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in our history when the US Yacht Ensign was only flown by registered yachts over a certain tonnage, but that law was repealed in 1980.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:  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.
  • To learn more about maritime flag etiquette:
  • If you are into vexillology and want to see some really weird flag designs, check out 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? 



  1. Nice informative piece, thx. One concern: I recently ordered and attempted to fly the ACBS burgee on my ’55 Chris-Craft Continental 22′ and discoverd that the height measurement (~13″) is way too long for my canted mast (pins are about 9″ apart). Has ACBS considered a more “runabout” size for a burgee?

    • Hi Ray,

      I contacted the company that we purchase the burgees from. The company offers a 10″ size which should place the grommet holes about 9″ apart. If you would like me to order one for you, let me know if you prefer cotton or nylon and slanted or straight. The cost is $39.


  2. This added information came from Gene Porter:
    “Your yacht ensign info is inaccurate or remiss in that it fails to note that the yacht ensign must never be flown in international or foreign waters since it has no standing as a national ensign. [from the Power Squadron web site]

    This is particularly applicable in such areas as the Thousand Islands where US boats frequent Canadian waters, too often flying illegal flags.

    • Thank you, Gene. One of the advantages of being in this organization is that information is shared from many sources. The website committee invites comments and discussions. It helps us all be more informed.

  3. I fly the flag and ensign that was actually shipped from Century in June of 1959 when my Gray V8 powered 16 ‘ Resorter was delivered to Ithaca NY, she has only had two owners and moved 15 miles North still on Cayuga l and is now used mostly for sunset rides, she saw many hours as a competition ski boat as her original owner was a skier for many years she has also made the trip from Sodus Bay NY across Lake Ontario to the St. Lawrence seaway twice a year for many years to his cottage on the St Lawrence.

  4. Great article but I believe you left out an important fact about the U S ensign. Congress in 1914 or 1916, please don’t hold me to the dates, pasted a law that made the United States Power Squadrons flag an official flag for U S yachts.
    Bob Korts
    Member USPS since 1960.

  5. Did you know original ensign flags had sewn stars not embroidered stars like we see today. The stars were cut out of fabric and sewn around the edges.

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