Flag Etiquette


An Introduction to Flag Etiquette

By Steve White


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 and if in doubt, there will be a method of contacting me with questions soon. 


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 the information provided for you.

Steve White


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 background 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. The 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. Besides, 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 misconstrued 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.


Flag Terminology

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.


Ensign  Burgee


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 ie 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?

The 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 mainmast. This would be where the dedicated burgee would be flown (more of this later.) As a member of IHYC only, ie 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 masthead, 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 to 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 underway, 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 flybridge 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 motorboats, an ideal place to fly a burgee is on the ‘jackstaff’ ie 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: 


shapeimage_5 shapeimage_6


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: 


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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 acceptable 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: 


shapeimage_12 shapeimage_13 shapeimage_14


 But if all else fails… 




Schooners (the mainmast is the larger mast aft) Primary position is flag pole on the stern.

Wearing the ensign at the top of the mainmast then creates difficulties with the positioning of the burgee, which should be higher than the ensign.

The second senior position is the starboard yardarm of the highest (in this case the after) mast.

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


shapeimage_16 shapeimage_17


But if all else fails…




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