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Flags Their Usage And Etiquette

This short guide to flags, their usage and etiquette is written as an aid to members who are encouraged to do their utmost to conform to the historic traditions associated with the subject and to assist them to avoid offending anyone by the inappropriate or incorrect use of flags on their boats.

There seem to be a few simple rules of flag etiquette that most of us try to obey.

The flags which may be flown by yachts include the National Maritime Ensign, The Club Burgee, Club Flag, Officers Flags, House Flags, flags when abroad and flags connected to either signalling or racing.

The Union flag, Welsh Dragon and the Crosses of St Andrew, St George and St Patrick are primarily land flags and should not be flown at sea 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” .

The details of these flags and their usage are:-

1. The Ensign

British Yachts fly the National Maritime Flag (The Red Ensign) as their Ensign unless their Club is privileged to wear a special Ensign. Our Club does not currently hold the privilege. We therefore use the Red Ensign.
Ensigns should be flown in a prominent position normally at a staff on the stern but may be flown when under sail by Gaff Rigged Yachts at the peak of the sail on the after mast, by Yawls and Ketches at the mizzen masthead and by others at a position two thirds of the way up the leach of the aft sail.
The Ensign should be worn when entering or leaving harbour and must be worn when entering or leaving a foreign port. It is normally worn in harbour when the crew are onboard but need not be worn at sea except when meeting another vessel or coming close to the land. In harbour the Ensign should be hoisted at 0800 in summer and at 0900 between 1 November and 14 February. It should be lowered at 2100 or sunset whichever is the earlier or when the crew go ashore if before that time. Ensigns should not be left flying overnight in harbour.

Yachts that are racing do not fly Ensigns.

If racing, the ensign should be hauled down before the three-minute signal and replaced by the racing class flag and then hoisted on finishing Yachts or when retiring from the race.

2. The Burgee

The GCYC has its own burgee which all members are encouraged to use on their yachts. It signifies membership of the Club of which we should all be proud. Yachts should only fly one Club Burgee at a time irrespective of the number of Clubs for which they hold membership.

In the good old days this had to be flown on a staff at the mast head, but nowadays it generally seems to be flown from the senior available spreader. The starboard spreaders are used for signalling. This is where both a national courtesy flag and the Q flag should be flown. The starboard spreader is the more important and your burgee or pendant should be there, unless you are visiting a foreign country and so flying a courtesy flag, when this goes to starboard and the burgee to port.

The Burgee should be flown at the same times as the Ensign in harbour although in recent years it has become common practice to leave the Burgee flying at night if the owner is either onboard or ashore in the vicinity. This practice is acceptable. At sea the burgee is normally flown in sight of land or other vessels.
Members Club Burgees should be flown in any yacht chartered by them in preference to that of the Charter Company or owner.

3. Flag Officers Flags

You should only fly one triangular burgee – or if you are a flag officer, a swallow-tailed pendant (pronounced pennant). These flags are flown by day and night while the owner is either onboard or in effective control of the vessel. Flag Officer flags normally incorporate the Club Burgee. In this case it is not necessary to fly a Club Burgee in addition to them. Past Commodores flags conform to these rules.

4. Courtesy Flags

It is customary in foreign ports to fly a miniature version of the National Maritime Ensign as a courtesy flag at the starboard spreaders. Only one courtesy flag should normally be flown. Courtesy flags should only be flown above (superior to) any other flags on the same halyard.

Local Flags

Local Flags should not be flown in lieu of courtesy flags but can be flown at the port spreader in addition to them. Within the British Isles courtesy flags are not strictly necessary. The flags of Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales, Isle Of Man, Jersey, Guernsey, Alderney, Sark and Herm may however be flown at the starboard spreader out of politeness.

6. House Flags

Some owners and organisations have private flags. These may be flown in harbour at the port spreader. Such flags should only be flown at the same time as Ensigns and Burgees.

7. Salutes

It is customary for yachts to salute both warships of all nations and flag officers of their own Club. Salutes are made by dipping the ensign only (dipping the ensign to a position two-thirds the way down the halyard from the close-up position). Salutes are acknowledged by the other vessel also dipping her Ensign in response and rehoisting it. The saluting yacht should then rehoist her Ensign.
It is also customary for a Flag Officer to be saluted by a yacht flying the burgee of that club – once per day is usually sufficient!

8. Dressing Ship

The celebration of Important National Days, club regattas and special occasions such as the birth of a grandchild calls for the wonderful performance of dressing ship.

British vessels are encouraged to dress ship on Important National Days, 6 February for Her Majesty the Queen’s Accession (masthead ensigns only – explained later), 21 April for Her Majesty’s Birthday, 2 June for Her Majesty’s Coronation, Second Saturday in June for Her Majesty’s Official Birthday, 10 June for the birthday of HRH Prince Philip

On a national occasion, it becomes correct to fly an ensign at the mast head. If abroad it would be correct etiquette to fly that countries ensign on the taffrail.

9. Dressed overall for private occasions

Yachts dressed overall such as an open regatta day make a wonderful spectacle and add to the atmosphere of any regatta. At the mast head the correct burgee with an appropriate ensign should be worn; if the yacht has two masts then it may fly a house flag at the mizzen truck. There is no single correct order for code flags used in dressing overall, but it is important to avoid any unintended signal through a particular sequence of flags and desirable to evenly spaced pendants. Like any complicated nautical manoeuvre, dressing ship needs to be planned. The trick is never to rely on the toggles and loops supplied with the flags to take the weight of the hoist. Sooner or later, usually sooner, one of these will part. Also, do not assume that the length of all your flags joined together will in fact be the length you require to span your rig.

The drill is to first make an eye in the middle of a single ‘dressing’ line and hoist to the truck. Mark the ends of the hoist, the stern at one end and the point above the water where a weighted ‘E’ flag will hang clear of the water at the bow. Make sure that a downhaul is attached to the hoisting eye to facilitate retrieval. Measure 20 equal spaces between the bow mark and the eye, then measure 20 equal spaces between the stern mark and the eye. Bind your 40 flags individually onto the hoisting line so that they are equally spaced in the prescribed order – an order said to have been instituted so that yeomen of signals would not be able to secrete rude messages about the parentage of their officers within the sequence of letters and numerals.

Bow to mast head: - B, Q, U, 2nd Substitute, L, Numeral 8, T, P, Numeral 5, S, Numeral 9, X, Z, 3rd Substitute, R, Numeral 0, C, G, Answering Pendant, D.

Mast head to stern: - W, Numeral 4, E, F, Numeral 7, N, Numeral 6, J, O, Numeral 3, H, Numeral 2, Y, M, Numeral 1, K, 1st Substitute, V, I, A.

10. Remembrance

Remembrance Sunday is held on the second Sunday in November, the club has adopted the observation of two-minutes of silence at 11.00am. as the way to remember what happened.
Merchant Navy Day is marked by flying the red ensign on the 3rd of September, the recognition of this day was intended to change the nation’s perspective of all merchant seafarers and raise the profile of what our Merchant Navy has contributed to the development of world trade, the first ever Merchant Navy Day was held in 2000. The decision to hold a Merchant Navy Day was announced by former Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott in September 1999

11. Special Occasions

Finally there are customs of flag etiquette for special occasions.

The most important special flag is the gin pendant. This green flag with a white centre overprinted with a glass signifies to your friends that you are holding open house, or more precisely open ship. You may meet many strangers as well, but all will have displayed the nautical ability to read flag signals.