Andy Du Port draws upon 50 years’ experience to share the customary way of doing things when it comes to boat flag etiquette…
Almost everything we do, ashore and afloat, is governed by laws, which we must obey, and guidance, which we can accept or ignore.
When driving, we are governed by the Road Traffic Regulation Act and guided by The Highway Code.
At sea, we are bound by the Merchant Shipping Act and guided by advice from the likes of the Royal Yachting Association (RYA).
For example, the law requires us to wear our national ensign on specified occasions, but we are only advised to hoist it at 0800 and lower it at sunset.
And then we have etiquette, which may be somewhat perplexing but soon becomes second nature.
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It can be specific or it can simply reflect good manners, courtesy and common sense, thus avoiding awkward or embarrassing pitfalls.
All sports have their etiquette, some of which is quite prescriptive. You only have to google ‘golfing etiquette’ or ‘football etiquette’ to see what I mean.
Sailing etiquette tends to be more relaxed but, nonetheless, you should be aware of it – even if you then decide to ignore it.
The dictionary description is along the lines of: The customary code of polite behaviour among members of a particular group.
In other words, in this context, it is ‘what most people do’ when afloat in their boats. To add confusion to this somewhat prickly subject, boat etiquette is continually changing.
When I started sailing yachts in the late 1960s it was de rigueur to conduct Colours and Sunset, with due ceremony, when in harbour.
Many a snooty look would be directed at a yacht who was two minutes late or whose crew was not smartly turned out. Nowadays, the custom has all but disappeared.
Some etiquette is founded on tradition, but most is based on practicalities which, if observed by the majority, just makes life afloat even more agreeable.
At one end of the scale you will meet yachtsmen or women who are sticklers for what they regard as inflexible etiquette.
If you don’t conform they will glower at you from under the peaks of their yachting caps and splutter into their gin.
At the other extreme are those who are quite content for their boats to resemble Steptoe’s yard while they themselves ignore all around them. Most fall somewhere in between.
Boat flag etiquette explained
Few topics generate more discussion, irascibility and confusion than boat flag etiquette. As far as I can determine, only one boat flag (the ensign) is governed by the rule of law; if you get it wrong, you could be prosecuted.
The flying of all others is either the subject of well-founded recommendations – usually for safety reasons or to avoid confusion – or simply by what has become common practice.
This is the flag you must get right. Almost every boat which puts to sea wears an ensign. The rules are strict and enforceable under the Merchant Shipping Act: the law requires that only the relevant national ensign may be worn, in the right position.
The law also requires the ensign to be worn on certain specific occasions, such as entering a foreign port or when asked to do so by a warship.
You would be breaking the law by hoisting any boat flag other than a national ensign at the ensign staff or other authorised position.
By all means fly regional flags elsewhere in the rigging. It is a nice custom, for example, to fly the Cornish flag in Cornwall or the Breton flag in Brittany – usually at the port spreader.
Should you hoist your ensign in the morning and lower it at night? This is not compulsory and most people now do not.
Theories abound about the origins of Colours and Sunset, the most likely being that all boat flags, not only ensigns, were taken in at night for two very logical reasons: no one could see them, and it saved bunting.
This then developed into the ceremonies of Morning Colours (usually at 0800 in the summer and 0900 in the winter) and Sunset (referred to as Evening Colours when conducted at 2100 if sunset is later).
I can find no evidence to support the various beliefs that these ceremonies show veneration for those who have lost their lives at sea or that they demonstrate respect for the monarch.
However, etiquette also comes into play. Many yacht clubs conduct Colours and Sunset, and require their members to do so.
So if you find yourself berthed for the night in sight of such a club, or in the company of its members, boat flag etiquette suggests that you should follow their lead.
Similarly, it would be remiss of you not to lower your ensign at the same time as a nearby warship.
Lowering or hoisting the ensign on a short staff is not really practicable, so it is widely accepted that the staff may be removed, with the ensign attached, and stowed for the night.
Avoid wrapping the ensign round the staff and leaving it in situ; it looks scruffy and is neither one thing nor the other.
Most other boat flags demand no such angst, but the burgee comes a close second. If you are entitled to wear a ‘special ensign’ i.e. white, blue (plain or defaced) or red (defaced), your permit will dictate that the relevant burgee must be flown at the same time.
If this applies to you, you will know all about it. If not, don’t worry. Some clubs insist their members fly the burgee at the masthead. Otherwise, the starboard spreader is an acceptable alternative.
Standard practice is to fly a courtesy flag when in the territorial waters of another nation, usually hoisted at the starboard spreader (never at the masthead). Some countries require a courtesy flag to be worn, and you could cause considerable offence if you do not comply.
A tricky situation arises if you normally fly a burgee at the starboard spreader, as a courtesy flag should take precedence. A solution is to transfer the burgee to the port spreader.
If the country you are visiting also requires you to fly a Q flag, your problems just get worse. There doesn’t seem to be much agreement on this but I suggest you should leave the courtesy flag on its own to starboard, and fly the Q flag below the burgee to port.
The situation will resolve itself as soon as you have been cleared by customs and can put the Q flag away.
Basically, you can do what you like but common sense indicates that you should not fly any boat flags which could be misinterpreted.
For example, almost all the International Code Flags (A-Z and 0-9) have specific meanings. If you decide to fly flag Juliet because its blue and white stripes match your topsides, you will also be signalling ‘On fire and have dangerous cargo on board; keep well clear of me’.
For much the same reason, there is a recommended order for boat flags when dressing overall. If you follow it, not only will the flags give a pleasing appearance, you can also be sure that you do not unintentionally spell anything which you may regret.
You often see boats flying all sorts of bunting. A common boat flag is the Jolly Roger (also known as the Skull and Crossbones), or those with young children may be seen flying a kite in the form of a fish from the backstay.
Does it matter? Not really, but boat flag etiquette suggests that too many flags is a bit sloppy and makes your boat look like a fairground.
As for burgees (again), I see no reason not to fly more than one (being careful to obey the special ensign rules if relevant), but too many could imply that you are either showing off or indecisive.
You can read more boat flag etiquette guidance on the official Royal Yachting Association website.
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This feature appeared in the May 2022 edition of Practical Boat Owner. For more articles like this, including DIY, money-saving advice, great boat projects, expert tips and ways to improve your boat’s performance, take out a magazine subscription to Britain’s best-selling boating magazine.
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