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