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.)
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.
There are many other defaced red and blue ensigns and more information can be found on Wikipedia.
Now For an Important Bit…
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:
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.
DILEMMA!!!!!!! COURTESY FLAGS AND DEDICATED BURGEES!
If you have a courtesy flag on your signalling hoist (starboard outer hoist on mainmast) 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. The courtesy flag can be on the bow (jackstaff), dedicated burgee on the starboard side of any flag pole available on the flybridge, 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 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.