Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Waving a Red (White and Blue) Flag

Okay, Commodore Jim Bob Vanderbilt, let’s say you were entertaining a Greek shipping magnate, a French philosopher, a Finnish ice sculptor and an Indonesian chef aboard your boat. How would you arrange their national courtesy flags? Not your biggest worry, you might say, yet there is a strict protocol for that. (Fly their national ensigns on alternate starboard and port flag halyards in alphabetical order by the English name for the country; so French and Greek flags to starboard and Finnish and Indonesian to port. Whew, we know you’re relieved to know that now and can go back to worrying how to fit them all in the cockpit, not to mention why you invited them in the first place. Flag etiquette is a notoriously touchy subject among those who know and understand it, versus most of the rest of us, who consider some of it as arcane as Lacanian literary criticism theory. Yet flag etiquette represents a fine nautical tradition that deserves more attention than it gets. So with that in mind, we thought you might be interested to know a few of the rules that apply to just one aspect: flying the American flag.

Did you know that you have the choice of flying either of two U.S. flags while you’re in this country, but only one outside of it? Domestically, you can use either the standard American flag or the yacht ensign. This latter was designed by the New York Yacht Club to designate pleasure yachts so they wouldn’t be taxed as a commercial vessel when they came into port. Outside the country, though, the only legal flag is the standard stars and stripes. You also have a choice of where to fly it, though the current standard is off a flagstaff at the stern of the boat, which is where it is always supposed to be flown if you’re anchored or in port. Otherwise, if you’re a sailboat, you can fly it at the end of a gaff or two-thirds up the leech of the aft sail or on the backstay. Then there’s the when should you fly the flag question, and the answer is between 8 a.m. and sunset or anytime you leave or enter port, but not anytime you are out of sight of other boats, like in the middle of the ocean. There are lots more rules just for the national flag, but we have room only for one more: size. The recommended size is one inch of “fly” (the horizontal measurement) for every one foot of boat length. So a 40-foot boat should fly a 40-inch flag.

Well, we’ve barely touched on the fascinating but touchy subject of flag etiquette. What about club flags, courtesy flags, private flags and the international code of signal flags? You may be sure that there are rules for them all. Open up your copy of Chapman Piloting to the chapter on boating customs or go to www.usps.org/f_stuff/etiquett.html for the U.S. Power Squadron’s recently revised flag rules for modern mariners (which we’ve used above). Care to comment or argue a point? Write us at CX@Cruisers


Anonymous said...

You describe flag etiquette when hosting visiting “dignitaries” (including several visitors with clearly no state affiliation). Then you proceed to describe a regimen for multiple flag display based on various alphabetical rules. The end result is not something your publication can be proud of.

Please be advised that there is absolutely no protocol for such displays, alphabetical or otherwise. Such displays fall into the category of “novelty flags” and these can be displayed according to the owner’s or skipper’s whim. You should consider adding a nautically aware proof writer to your staff as soon as economically practicable.

BTW, I’m available for the job on short notice.

Good luck and good sailing.

Armond Perretta
s/v Kerry Deare of Barnegat

Jody Argo Schroath said...

Dear Armond,

Thanks for your comments on the recent Cruisers Exchange about flag etiquette. We assure you that we did not make that practice up, but were using a couple of different sources as reference, including the U.S. Power Squadron's updated flag code for recreational boaters, "How to Fly flags," which was developed with the Coast Guard, New York Yacht Club and others. Here is a direct quote from the applicable section:

"Foreign Guest Flags

When a foreign guest is aboard, you may display the ensign of the guest's country from the bow staff or outboard port spreader. Should more than one such guest flag be appropriate, wear them on spreader halyards from port to starboard in the alphabetical order of their countries' names in the English language."

Thanks again. Feel free to comment anytime. We'd enjoy hearing from you.

Best regards,


Jody Argo Schroath
Senior Editor
Chesapeake Bay Magazine

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the informative response. Certainly the USPS suggestions should not be dismissed out-of-hand. However the suggested custom does not merit serious consideration due solely to its existence.

Showing the national flag of a visitor is courteous, but it remains a “novelty flag” display nonetheless. According such novelty flags more than a passing reference is indicative of the decline of any sort or serious order on board ship. It falls into the same league as the display of the US flag at the starboard spreader by US vessels.

Good luck and good sailing.

Armond Perretta

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