flag etiquette

Show Summary Details

Quick Reference

Also called yacht routine in the USA, is concerned with what flags, burgees, and ensigns should be hoisted while afloat, and where they should be flown, or worn, in order to obey national laws, or customs. Flags send important information about the vessels that fly them. Also, people have an emotional attachment to their national flags. If they are incorrectly displayed it can cause offence, and breaks the laws of some maritime nations. For example, it is illegal for a civilian vessel to fly the flag of St George; the European Union flag with a vessel's national flag at its hoist has no status; and it is wrong for a powerboat to have the Union flag painted on its side, though the appropriate ensign is permitted.

All vessels, whether warships, commercial vessels, or pleasure craft, are entitled to fly the maritime ensign of the country to which the vessel belongs, though many merchant ships fly flags of convenience. In the UK, the use of ensigns aboard merchant ships is regulated by various Merchant Shipping Acts. The USA is particularly strict about its national flag, the Stars and Stripes, which is derived from the British East India Company flag, and the national flag is also the ensign of the US merchant fleet and the US Navy. Its use is controlled by Congress which also controls the flags and burgees for flag officers of American yacht clubs, fleet captains, and US Power Squadrons. All US pleasure craft, power or sail, fly the US yacht ensign, but only in US territorial waters. Elsewhere, the US Stars and Stripes ensign must be flown. Unlike British and Commonwealth yacht clubs, US yacht clubs do not have individual ensigns. American yachtsmen are more punctilious about flag etiquette than their counterparts in Europe.

Any UK vessel of any type is entitled to fly the red ensign, but a warrant has to be issued by the authorities before a defaced red or blue ensign can be flown. A vessel's ensign must be hoisted: when requested by any British warship, on entering or leaving a foreign port, and on entering or leaving a British port if the vessel is over 50 tonnes gross. It is illegal for any ship, or yacht, to fly an ensign to which it is not entitled.

The Union flag is only flown by British warships, and then only on their jackstaffs in harbour or at anchor. It is then, and only then, properly called the Union jack. However, other vessels may fly the pilot jack, the Union flag with a white border, at their jackstaffs when in harbour or anchored, and may also fly a house flag or something similar there, though this does not make it a jack. The Union jack flown by US warships is a blue flag with 50 white stars. It is only flown on certain occasions and only if the Stars and Stripes ensign is flown at the stern at the same time. Flying the Union flag upside down, particularly in Canada, UK, and USA, is traditionally a distress signal, though not an official one.


Subjects: Maritime History.

Reference entries

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content. Please, subscribe or login to access all content.