Flag Etiquette

Written by Stephen White


I am collating this information from various sources, and I am doing my best to ensure it is correct and as accurate as possible.  I take no responsibility for incorrect actions taken by the reader based on anything read here. It is up to you, the reader, to make use of this information as you see fit.  This said I will continue to do everything I can to improve on the quality of information provided for you.

Flag Etiquette

I have spent a little time (too long, some might say) putting some notes together to help with what is sometimes a bit of a mystery.   It may sound a little silly but a subject as potentially unimportant as Flags can generate more than its fair share of embarrassment, so my aim here is to offer a few basic guidelines to minimise this risk. In doing so I make no apology for:

  1. Stating the blindingly obvious.
  2. Teaching Granny to suck eggs. 

  3. Repetition.

If you know all this already then that is a good thing.  If not, please feel free to read on. 


Coloured pieces of cloth have been wound around arms, trees, masts and other things ever since mankind decided to become a member of a group.   These ‘flags and ensigns’ have come to mean all sorts of things, from communicating a signal to simply showing a belonging or membership.

Flags and ensigns are as important today as they were when Admiral Lord Nelson was a lad. 

It is so simple to replace a worn out flag or ensign by purchasing one using your membership discount at our own chandlery, Richardsons Yacht Services, who can be contacted on 01983 821095  (www.richardsonsyacht.co.uk)   or, for more esoteric Drapeaux, maybe even ordering on the internet.   It is so easy to keep your wardrobe of such things in good condition that there really is no excuse for your flags and ensigns to look tatty. 


It is key to use the right flags/combinations of flags at the right time, however almost as important as this is to use clean and undamaged examples.  Some people can be as offended by seeing their national flag as a courtesy flag when it looks like it was last used as an engine or polishing rag.    A season in hot sunshine in France renders Le Tricolor a useless piece of coloured insult, causing Gallic harrumphs all around.  And when your French neighbour spots your ensign, hanging there all tattered and faded,   a few ‘Sacre Bleu’s’ will probably join the back ground hum.

The only ensigns that are legally permitted for the UK are the British Red, White or Blue (light or dark blue.)   You will see or maybe even use other ensigns (Cornish,  Devon etc;) while you are in UK waters you will probably get away with it.  Examples of these are shown below.   Best advice is not to use anything other than the Red or Blue when abroad as it will generate confusion and thus interest on the part of the customs and excise authorities.  In addition, to do so is in contravention of British and International Law. 

Key Things (and again, no apology for repetition)

  • The Right Flags and Ensigns.  More on this below,  but ensure they are correct.
  • Clean Flags and Ensigns.   A dirty or worn out and tatty ensign shows a lack of respect for your own country and similarly,  a dirty, worn out or faded courtesy flag can be easily mis-construed as an insult to the country to whom you are ‘trying’ to show respect. So, if in doubt, replace them.
  • Neatly Hoisted Flags and Ensigns.   Don’t allow your halyards to come slack.   It is not only untidy, but it is also un-seamanlike and could be dangerous.

Flag Terminology 

Your vessel ‘FLIES’ a flag (burgee, courtesy flag etc),   but she ‘WEARS’ her ensign.

Hoist = the side of the flag where the halyard fits

Fly = the part that flaps in the breeze and is prone to tatters

Canton = the upper left section of the flag.









Ok, So What Flags and Ensign Should I Buy for my Pride and Joy?

For the majority of us British seafarers,  the Red Ensign is the one to be worn by our vessels, along with our club burgee should you wish to.   Other ensigns and rules associated with Special Ensigns and Dedicated Burgees are discussed later.





The size of ensign and burgee is, to some extent, common sense.  If it looks right, it probably is. Nobody wants to see a sailing ship battle ensign (huge)  drooping in the water over a leisure craft’s stern.

Rule of Thumb for Ensign Size

Note:  when sizing rectangular flags/ensigns,  the ‘Fly’ or ‘Length’ (as in above diagram) is the distance from the ‘hoist’ edge of the flag (halyard edge) to the ‘fly’ edge (the bit that gets tatty first.)

One inch of length per foot of yacht.  This might look a tad small so working on the above rule that if it looks right, it probably is.  Guidelines are:

  • 3/4 yard ensign  (24 in (61cm)   in the fly)  for a boat 21 - 26 ft long
  • 1-yard ensign  (36 in (91cm)   in the fly)  for a boat 27 - 34 ft long
  • 1 1/4 yard ensign  (45 in (115cm) in the fly)  for a boat 35 - 42 ft long
  • 1 1/2 yard ensign  (54 in (137cm) in the fly)  for a boat 43 - 50 ft long
  • 1 3/4 yard ensign  (63 in (160cm) in the fly)  for a boat 51 - 60 ft long

Rule of Thumb for Burgee Size

Note: when sizing triangular flags/burgees the length is measured from the hoist (halyard) straight across the middle to the point.

  • A burgee of 15 inches in the fly for boats up to around 34 feet long
  • A burgee of 18 inches in the fly for boats up to around 42 feet long
  • A burgee of 24 inches in the fly for boats up to around 50 feet long
  • A burgee of 30 inches in the fly for boats up to around 60 feet long

Rule of Thumb for Courtesy Flag Size

  • A courtesy flag 12 inches in the fly  for a boat 21 - 26 feet long
  • A courtesy flag 15 inches in the fly  for a boat 27 - 34 feet long
  • A courtesy flag 18 inches in the fly  for a boat 35 - 42 feet long
  • A courtesy flag 22 inches in the fly  for a boat 43 - 50 feet long
  • A courtesy flag 30 inches in the fly  for a boat 51 - 60 feet long 

Rule of Thumb for House Flag Size

A house flag is ideally the same size as the courtesy flag you are hoisting i.e. appropriate to the size of your boat as above,  the only difference is that it is normally rectangular.

Ok, So Where do we Wear our Ensign? 
Seniority of Flag Positions - The Bare Bones of it!

This often appears to create contention and much discussion in the bar.  As such it has been the subject of this research.  In modern leisure vessels, this is not necessarily easy to achieve, so it is best to follow the basic rules as closely as possible. 

REMEMBER: A clean, undamaged and well-hoisted ensign in the wrong place is far more acceptable than a dirty, ragged example hanging limply in the correct position.  For ease of reference,  I shall number them in order of seniority.

POSITION 1 The Stern.  The positioning of the ensign goes back to the days of the sailing warship, when the captain would be aft on the poop deck during any action. As a result, the senior hoist, where your ensign should be, is on the stern.  Alternative positions for your ensign are discussed later.

POSITION 2 The top of the main mast. This would be where the dedicated burgee would be flown (more of this later.)  As a member of IHYC only, i.e. and not a member of a club or association entitled to wear anything other than the Red Ensign, this would be the first position for your IHYC Burgee.  Of course, we all have numerous antenna’s and other gadgets, some with moving parts, all vying for position at the mast head,  so quite often the burgee loses out on this position.

POSITION 3 Starboard Signal Hoist. The starboard outer yard arm  (spreader) hoist is also referred as the Signalling Position.   Most yachts will carry one flag hoist on each spreader, but some carry more than one, so the outermost one is senior, and the starboard side is senior to the port side. Again, if your IHYC Burgee doesn’t make it to Position 2, this should be your next choice.

POSITION 4 Port Signal Hoist. The port outer yard arm (spreader) hoist comes next in the pecking order.   This would be your choice for your IHYC Burgee if you have to fly anything special (courtesy flags or dedicated burgees) as well.  More on dedicated burgees and courtesy flags later.

Right,  so we Know What to Use, How Big it Should be, and Where to Put it, 
When Should we Use Them?

Samuel Pepys, the Secretary to the  Admiralty from 1673 to 1679, instructed ships of the Royal Navy alongside to hoist ensigns in the morning at 0800 (local time) and lower them at sunset.  The only reason for this was that he observed the cost of ensign replacement due to wear and tear (and we all know how much they cost and how quickly they fade and fall apart.) He concluded that reducing the time they were hoisted would increase their life and thus save the Admiralty money.

As a result, the generally accepted rules for your ensign, when alongside, are:

  • Hoist in the morning at 0800 (local time or BST) in the summer months
  • Hoist at 0900 local time or GMT / UTC) in the winter months.
  • Lower at sunset.  (sunset can be calculated or looked up in the almanack or of course online.)

It is a common courtesy when alongside in a naval port to follow the senior warship on timings, although this might be a tad over-the-top for us mere mortals. When on a club rally it might be fun to follow the commodore’s actions,  hoisting and lowering on his lead.  Again,  possibly a tad over the top.

When under way,  your ensign should be hoisted correctly at all times.

Common Sense Application of the Rules on Ensigns & Burgees.

Typically, a clean and smart flag pole on the transom of any sea-borne craft is the best place possible for your ensign. However it can get in the way, so other hoists are often used:

Motor Cruisers.  Primary position - Flag Pole on the stern.
Alternative - Flag pole on the fly bridge or on a radar arch etc, preferably as far aft as possible.

You will see RN warships underway with their ensign at the bridge position, normally on a fore and aft yard abaft the bridge (on the Flag Deck.)  Her Majesty’s warships wear the ensign aft and the Union Flag (also correctly known as a Union Jack) on the Jackstaff on the bow when alongside.   If, as motor cruiser skipper, you wanted to be completely correct, moving your ensign from flybridge position to the flag pole on the stern when moored would be good, if a little over the top perhaps.

For motor boats, an ideal place to fly a burgee is on the ‘jack staff’ i.e. a small flag pole right on the bow.   The burgee then fulfils two important functions,  the other being a really good ‘tell-tale’ - ideal for mooring in windy conditions.   Again, for want of repetition:  clean, well-hoisted flags and ensigns in the wrong place are far easier forgiven than dirty, worn, tatty examples in the correct position.

Ideally, your burgee should fly higher than your ensign,  like this: 




But if all else fails... 




Single Masted Yachts. Primary position - The trusty flag pole on the stern.  Alternatively, your Ensign can be worn 2/3 of the way up the leech of the mainsail or 2/3 of the way up the backstay.  This sketch shows the positions;  OBVIOUSLY you will only choose one position for an ensign (and one for burgee! - more later)

Ideally, your burgee should fly higher than your ensign,  like this: 






But if all else fails... 






Twin Masted Yachts (Ketches, Yawls). Again, the trusty pole on the stern is the primary position. However, it is an accepted alternative to wear the ensign at the head (top) of the mizzen (aft) mast.   Normally masts have all sorts of other things fitted to their tops, just asking to foul your ensign, so if you do decide to try this,  think hard about anything that can catch the ensign EVEN when it is pointing forward as you race downwind.     A lovely clean, undamaged ensign can look like your granddad's string vest once it has gone 10 rounds with your VHF antenna.  Beware!

Ideally, your burgee should fly higher than your ensign,  like this: 






 But if all else fails... 







Schooners (main mast is the larger mast aft) Primary position is flag pole on the stern.
Wearing the ensign at the top of the main mast then creates difficulties with positioning of the burgee, which should be higher than the ensign.
The second senior position is the starboard yard arm of the highest (in this case the after) mast.

Ideally, your burgee should fly higher than your ensign,  like this: 







 But if all else fails... 







OK, so how do you fit an ensign and burgee to this boat then? 










Types of Ensign Worn by UK Registered Vessels.





        RED ENSIGN

Union Flag in canton, rest of ensign is red.   This is the national marine ensign which can be worn by all UK registered vessels.  It is also the correct ‘flag’ to be ‘flown’ by foreign nationals when it is displayed as a courtesy flag.   The Union Flag (also referred to as the Union Jack) should never be used as a courtesy flag.   This is probably because few foreign people actually know how to hoist it the right way up;  we have actually observed a USN warship alongside in Portsmouth with a Union Flag hoisted inverted  (wrong on two points!!)  They were advised accordingly by the Queens Harbour Master (QHM.) 

Special Ensigns & Associated Burgees. 

Special Ensigns are worn by members of certain clubs and associations who have a Royal Warrant allowing them the privilege to issue permits allowing members to wear these instead of the Red Ensign (NB:  such members are still entitled to wear the Red Ensign like the rest of us.) 

NOTE:   When a SPECIAL ENSIGN is worn, the rules REQUIRE the DEDICATED BURGEE to be flown,  ON ITS OWN at the next senior hoist.

Two Examples of Special Ensigns and Their Dedicated Burgees. 






Union Flag in canton, rest of ensign is white with the red cross of St George displayed centrally. This is the ensign of the Royal Navy, the Royal Yacht Squadron and is also worn by special permit by a number of churches and buildings in recognition of services to the Royal Navy (St Martin in the Fields, off Trafalgar Square,  St Annes Church in Limehouse, (Tower Hamlets)  are two of note.)


        BLUE ENSIGN (RNSA)                                                    RNSA BURGEE




Union Flag in canton, rest of ensign dark blue.   This national ensign worn by special permission of Her Majesty,  bestowed upon certain clubs and associations.  For example:  the Royal Navy Sailing Association (RNSA) holds a Royal Warrant, permitting members to wear the Blue Ensign on their boats so long as the member is onboard (ie making use of the vessel.) 

In addition the dedicated burgee must be flown in the next senior position and it must be higher than the ensign.

Should another, non-permitted person take the boat away, she should revert to the Red Ensign.   Note the Blue Ensign ‘defaced’ with an anchor;  this is just one example of a ‘defaced’ ensign and is the ensign of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary. 

The 3 ensigns were used by the Royal Navy until 1864 to denote seniority between squadrons or fleets at sea.    Red – 1st,  White – 2nd,   Blue – least senior.  At the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805,  Admiral Lord Nelson was Vice Admiral of the White. 

Other rigs and their related flag/ensign positions can be seen on Part II of the RYA Etiquette Web Pages. 

Other Ensigns You May See. 

These are quite often seen around the Solent and are quite acceptable as UK ensigns.  Wearers of these are required to fly dedicated burgees as well.





This one is from the ROYAL FLEET AUXILIARY. 


        ROYAL AIR FORCE                                                          BRITISH CIVIL AVIATION                              





        AIR TRAINING CORPS                                                  ROYAL OBSERVER CORPS (1952-1995)                               




There are many other defaced red and blue ensigns and more information can be found on Wikipedia.


Now For an Important Bit...

Illegal Ensigns. 

There are other ensigns that show up from time to time,  BUT BE AWARE  that they are not legally recognised,  indeed they are in contravention to British and International Law.   Personally I think they look lovely and in UK waters you may get away with wearing your county ensign.    HOWEVER PLEASE TAKE GREAT CARE NOT TO WEAR THESE AS YOUR MAIN ENSIGN WHEN IN OR NEAR INTERNATIONAL WATERS, since it is a legal requirement for your country of registration to be  readily identifiable to authorities and they may take umbrage.   Non identification might, in extremis, be misconstrued as piracy. 

More often than not the other ensigns you may see are:

        DEVON ENSIGN                                                             CORNISH ENSIGN 




Should you desire to ‘fly’ these,  I doubt you will be castigated for flying them on your port yard arm flag hoist,  along with any other house flags you choose. 

You will often see people displaying this as an ensign: 






Normally hoisted in small motor boats for fun, this is really to be avoided as an ensign.
I have recently been told by one of our members that a jolly roger is often used to indicate you have children aboard.    What fun!!!    The best advice I can offer is to carefully avoid any of your important hoists  (see above)  to save any embarrassment.   If your ensigns and burgees are working correctly,  folks will happily turn a  ‘Nelsonian eye’  to your jolly roger (perhaps...)

Burgees & 'Signalling' Flags. 

It is easy to get into all sorts of trouble with burgees. The simple rule to follow is that: if you are wearing a special ensign, the dedicated burgee for the club or association who holds the permit MUST be hoisted, on its own, in the next senior position from the ensign.
For the purposes of these notes, any burgee not dedicated to support a special ensign will be described as a ‘house flag.‘    So, if you are wearing an undefaced Red Ensign, you do not require a special burgee.  You are then free to fly your burgee where you wish, but remember the orders of seniority. 


If you have a courtesy flag on your signalling hoist (starboard outer hoist on main mast) it MUST be at the top out of respect for the country you are visiting.  If you are also flying a dedicated burgee in support of a special ensign,  that also must be at the top,  so you cannot fly a courtesy flag and a dedicated burgee on the same hoist. Best options are: 

Motor Boats.    Courtesy flag can be on the bow (jackstaff),  dedicated burgee on starboard side of any flag pole available on fly bridge, with ensign at the stern.    Pay particular attention to your courtesy flag as this is the one most likely to offend if wrong or tatty.

Yachts.  Ideally:  Courtesy flag on starboard outer hoist,  dedicated burgee at the top of tallest mast and ensign at the stern. 

As an aside,  when we visit Normandy or Brittany,  we fly the Tricolor with the ‘Departement’ Flag below it.   Not necessarily perfect but the locals like it.   One always flies the National Courtesy flag as it indicates that you, as captain of your vessel, will obey their national laws while in their waters. 

Notes and References For Flag Etiquette. 

To quote notes from the RYA Book on Flag Etiquette: 

‘More than one flag may be flown on a halyard except that flag etiquette states that no flag can be above the burgee on the same halyard and no flag can be worn above the courtesy flag. If you fly a burgee at the starboard spreaders and are sailing in the territorial waters of another country this presents something of a dilemma, particularly if you must fly a burgee to match a special Ensign. Unless the burgee is in its traditional position at the masthead, you risk flouting one or another element of flag etiquette. How you choose to resolve this is a matter of choice.’ 

The more one reads on this subject, the more variations one will find on flag etiquette.  Bear in mind some of this information is to some extent,  somebody’s opinion.  You may well feel this page is my opinion and again, to some extent, you would be right.  However, I have researched for the commonalities across the multiple tomes out there and then applied a liberal coat of common sense. 

Flag Etiquette information is available at the RYA Flag Etiquette Book C4/01, which is available to members who can log in to the RYA website,  www.rya.org.uk







More from Wikipedia on Maritime Flags http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maritime_flag  and here  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/White_Ensign 

Another useful website for Burgees and other Maritime Flags http://www.flags.net/UNKG14.htm