Vexillology is fascinating (e.g. flags are cool), but what flags should you display on your boat, how do you display them, are there actually rules? In answer, of course there are rules, but very few people know them or follow them. Are the flags in the photo below displayed correctly?
Even though a majority of people would say that the above display was incorrect because the National Ensign isn’t being flown from the highest point, that is actually the correct display for a flagpole with a gaff. It is commonly believed that the US Flag should always be the highest flag of any display. To that point, the Navy's own directive on flag display, section 206 of NTP 13(B), states, “No other flags and pennants shall be placed above or, if on the same level, to the right of the national flag.” However, naval flag traditions date to the days of sail, and with regard to ships, the restriction seems to apply only to flags on the same staff or hoist. On a sailing ship, the ensign was flown from the gaff of the spanker on the aft mast. The other flags and pennants were flown from the mastheads.
This tradition is carried forward to the practice of flying the ensign from a gaff on the aft most mast. Thus, on a flag staff with a gaff, the highest point of honor is the gaff, and thus that is exactly where you should fly the National Ensign.
I got a crash course in flag etiquette when I became that Navigation Officer on the NOAA Ship Rainier just before a large change of command ceremony and the oncoming CO was a stickler for doing things by the book…the only issue was I didn’t know which book.
After weeks of research and consulting all the regulations and directives I could find on the subject, I determined that there wasn’t one all-encompassing document prescribing the proper display of flags for a NOAA ship. There were plenty of NOAA and Department of Commerce regulations (NOA 201-6 and DAO 201-6) and there was a very comprehensive, though sometimes confusing, Navy document (NTP 13(B)), but none of these was a definitive reference for the ship. Ultimately, I was able to combine information from these sources and that fount of nautical knowledge, Chapman Piloting & Seamanship, into a concise guide for the ship.
So, where should you fly the national ensign on your boat, what about courtesy flags of other countries, do you need a burgee or a jack, what about novelty flags, if you fly the Jolly Rodger can you be detained as a pirate? What flags you can, should, or must display will be dependent on where you are, but things are much easier for a recreational vessel than a federal government vessel.
For the most part, the answer is not many people care and you’re likely fine flying whatever flag you want wherever you choose to fly it, but be careful if you’re sailing internationally as some countries take this stuff pretty seriously and you might be subject to fines or worse.
In U.S. territorial waters there are no laws prohibiting the flying of any flags, so feel free to fly that Jolly Rodger or martini glass flag, but don’t be surprised if you might garner a little extra attention from the authorities in the form of safety inspections. There also aren’t any laws requiring any flags be flown. Entering foreign waters will subject you to their laws, which may prohibit the display of some flags and may also have other requirements for display of flags (e.g. you might be required to hoist a courtesy flag). If visiting a foreign port, it’s advisable to check regulations ahead of time and probably forgo the novelty flags. Regardless of where you’re sailing, if you do decide to fly the flags there is a proper way to do it and I figure you might as well do it right.
Rainier has two masts; the aft mast is the mainmast and the forward mast is the foremast. The horizontal structures extending athwart-ships from the masts are the yards. The angled spars extending aft of the masts are called gaffs. The vertical spar at the bow is the jack staff, and the spar at the stern is the flagstaff. You’re vessel will likely have a much simpler arrangement.
As an active commissioned federal vessel, the ship will fly a commissioning pennant from the top of the main mast at all times, expect under special circumstances when a personal flag (like the flag of a Vice Admiral) is flown in its place. The ship also always flies the NOAA service flag from the foremast gaff. As a recreational boater, these are flags you clearly don’t have to worry about.
While underway, the national ensign is flown from the gaff on the mainmast, which is flown day and night per regulations for providing for the identification of the nationality of the vessel. While at anchor or alongside in port, the ship would fly the national ensign from the flag staff at the stern and the union jack at the jack staff. The national ensign and jack are flown from 0800 to sunset. If the two flags are not hoisted simultaneously, the ensign is hoisted before the jack and lowered after. The ensign should be hoisted briskly and smartly, and lowered ceremoniously. The hoisting and striking of these flags is known as Morning Colors and Evening Colors respectively.
This can be translated relatively directly to flying of flags on a recreational sailboat, though you would likely only have one mast. On a recreational motor vessel, you would likely be flying the national ensign from the stern of your vessel both underway and at anchor. I also very rarely see the union jack flown from a recreational vessel, but burgees (pennants denoting a manufacturer or club membership) flying from the bow of vessel. Also, the ensign often flown by recreational vessels is the US Yacht Ensign, which is red and white stripes of our national flag, but with a fouled anchor in a circle of thirteen stars in the canton. Use of the Yacht Ensign was restricted to registered yachts over a certain tonnage, but that ended in 1980 and now it can be used by any US pleasure vessel.
Daily flag etiquette for our ship wasn’t an issue, but I was tasked with ensuring that the ship was in PROPER full dress. Fully dressing a ship involves stringing a “rainbow” of signal flags from bow to stern, flying the national ensign from all mastheads, and flying larger holiday flags from the traditional locations. This is done on holidays, like Independence Day, and is also a common sight among recreational vessels. Our previous CO was more relaxed about…well pretty much everything, and we had been flying the alphabet for full dress, but that obviously wasn’t correct.
I first consulted the US Navy’s directives on the topic, but there was an issue in that we didn’t carry the full Navy flag bag, which meant matching their guidelines for the “rainbow” of signal flags was impossible…so where can you find an authoritative source on how to fully dress a ship using just the standard flag bag? Chapman Piloting & Seamanship of course.
Turns out there is an appropriate order in which to display the signal flags in a pleasing fashion, such that they cannot be confused for a proper signal or convey anything offensive. The customary merchant and yacht sequence for a rainbow of signal flags is:
A, B, 2, U, J, 1, K, E, 3, G, H, 6, I, V, 5, F, L, 4, D, M, 7, P, O, 3rd Sub, R, N, 1st Sub, S, T, 0 (Zero), C, X, 9, W, Q, 8, Z, Y, 2nd Sub.
Another ship in the fleet got into some hot water when someone noticed that their rainbow of signal flags actually spelled out “F*** NOAA”; supposedly arranged by a disgruntled employee that had long since departed the ship before his malfeasance was discovered.
In case you’re thinking no one pays attention, during my nearly 2-years as Navigation Officer on the Rainier I fielded a handful of inquiries regarding our flags. This included a very gruff VHF call from someone I can only assume was an old Navy signalman asking why we were fly a signal indicating “very deep depression approaching and SOS had been cancelled.” I happily informed him that per the regulations for transiting the Lake Union Ship Canal, we were flying our radio call sign, W-T-E-F; he didn’t respond back.
Until next time, here’s wishing you fair winds and following seas.
Brent Pounds has over a decade of experience in the maritime industry and has been involved in recreations boating since he was a child. See the About section for more detailed information.