all the other flags.

If a merchant or private yacht is passing by a warship, the merchant ship must lower its ensign flag as a matter of respect to the warship. The warship also lowers its flag as an acknowledgement to the respect given. Contrary to popular belief, the United States Navy does dip the Stars and Stripes in acknowledgement of salutes rendered to it. The flying of two ensigns of two countries one above the other on the same staff is a sign that the vessel has been captured or has surrendered during wartime. The ensign flying in the lower position is that of the country of the ship that has been captured and the ensign flying in the upper position is that of the country that has captured the ship.


The position of honor on a ship is the quarterdeck at the stern of the ship, and therefore ensigns are traditionally flown either from an ensign staff at the ship′s stern or from a gaff rigged over the stern. The ensign is the most important flag on board your vessel and identifies her national character. A vessel′s character is determined by her registration which may differ from that of her owner.

Recreational boats should fly the National flag. Most pleasure boats in United States territorial waters have a choice of flying either the yacht ensign, with its fouled anchor over a circle of 13 stars also referred to the Betsy Ross flag, or the 50-star Old Glory flag that we are all very familiar with. Originally the yacht ensign was restricted to documented vessels, and not to be flown on state registered vessels. However, it is now commonly flown on recreational boats of all types and sizes instead of the United States 50-star flag. The Yacht Ensign was established by Congress in 1848 to identify yachts that do not have to clear customs when entering United States ports, however the law has changed so that the yacht ensign is now an option for any American recreational vessel. Thus, either the National Ensign or Yacht Ensign may be flown by United States documented or state registered yachts, but not simultaneously. When a United States flagged yacht sails in international waters, the 50-star flag must be flown and not the yacht ensign. A ship′s National Ensign is immediately recognizable because it flies farthest aft, which is the place of honor but not necessarily from the highest point in the rig.

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. The size of an ensign is determined by the size of the boat that flies it. Flags are more often too small than too large so round upward to the larger standard size. Except for battle flags, the National Ensign should be the largest flag on the vessel with the fly being one inch per foot of overall boat length and with the hoist being two-thirds of the fly. Flags come in standardized sizes, but there are guidelines about selecting the proper size for your boat. For example, on a 40-foot vessel the ensign should have a flag of 40-inches or about 3.5-feet long. Other flags such as club burgees, private signal flags and courtesy flags used on sailboats should be approximately .5-inch for each foot of the highest mast above the water. For example, on a 30-foot sailboat with 50 feet between the masthead and the water the burgee should be about 25-inches. The shape and proportions of pennants and burgees will be prescribed by the organization of which they relate.


The Jack of the United States represents U.S. nationality, and is flown from the jack staff of U.S. Navy ships that are moored or anchored. All U.S. Navy warships, the U.S. Coast Guard ships and civilian manned replenishment ships that support the Military Sealift Command and ships of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration fly this flag. The blue fielded, white-starred jack is referred to as the Union Jack and is flown from the jack staff on U.S. Navy ships that are moored or at anchor from 0800 to sunset. The Union Jack is required to be the same size as the ensign being flown from the stern of the ship.

On October 13, 1975 all commissioned United States Navy warships switched to the First Navy Jack in commemoration of the Bicentennial of the United States Navy and the U.S. Bicentennial. It was used in this capacity until December 31, 1976 when the 50-star Jack was readopted.

The Jack of the United States returned as the U.S. Navy′s official jack on June 4, 2019. However the USS Constitution, the oldest ship in the navy, still flies the First Navy Jack.

Signal Flags

Signaling flags have different colors and shapes, much like the written alphabet. There are 26 alphabetical flags, 10 numeric flags, one answering flag and three substitute flags. Usually two or three flags are used in combination along with pennants for sending a message. Alphabetical flags are also used individually to indicate to a passing ship a vessel′s condition. For example, the Alpha flag is used to signal that “I have men in the water,” the Bravo flag is used to signal “I am taking in, discharging or carrying dangerous cargo.”

A few notes on the Alpha flag vs. the traditional sport divers′ flag. The distinction that the Coast Guard makes is that the Alpha flag is a navigational signal intended to protect the vessel from collision. The sport diver flag is an unofficial signal that, through custom, has come to be used to indicate a diver in the water. To be most effective the Sport Diver′s Flag should be exhibited on a float in the water to mark the diver′s approximate location. The two flags therefore, are not mutually exclusive, but should be flown together whenever their respective conditions both apply. The position of the Coast Guard is, however, when in doubt, exhibit both flags. Neither is to be exhibited when underway to or from the scene of diving, or when divers are not actually in the water.

Other common signal flags that you will see in the San Francisco Bay Area are the Golf flag and the Hotel flag. When arriving at a port and before reaching the pilot area, the ensign flag of that country is hoisted at the stern of the ship. The ensign of the country from where the ship came is hoisted at the bow of the ship. The Golf flag, which signals the need of a pilot, is also hoisted. When the ship leaves the pilot station and before it reaches the quarantine station, the quarantine signal flag Quebec is hoisted. After leaving the quarantine station, the Quebec flag is removed before the ship reaches the berth, and the Hotel flag indicating that the pilot is on board is flown.

All these flags are international code flags and are used to pass signals between two ships or between the ship and the shore. There are several rules and regulations that govern these flags.

Flags Of Convenience

The term flag of convenience describes the business practice of registering a merchant ship in a state other than that of the ship′s owners, and flying that state′s civil ensign on the ship. Ships may be registered under flags of convenience to reduce operating costs, avoid the regulations of or avoid inspection and scrutiny by the owner′s country. Normally, the nationality of the ship determines the taxing jurisdiction.

The common practice of ships being registered in a foreign country began in the 1920s, in the United States when shipowners, seeking to serve alcohol to passengers during Prohibition, registered their ships in Panama. Owners soon began to perceive advantages in terms of avoiding increased regulations and rising labor costs and continued to register their ships in Panama, even after Prohibition ended. The use of open registries steadily increased, and in 1968, Liberia grew to surpass the United Kingdom as the world′s largest ship register. Currently more than half of the world′s merchant ships are registered with open registries, and almost 40% of the entire world fleet, in terms of deadweight tonnage, are registered in Panama, Liberia and the Marshall Islands.

The flag state of a merchant vessel is the jurisdiction under whose laws the vessel is registered or licensed, and is deemed the nationality of the vessel. A merchant vessel must be registered and can only be registered in one jurisdiction, but may change the register in which it is registered. The flag state has the authority and responsibility to enforce regulations over vessels registered under its flag, including those related to inspection, certification and insurance of safety and pollution prevention documents. As a ship operates under the laws of its flag state, these laws are applicable if the ship is involved in an admiralty case. See my May 2019 article Lessons Learned in the Bay & Delta Yachtsman regarding the Jones Act and how foreign registered vessels are limited in U.S. coastwise cabotage. https://www.yachtsmanmagazine.com/articles/lesson_may19.html

Flag Retirement

When a flag is so worn it is no longer fit to serve as a symbol of our country, it should be destroyed by burning. The United States Federal Law, 36 USC 176(k), provides that the flag, when it is in such condition that it is no longer a fitting emblem for display, should be destroyed in a dignified way, preferably by burning.

When your flag is worn beyond repair, cut it into small pieces that will burn easily and completely, on a modest, but blazing fire, so that it is reduced to ashes and unrecognizable as a former flag. This should be done in a simple manner with dignity and respect. Remember, as you look at your flag, which is the symbol of our nation, that it is red because of human sacrifice, it is blue because of the true-blue loyalty of its defenders and it is white to symbolize liberty, our land of the free. The stars are symbols of the united efforts and hope in the hearts of many people striving for a greater, nobler America.

Time for me to sit back with a fine cigar and my requisite glass of port to contemplate the many flags I am fortunate to encounter on my travels. They each tell me a story and, as you know, I love a good story. Do you have one to tell? Share it with me and you might just see it here in the Bay & Delta Yachtsman magazine. Reach me at patcarson@yachtsman magazine.com H


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