Don’t get red-flagged: Know your yacht flag etiquette

Aspiring seafarers have many things to learn to lead a successful career at sea – and one of the many interesting areas within the maritime world is that of flags, and the etiquette that surrounds them.

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American Flag

At sea, a vessel’s flag or flags are used to communicate, validate, indicate, and display respect to many different people, groups, and territories. Flags have been an important part of seafaring for many, many years, and their proper use remains strictly enforced around the world.

Flag etiquette for superyachts: types of flags, and the basics

Ensign / national flag

The most senior position for a flag on a vessel is reserved for the national flag (or Ensign, in many cases); and this should be flown as close to the stern of the vessel as possible. The national flag shows the country of registry of the vessel and indicates its nationality. It is often the country or territory’s maritime flag – rather than national flag – that is flown.

National flags are required to be flown, typically from 8:00am until sunset, and should not be flown at night. It is also important to take the flag down prior to leaving the yacht if the vessel will be unmanned at the time of sunset.

Flying incorrect, damaged, wrongly sized, or otherwise-invalid national flags is a breach of law and is strictly enforced around the world. The national flag should be the largest flag flown on any vessel.

Courtesy flag

A courtesy flag should be flown – typically at the starboard spreader – to show respect to the country whose waters you are operating in. It is smaller, but flys higher than the national flag. Whilst technically not a ‘legal requirement’ everywhere you could possibly go, there’s never a time when not flying a courtesy flag would provide any kind of benefit. Many authorities will fine you for having a tatty courtesy flag, and some will even refuse entry if one isn’t flown.

Courtesy flags should traditionally be hoisted and lowered along with the national flag, though this practice is typically adhered to less strictly in modern times; some captains may still expect their crew to follow vessel flag guidelines and etiquette more traditionally, as a mark of respect and pride to the vessel, and the greater industry as a whole.

The customs observed in various foreign waters differ from one another. Try to learn the correct procedure for the country you are entering. For example, in some countries it is customary to fly the courtesy flag only after the quarantine flag (the yellow 'Q' flag) and the vessel has been granted pratique by the appropriate authorities.

Q flag

The Q flag – a solid yellow flag – is flown by a vessel that declares itself free of quarantinable disease, and requests boarding and inspection by Port State Control to allow the grant of "free pratique".

Opinion seems to be split on whether the Q flag should be flown above the courtesy flag on the starboard spreader, or alone and to be replaced with the courtesy flag once clearance is complete. If you’re not sure what protocol you should follow, it’s worth speaking with other local yachts and captains, to see what usually happens in the area. As there’s no real official governance on the displaying of Q and courtesy flags, local know-how is usually the way.

Yacht burgees and private flags

Burgees are distinguishing flags, regardless of shape (although triangular, similar to a pennant, is commonplace), of a recreational boating organisation like a yacht club or other kind of club membership. Burgees should be flown on their own halyard or below the courtesy flag on its halyard.

Likewise, private flags that are hoisted when the owner is on board or in close proximity, follow the same rules as burgees.

Red ensign

Superyacht flag sizes and recommended dimensions

For national flags, the standard rule of thumb that many use when determining how big a vessel’s flag should be, is one inch on the fly per foot of vessel length. Typically, you’ll be ordering flags at set sizes, so it’s best to order the first size that exceeds the dimensions of what you need.

Superyachts, being rather large, typically use some of the larger flags produced but may fall under the ‘one inch per foot’ guideline, due to the sheer size. Whatever size is chosen, it’s essential it has 360-degrees of fly space around it – otherwise your flag will be in tatters before you know it.

Burgees and courtesy flags are often seen on superyachts at around a quarter to a half of the size of the national flag or ensign. There is no fixed rule on this – much like national flags – but they must be smaller, and they are never flown on the stern.

For assistance with yacht and superyacht registration and classification, including advice and information on flag states, visit yacht registration and classification companies on Yachting Pages.

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