By Judy Hills, ACBS roving reporter, member of RDC Triangle Chapter
Have you ever given thought to the burgees, ensigns, flags and pennants that we fly on our boats? Did you consciously select yours or did you just copy what you saw someone else doing? What do you know about nautical flag etiquette and usage? This article addresses this topic.
Burgee—a burgee, according to Wikipedia, is “a distinguishing flag, regardless of its shape, of a recreational boating organization. In most cases, they have the shape of a long, tapering, usually triangular flag.” On another page, Wikipedia goes on to say, “Members belonging to a yacht club or sailing organization may fly their club’s burgee both while underway and at anchor (however, not while racing). Sailing vessels may fly the burgee from the main masthead or from a lanyard under the starboard spreader on the mast. Power boats fly the burgee off a short staff on the bow.” Here are some burgee examples:
Ensign—an ensign, according to Wikipedia, is “the national flag flown on a vessel to indicate nationality. The ensign is the largest flag, generally flown at the stern of the ship.” According to the US Power Squadron, the national ensign should represent the registry of the vessel, not the nationality of the owner or operator. When in harbor the ensign should be hoisted at 0800 (called “making the colors”) and lowered at sunset (called “striking the colors”), weather permitting. The ensign is the first flag hoisted or placed and the last flag lowered or secured.
While one generally thinks of the flag of the United States as the ensign being discussed here, in practice, the ensign widely flown by most U.S. pleasure boats is the red and white stripes of our national flag, but with a fouled anchor in a circle of thirteen stars as the canton (box in upper left corner). There was a time in our history when the US Yacht Ensign was only flown by registered yachts over a certain tonnage, but that law was repealed in 1980.
According to the US Power Squadron, “Flags are often too small…The national ensign flown at a flag staff on the stern of your boat should be one inch on the fly (long end) for each foot of overall length.”
Flag—One class of flags is called the “international maritime signal flags.” According to Wikipedia, there is a signal flag “for each letter of the alphabet, and pennant for numerals. Each flag (except the R flag) has an additional meaning when flown individually, and they take on other meanings in certain combinations.” For more information on the meanings of international maritime signal flags click on this link: http://www.marinewaypoints.com/learn/flags/flags.shtml It is more common to see the international maritime signal flags displayed on sailboats than pleasure power boats.
There are any number of other types of flags (generally rectangular) that might be flown on a boat and we have seen them flown in a number of different places (other than the stern). They could be a personal flag that represents the boat owner. Flags representing the make of the boat or port-of-call might be flown. One very popular example is the jolly roger flag:
Here is a flag representing New Bern, NC:
Pennant—a pennant is used on ships for signaling or identification. They can be triangular shaped or have a swallowtail. Many fun pennants can be seen on vessels, the most common is the jolly roger.
Did you know?
- The word for the scientific study of the history, symbolism and usage of flags is vexillology.
- The position of honor on a ship is the quarterdeck at the stern of a ship, and thus ensigns are traditionally flown either from the ensign staff at the ship’s stern, or from a gaff rigged over the stern.
- The general rule that no flag is flown higher than the national flag does not apply onboard a ship. A flag flown at the stern is always in a superior position to a flag flown elsewhere on the ship, even if the latter is higher up. (Wikipedia—maritime flag).
- If you take your boat to international or foreign waters, the traditional United States ensign should be flown.
- You should avoid flying more than one ensign from a single halyard or antenna.
- Massachusetts and Maine are the only two states with their own maritime flags (special versions of the state flags for use afloat).
- There is an international burgee registry. http://www.burgees.com/burgeeframe.htm
- To learn more about maritime flag etiquette: http://www.usps.org/f_stuff/etiquett.html
- If you are into vexillology and want to see some really weird flag designs, check out https://www.reddit.com/r/vexillology/ or click here to see vexillology Youtube videos. Click here to check out the National Maritime Museum’s historical collection of flags.
So, having a little fun with our vexillology topic, if you or your ACBS Chapter were to design a flag, what would it look like?
Send your pictures, reports, announcements, and boat biographies to firstname.lastname@example.org