Dave provocatively contends that an ensign can make a serviceable tea towel – and vice versa

I feel sorry for sailors in countries like France, Holland and Cornwall who have nothing but a national flag to hang on their flagstaff, writes Dave Selby.

It must cause terrible confusion, not to say social awkwardness. Fortunately, here in the developed world we have the ensign, which in its myriad permutations denotes not merely who you are, but more importantly who you aren’t, who you used to be, who you’d like to be, why it will never happen and which way the wind’s blowing – quite literally.

Come to think of it, a Sailfish 18 also does all of these things. So does a Sunseeker, for that matter. But that’s not the point, and I’m afraid the delicate nuances and etiquette of the ensign will be lost on those who live in other lands where people care less about what others think, i.e. the rest of the world. I should explain.

There can be no other item on board your boat that serves so many practical and social functions.

On a small boat, where space is at a premium and there’s no room for a butler, your ensign can be pressed into service as a tea towel. The very act of drying your own Tupperware serves to remind you that you haven’t got a butler, which in turn keeps you grounded and stops you getting ideas above your station. It’s all very straightforward.

When it needs drying you can hang it out on your flagstaff, and while it’s doing that it’s also saying more about you than mere money – or lack of it – ever can. In short, the ensign is a treatise on the British class system, and just like the class system, no one understands it.

Depending on who you aren’t you’re supposed to fly a pink, red, dark blue, light blue, Burberry check or white one, any of which can come with all manner of heraldic devices.

The pink one is for sailors on the ’Amble: like their trousers, it started off red, but has been professionally distressed to give the impression you’ve been about a bit and know what you’re doing. The Burberry check one adorned with the interlocking Cs of the Coco Chanel emblem is the Sunseeker non-domicile national ensign: this is tax-deductible, as indeed is everything. It’s all really quite straightforward.

Other stuff on it…

Most of you PBO readers will probably fly a red one. Mine’s dark blue with some other stuff on it, but I’m afraid I’m not permitted to tell you how I came by it: protocol will not allow. Let’s just say there’s a warrant involved and leave it at that.

Nevertheless, my dark blue tea towel – I mean ensign – has caused considerable fascination over the years. I’ve been asked so many times ‘Dave, what’s with the blue ensign?’ that in the spirit of translucency I’ve developed a series of elaborate responses.

  • Answer 1: ‘Need to know basis, I’m afraid.’
  • 2: ‘Sorry, if you don’t know, I can’t tell you.’
  • 3: ‘It means I’m the stand-on vessel.’
  • 4: ‘Would it help if I simply say “Who Dares Wins”?’
  • 5: ‘Oh, it’s just a family thing.’

I hope that clarifies things for you. The point is that no one understands the infinite, complex labyrinth of the British ensign – apart from people who do, and who really care. And a yacht surveyor friend of mine came across one a while ago in a faraway island hamlet – began with C, I think, but not Canvey – who was a member of some three-letter organisation like RHS, the NHS or BHS – possibly there was a Y in the middle, an S at the end and an R somewhere else.

Anyway, it was an organisation that has dispensation to fly the white ensign, as flown by the Royal Navy… under certain conditions.

The boat owner was after a tonnage measurement and certificate. The surveyor measured the boat and found it to be 29ft; the owner suggested that if he measured it again he might find it was actually 30ft; surveyor re-measured with the same result; owner suggested tape measure might have stretched; surveyor said no; owner offered to pay ‘rather a lot’ if surveyor was a little more flexible than his tape measure; surveyor left.

Turns out that to fly a white ensign the boat needed to be 30ft.

So size matters, but as the owner of a Sailfish 18, which is actually 18ft 6in, I know all about that.

It all seems a bit unnecessary as I found a white ensign for a couple of quid at the Essex boat jumble; they’re also all over the terraces at England games at Wembley and Twickenham. In fact, they are really not hard to come by.

The only trouble is they’re generally a bit large for tea towels. Mine’s a tablecloth.