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Flag Etiquette

  1. The Ensign. Sailors may display one of two national flags. One is the yacht ensign, with its fouled anchor over a circle of 13 stars, and the other is the national ensign which is the familiar 50-star flag. The yacht ensign may be flown only in territorial waters.When not under way, the ensign is flown from the stern staff. When under way, power boats fly the ensign from the stern staff (or from the gaff if they are so rigged). Sailboats have several choices: all sailboats may fly the ensign from the stern staff; gaff-rigged yachts may fly the ensign from the peak; marconi-rigged yachts may fly the ensign from the leech about two-thirds of the way up.The ensign may be flown from morning (8:00 a.m.) to evening colors (sunset) whether the boat is at rest, under sail, or under power. There are exceptions to this rule. The ensign is not flown by a sailboat that is in a race. To prevent wear and tear, the flag need 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. At morning colors, the ensign is hoisted smartly before other flags. At evening colors, the ensign is lowered slowly and with ceremony after other flags come down.
  2. Burgee. The burgee is displayed whenever the ensign is hoisted but may also be displayed separately between morning and evening colors or by day and night, at anchor or underway.On sailboats, the burgee is flown only at the "truck" (or top) of the (forward-most) mast. We see fewer masthead burgees these days because flying them risks damaging expensive equipment and destroying the flag with chafe. Many sailboat owners install (or adjust) their electronics and the placement of their antenna so that the burgee flies freely. In any event, the burgee is not to be flown from a spreader halyard. On power boats, the burgee is displayed at the bow staff.
  3. Private Signal. A private signal is a custom-designed flag that carries symbols standing for the owner. The private signal may be flown day or night, but is not displayed when the owner is not in command. (The rule is that the private signal and burgee follow the sailor, not the boat.)On split-rig (multi-masted) sailboats, the burgee is flown at the head of the forward mast and the private signal is flown at the head of the aftermost mast. On power boats with a mast, the burgee is flown from the bow pulpit and the private signal from the truck, or mast head.
  4. Flag Officer's Flags. A flag officer may display his/her flag day and night in the place of and instead of his/her private signal, or in the case of a single-masted yacht instead of the burgee.
  5. Union Jack. The U.S. Union Jack carrries 50 white stars on a blue field (the canton of the Naval Ensign). The jack may be displayed at the bow staff between morning and evening colors and only while not under way on Sundays, holidays, or when dressing ship.
  6. Colors. When colors are made, it customary for members to observe in silence until the senior officer present signals that all may stand at ease.When making colors short handed, the ensign shall be hoisted first, followed as rapidly as possible by the club burgee and private signal. Flags are lowered in inverse order. Colors are hoisted smartly but lowered ceremoniously.
  7. Size of Flags. The size of a nautical flag is determined by the size of the boat that flies it.
    1. Ensign: On the fly, the ensign should be a minimum of one inch for every one foot of the boat's overall length. The hoist is two-thirds the length of the fly.
    2. Burgee: The burgee's dimensions for sailboats are, on the fly, approximately ½ inch for each foot of distance between the water and the top of the tallest mast; and for power boats ½ inch for each foot of overall length.
    3. Private signal: The private signal is sized according to the rule for burgees.

Last updated 9:28am on 5 February 2021

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