Boat Flag Etiquette

When it comes to the subject of etiquette, most people are aware that proper manners are expected at the dinner table, in public settings and especially on the golf course.  However, few people outside of the boating community are aware that boat flag etiquette exists.  Moreover, some newbie boaters are unaware that there are expectations for the presentation of a vessel’s flag.

Here’s an inside look at everything you need to know about boat flag etiquette and boat flags meaning.

Boat Flag Etiquette

USA Boat Flag Etiquette is Unique

Boat flag etiquette differs by geography.  In particular, the conventions for the presentation of a boat flag in the United States are highly idiosyncratic.  The United States Coast Guard Auxiliary devised the code for boat flag etiquette with assistance from the United States Power Squadrons and the Auxiliary Coast Guard.  Though few know it, the code for boat flag presentation in the states details the points of honor whereupon the flags are flown.

The flag can only be displayed at the highest possible permitted point of honor that is permitted.  The order of the points of honor from top to bottom are:

  • Gaff
  • Flagstaff positioned at the stern
  • Bow staff
  • Halyard or yardam on starboard
  • Truck of mast
  • Yardam at port

Every boating vessel in the United States must reserve the most elevated point of honor for the national ensign.  The national ensign is a flag with 50 stars originally implemented by the country’s Continental Congress in the summer of 1777.  The national ensign has been in use by the Navy dating back to the mid-19th century.  This ensign is typically displayed on the stern.  However, boating etiquette in the United States permits the use of a yacht ensign as opposed to a national ensign presented on the stern.

A Word on Boat Flag Size

Boat flag size holds importance.  Most boat flag sizes are sold in a set series of standard sizes.  National ensign flags are to be an inch for every foot of length.  As an example, if the boat is 35 feet, the ensign is to be 35 inches.  Ideally, the national ensign will be presented an inch on the fly for each foot of the boat’s length.  The remainder of flags are to be 5/8-inch on the fly per foot of boat length.

Flags other than the national ensign such as courtesy flags, private signals and club burgees displayed on boats are to be half an inch for every foot per the highest mast.

Boat Flag Etiquette Extends Beyond Size and Symbolism

Nautical flag etiquette is one part function, one part form.  The purpose of boat flag etiquette is to facilitate communication between boats.  However, it is the subtleties of boat flag etiquette that shape perception of the boater as well as his or her vessel.

Each country has its own nuanced requirements for boats that enter and depart local ports, meaning the boat flag etiquette described above and below will not be appropriate for waters outside of those near or within the United States.  Though not guaranteed, there is the potential for the failure to comply with boat flag etiquette to result in a fine.

Boat Flag Verbiage Everyone Should Know

If you aren’t well-versed on boat flag etiquette, take comfort in knowing you are not alone.  Even some of the most experienced boat owners have forgotten or simply failed to learn boat flag etiquette lingo.  Let’s take a quick look at some of the most common terms used when discussing boat flag etiquette.

The flagpole’s bottom width is referred to as the butt diameter.  A flag that is fully hoisted is close up.  The word “colors” refers to the elevating and dropping of flags at 8 in the morning and at sunset.  Courtesy flags are national flags are hoisted for presentation when entering a new country.

To dip is to lower the boat flag by moving it forward from its original upright position to a horizontal position or a 45-degree angle to display a sign of respect.  Ensign is the flag that displays the boat’s nationality, meaning the country where it was first registered.  The canton is the flag’s rectangular portion at the upper hoist corner that takes up ¼ of the flag’s surface area.

The phrase “flag staff at the stern” refers to the pole at the ship’s stern used for the flying of the nation’s registry flags.  The gaff is a rig that protrudes from the flagpole for additional flag hoisting, elevating at an angle.  The rope or cable that raises and lowers flags is referred to as the halyard.

Boat Flag Courtesies

The order of flag arrangement in regard to etiquette is particularly important.  Such order is the same throughout the world.  If the order is not adhered to, it will present communication challenges with other vessels.  Flags with the highest level of honor are to be displayed at the highest elevation.

The order is as follows:

  • Gaff for the nation’s flag
  • Flagstaff at stern
  • Bow staff
  • Starboard yardam
  • Truck of mast port yardam

What is INTERCO in the Context of Boat Flag Etiquette?

INTERCO is an acronym that is short for the International Code of Signals.  If you are a boat owner or considering taking to the water, you should know and understand the INTERCO signaling system.  This system is used across the globe to communicate information pertaining to maritime travel, boat safety, navigation on the waters and more.

INTERCO signals include boat flags and plenty more.  Additional examples of signals include:

  • Audio signals
  • Signals made by hand
  • ALDIS lamps
  • Radiophones and even radiotelegraphs

Why the National Ensign Nautical Etiquette Rules are so Important

The United States national ensign is the flag used for designate vessels traversing waters in or near the United States.  This honorable flag must be presented with care.  The ensign takes the senior spot in the gaff.  However, some vessels do not have gaffs, requiring the flying of the ensign from the boat stern flagstaff.

Every boater should be aware that no other flag can be flown higher than the national ensign within a single halyard.  It is also a violation of boat flag etiquette to hoist the National Ensign and Jack together.  The Jack can only be hoisted when the boat is anchored or travels fast toward the shore instead of when the boat is underway or when the final line is cast away.

Additional Boat Flag Rules You Should Know

Though the nuanced rules of boat etiquette differ by country, there are general themes applicable to the waters across the globe.  As an example, regardless of where you are sailing, a mastless boat should have a courtesy flag used to replace flags that are displayed at the boat’s bow.  A boat with a mast containing a spread requires display at the starboard spreader.

If your courtesy flag is weathered, torn or otherwise in bad condition, do not display it on your boat.  Presenting a worn courtesy flag is a blatant indication of disrespect.

If you are traveling in international waters, do not use the same mast to display the courtesy flag and national ensign as it will be viewed as an indication that you are rivaling the sovereignty of a foreign country.

Moreover, if you are boating internationally or are traveling with riders of a different nationality, display their country’s flag(s) as a gesture of courtesy.  However, these flags should not be displayed on the same mast.  Be sure to remove the foreign flag from your vessel upon returning to domestic waters.