Flag etiquette on the water is a tradition that has been passed down from generations of sailors and mariners. With expectations set by regulations and tradition 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.

Along with owning or using a vessel or watercraft you will do well to observe and perpetuate with pride some old traditions and proven guidelines.

Flags are signals and each one says something specific about a vessel or watercraft. They can signal nationality, manoeuvring situations, club affiliation, office held or other situations.

Flags customarily flown from vessels may be divided into Ensigns, Burgees, Special Flags such as House Flags, Racing Flags, Prize Flags, Code Flag Q and Celebration flags or pennants along with the flags of the International Code used in signalling at sea.

Flags are ‘worn’ by a vessel and ‘flown’ by the owner.

Ensigns

The Ensign is the principal flag on board a vessel, it is describing any flag which is flown to denote the nationality of a ship. In general Australia follows the British system which dates back the sixteenth century. For Australia the Federal Shipping Registration Act, 1981, describes the use of the Australian Red Ensign which are the national colours of Australia’s merchant ships.

Private pleasure craft are given the option of using this Australian Red Ensign or the Australian National Flag. It is recommended that private craft the Australian Red Ensign in home waters but use the national colours when overseas.

The Australian Red ensign or the Australian National flag are flown from the stern (back of the vessel) or galf which is the pole attached the mast.

A great tip is to ensure you have the correct size and ensure the ensign is in top condition, that also applies for all flags. It is disrespectful to wear a faded or tattered Ensign or Courtesy Flag or have a flag too large that it hangs in the water and cannot be dipped.

Having the right size of ensign makes a boat look great and is a credit to the owner. What should the flag size be? We will look at that shortly and give you some advice.

A light racing yacht and a heavy cruiser of the same overall length may not look “well dressed” with flags of identical size. A guide for an ensign used to be an inch per foot but in modern yachts this is often found to be a little on the small side.

Ensign Size Dimensions and guidelines

RECOMMENDED FLAG SIZES

Burgee

A “Burgee” is a flag, small and swallow-tailed, and used today as a symbol of a yacht club or sailing organisation. The history of burgees began in the nineteenth century when ship-owners custom designed their own “private signal” that generally flew from top of the ship’s tallest mast.

These were unique to every ship so that a ship could be recalled to land by a corresponding flag signal ashore. When owners began to own more than one ship, these “private signals” soon became associated with “company” flags or flags for different shipping lines.

Flying the burgee is an important part of belonging to a yacht club and a vessel owned by a member. Each yacht, cruiser or sailing club has its own burgee and in Australia this is a triangular flag. Yacht Clubs are free to choose there own design of burgee so long as it does not contravene regulation or can be confused with any other flag, Ensign or burgee.

Burgee and Racing pennant sizing

General

  • It goes without saying that the owner of a yacht should only fly the burgee of the clubs of which he is a member.
  • Traditionally a vessel displays only one burgee.
  • The burgee should only be flown with the correct Ensign, and the Ensign may be the special Ensign of the club whose burgee is being flown, or an undefaced Red Ensign. The burgee may, however , be flown on its own in a small boat which would not normally wear an Ensign, or in a larger yacht at sea which may strike its Ensign when away from land or other ships.
  • Many yacht owners, when in harbour at night, and these will be lowered at sunset when the owner goes ashore if it before that time.
  • Some owners strike only the Ensign and leave the club burgee flying during the hours of darkness during such time as the owner is in its vicinity of the yacht and can be described as being in effective control of the yacht.

Position of Burgee

The burgee should be flown from a staff at the main masthead, The starboard crosstree is considered a reasonable alternative for racing yachts with no masthead halliard, or with too many instruments at the masthead.

A gaff rigged cutter carrying a big jackyard topsail may fly the burgee from the end of the topsail yard.

In powerboats which have no mast the burgee may be flown from a staff in the bows or over the wheelhouse.

These days it is becoming increasingly common for yachts to fly a burgee from the starboard spreaders because of the instrumentation sited at the main masthead.

With modern vessels the traditional position at the top of the mast is no longer used because of interference with wind sensors and antennas.

Again 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.

Courtesy Flag

When visiting foreign waters, the National Ensign of that host country should be displayed This is usually a smaller flag than the vessel’s ensign and is normally hoisted from the starboard spreader. This position is understood and acceptable in all countries. The courtesy flag should be in good condition, accurately made and must be no smaller than 610 x 305mm (24”x 12”). Foreign vessels visiting Australia should fly the Australian National Flag.

Quarantine Flag – Q Code Flag

The Code Flag “Q”- Request Pratique is flown on entering a foreign port or returning home from abroad to indicate there is no health problems aboard and that clearance is required. It also allows Border Control – Customs that the vessel has be in foreign waters.

The starboard spreaders are used for signalling. This is where both a courtesy flag and the Q flag, as signals, should be flown.

Distress Signal – N over C Code Flag

Distress signals can be made by flags in two ways:
Display Code flags “N “over “C”
Hoist the Ensign upside down
Quarantine Code Flag

Gin, Wine, Champagne Pennants

These are social flags and when flown indicates the owner is “ At Home” and guests are invited for a drink. The pendant is the same shape as the Numeral pendant.

Racing Flag

A special flag that replaces the club burgee whilst a vessel is subject to the racing rules. The flag is either a special rectangular flag or burgee shape.
In the past a racing Flag was required to be flown as the masthead whilst racing. This has not been a mandatory requirement for some time. If used, it is flown from the backstay or at the masthead.

As a general rule, although there are exceptions, no Ensign is worn when a yacht is racing. However, it may occasionally be necessary for yachts engaged in an offshore race , to show there colours when in a foreign territorial waters or when entering or leaving a port. On these occasions an Ensign is to be worn, although the yacht is racing.

Where it is the practice of wearing a racing flag it should flown only immediately before, during and immediately after the completion of the race. The racing flag should be replaced by the burgee when the yacht finally secures at her mooring or anchors after racing.

World Sailing 20 Eastbourne Terrace, London W26LG United Kingdom
www.sailing.org
https://www.mhyc.com.au/images/Sailing/2020-2021/Keelboat/RaceManagement/RRS20212024Final-[26369].pdf

House Flag

The owner of a yacht may fly a house flag with a device of there own design provided it does not infringe the Merchant Shipping Act. Distinguishing flags should be flown from the port spreaders, but are frequently hoisted from the forestay.

Wearing Colours

The owner ensures the vessel wear a suit of colours which normally comprises of the Australian Red Ensign (ARE) or the Australian National Flag (ANF).

Traditionally the practice of hoisting and lowering the ARE and ANF is conducted in ceremonies known as morning ‘ Colours’ or evening ‘Sunset’. The ceremonies are conducted at shore establishments, in ships alongside in harbour and by those moored to a bouy or at anchor. Ships at sea do not observe the custom. Instead, they continuously fly the ANE or ANF on the ensign staff or gaff on the mainmast.

Dressing a Ship on National Occasions

The nautical term “dress ship’’ can be confusing and it applies to defence, commercial, cruise and private craft. It is a process of decorating a ship for a celebration. The process involves using International Code of Signals.

Dress Ship – Reprisal

Dressing Ship

On national holidays and special occasions, private boats can join in the celebrative spirit and “dress ship”. This is done with the international code of signal flags. On such a day, the Red Ensign, or National Flag, should be raised on the stern (ensign) staff or peak of the gaff staff. Another can be flown at the masthead.

The correct and only flag that should be flown from the stern or the gaff on Australian vessels is the Australian National Flag (blue) or the Australian Red Ensign. Under the Federal Shipping Registration Act, 1981, the Australian Red Ensign was retained as the national colours of Australia’s merchant ships. Private pleasure craft were also given the option of using this Red Ensign or the Australian National Flag.

There are 40 international code flags which can be flown on a dressing line from stem to stern. The code flag dressing lines should be kept taut, with the flags evenly spaced and in the pattern recommended by the Royal Yachting Association.

There are a number of “do’s” and “don’ts” for display colours correctly as opposed to merely hanging anything off the mast. An example of poor etiquette is for a corporate or company vessel to fly the company flag from the stern (ensign) staff or gaff. Likewise, flying a false colour (a flag flown on a ship to hide which country it comes from) from this position is a grave breach of protocol and, in some countries, would even result in being arrested.

Dressing lines consist of stringing the flags of the International Code from the stem head to the masthead, from the masthead to masthead (where the vessel has more than one mast) and thence to the taffrail. It is important that Ensigns, racing or other private flags should not be used on the dressing lines ( i.e.: the string of flags going overall), which should be confined to flags of the International Code of Signals. In arranging at the flags on the dressing lines triangular flags and pendants, should be as far as possible, be placed between rectangular flags (this cannot be done throughout however as there are not enough pendants and triangular flags). Adjacent flags should be chosen to give as much contrast as possible, if the full complement of flags is unavailable. All vessels should be as far as possible be dressed alike. There is no official order addressing flags by the following has come into use and it is recommended.

E, Q, p3, G, p8, Z, p4, W, p6, P pl, I, Code, T, Y, B, X, 1st, H, 3rd, D, F, 2nd, U, A, O, M, R, p2, J p0, N, p9, K, P7, V, p5, L, C, S.

On the dressing lines, triangular flags and pennants should, as far as possible, be spaced between the rectangular flags. Theoretically, all vessels should be dressed alike. In a single-masted vessel, the line from the bow to the masthead can finish with the 3rd substitute and the line from the masthead to the stern carried on from D.

Although technically not part of the dress ship procedure, other flags such as the owner’s house flag, the Greater Sydney Ensign, the Federation flag etc., may be flown from the yards or equivalent positions. It is important that ensigns, racing or private flags (such as the boxing kangaroo) should NOT be included in the dressing lines which are for code flags only.

Other Flags

Although technically not part of the dress ship procedure, other flags such as the owner’s house flag, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Flags, Greater Sydney Ensign, the Federation flag etc., may be flown from the yards or equivalent positions.

It is important that ensigns, racing or private flags (such as the boxing kangaroo) should NOT be included in the dressing lines which are for code flags only. On the dressing lines triangular flags and pennants should, as far as possible, be spaced

Pilot Flag

Marine inspectors perform inspections on behalf of Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA)—both planned and unscheduled. They will conduct an inspection of the vessel under the National Law, and as to whether the vessel appears to ensure safety of persons, the vessel and the environment. The vessel will be flying a Red over White Pilot flag.

Diving Flag

The Blue and White ‘A’ Alpha Code flag must be displayed whenever divers, spearfishes or snorkelers are operating from a vessel. In addition, it is advisable to attach a high visibility fluorescent yellow/green flag to draw attention to the alpha flag.

A vessel with one or more divers operating from it must display signals indicating this. The international flag ‘A’ (refer to image below) is the signal that ‘I have a diver below—keep well clear at slow speed’. Other vessels must navigate to avoid injuring the diver or interfering with the vessel, float or buoy. In South Australia, the speed limit is four knots within 50 m of a vessel or buoy displaying a divers flag (flag A)

Racing Flag

A special flag that replaces the club burgee whilst a vessel is subject to the racing rules. The flag is either a special rectangular flag or burgee shape.
In the past a racing Flag was required to be flown as the masthead whilst racing. This has not been a mandatory requirement for some time. If used, it is flown from the backstay or at the masthead.

World Sailing 20 Eastbourne Terrace, London W26LG United Kingdom
www.sailing.org
https://www.mhyc.com.au/images/Sailing/2020-2021/Keelboat/RaceManagement/RRS20212024Final-[26369].pdf

Protest Flag

When racing, a protest flag Code Flag “B” should be flown in the rigging by a protester as soon as possible after an incident occurs to indicate that a protest is going to be lodged.

Infringement Flag

During the race the Code Flag “I” is flown by a yacht to acknowledge an infringement of the rule.

Yacht Racing Signals

A number of international Code Flags are used in racing.

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