Flag etiquette is a combination of law (what you must do) and maritime tradition (expectations of behaviour within the sea faring community).
Being ill-informed of your obligations could lead you to cause insult at home or abroad by giving a signal you do not intend to give, or could lead you to a fine for breaking the law.
For many who go to sea, flag etiquette and flag rules are an essential part of the overall sailing process. Only with the right flag, correctly positioned, can you to be sure that you are giving the correct message and that any signal you are giving is clear.
A brief overview designed to demystify the basics of flag etiquette follows:
The most senior position for a flag on a vessel is reserved for the Ensign - this is as close to the stern of the vessel as possible. The Ensign shows the country of registry of the vessel and indicates its nationality. A UK flagged vessel must wear her ensign as required by the Merchant Shipping Act, which includes when entering or leaving a foreign port and on demand. It is recommended that the ensign is worn at all times in daylight, especially when near to or in sight of land or another vessel. A UK registered vessel should wear the national maritime flag, the Red Ensign, unless entitled to wear a special Ensign. Wearing anything other than an authorised Ensign is a violation of British and International Law.
As the Ensign takes the senior position on a vessel, the order of precedence for positions for flying other flags is: 2) masthead, 3) starboard spreader, 4) port spreader. This assumes a simple plan of one halyard per spreader; other combinations including motor boats are discussed in the Members’ section.
Traditionally, the burgee is flown at the main masthead. A burgee must match a special Ensign if one is worn and it should always be higher than the Ensign. Flag etiquette states that only one burgee is flown at a time, but it is not uncommon nowadays to see yachts flying more than one burgee. Although this might cause offence to some, there is nothing legally wrong with this practice provided the rules governing the wearing of a special ensign are adhered to.
The starboard spreaders are used for signalling. This is where both a courtesy flag and the Q flag, as signals, should be flown. These days it is becoming increasingly common for yachts to fly a burgee from the starboard spreaders because of instrumentation sited at the main masthead. Again, legally there is nothing wrong with doing so but this practice presents a number of problems for those who wish to adhere to the traditions of flag etiquette.
More than one flag may be flown on a halyard except that flag etiquette states that no flag can be above the burgee on the same halyard and no flag can be worn above the courtesy flag. If you fly a burgee at the starboard spreaders and are sailing in the territorial waters of another country this presents something of a dilemma, particularly if you must fly a burgee to match a special Ensign. Unless the burgee is in its traditional position at the masthead, you risk flouting one or another element of flag etiquette. How you choose to resolve this is a matter of choice.
A word on courtesy flags, most countries use their national flag at sea and it is therefore not uncommon to see a foreign visitor flying a Union Jack as a courtesy flag when visiting UK waters. This is wrong; the correct flag is always a Red Ensign. There is no legal requirement to fly a courtesy flag; it is a courtesy that acknowledges that the vessel will respect the laws and sovereignty of that country. However, if one is not flown or it is tatty or faded, it may cause grave offence and in some countries can lead to a fine.
The port spreaders are used for house flags. A house flag is normally but not always a small rectangular version of a burgee. It may indicate membership of an association (i.e. the RYA) or society or may be to indicate membership of another club should that club have a house flag. More than one house flag may be flown on the port halyard, but with caution as too many might appear vulgar to some.
The Union Jack, Welsh Dragon, the Crosses of St Andrew, St George and St Patrick and the EU flag are primarily land flags and must not be flown at sea as an Ensign by cruising yachtsmen. At sea the cross of St George is the flag of an Admiral and it should therefore not be flown by anyone else, without special dispensation. A vessel flying the St Andrew’s Cross could be mistaken as saying "my vessel is stopped and making no way through the water" as this is the meaning of code flag M which has the same design and the St Patrick s Cross could be misinterpreted as code flag V "I require assistance".
There is often a lively debate about which term is correct. In fact both terms are acceptable having been given parliamentary approval in 1908 when it was stated that "the Union Jack should be regarded as the National flag".
The sizes and condition of flags are important. They should not be tatty and should not hang in the water, but should still be large enough to be seen.
The best advice is "what looks right" but a rough guide is:
The general guideline for the size of Ensign used to be an inch per foot of yacht, but on many modern yachts this is found to be a little on the small side for the vessel to look "well dressed". Roughly speaking a 3/4 yard Ensign should look right on a boat of 21-26 ft, 1 yard for 27- 34 ft, 1 1/4 yard for 35 - 42 ft, 1 1/2 yard for 43 - 50 ft and 1 3/4 yard for 51 - 60 ft, but some discretion may need to be applied.
A burgee of 15" in the fly (the horizontal measurement) should look appropriate on vessels up to 34ft. This increases to 18" for up to 42ft, 24" for up to 50ft and 30" up to 60 ft.
Having an undersized, faded or tatty courtesy flag in many places is worse than having no courtesy flag. Again as a guide only, 12" in the fly should look appropriate for 21-26 ft, 15" for 27- 34 ft, 18" for 35 - 42 ft, 22" for 43 - 50 ft and 30" for 51 - 60 ft. Availability may however end up dictating the size of the flag.
A house flag of a similar size to those listed for the courtesy flag will generally be appropriate.
In addition to the national maritime flag, the Red Ensign, there is a White Ensign, a Blue Ensign and there are a number of Red Ensigns with a badge, Blue Ensigns with a badge and a light blue Ensign with a badge. These additional Ensigns are special or privileged Ensigns may only be worn with permission, which is granted ultimately by the Queen.
A warrant grants this permission and the Ensign must be worn in accordance with the warrant, which will in most cases require the corresponding burgee to be displayed. In most cases the warrant is granted to a Yacht Club, which in turns gives its members permission to wear the Ensign under the conditions of the warrant, by issuing the members with a permit.
The RYA has no power to police the wearing of ensigns or prohibited flags other than by spreading the word about flag etiquette and encouraging good practice.