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Which Flag to Fly?

Which Flag to Fly?

“David, could you pass me the flag?” I asked my boyfriend’s stepdad as we prepared the powerboat for a daytrip to Cooper Island.

“You mean the ensign!” David, a ferry captain on the River Solent for the past 40 years, replied as he handed me what I now know is the red ensign—a plain red flag with the Union Flag in the upper left-hand corner. The word ensign means a national flag at sea.

Later, as I snapped photos of the flag—ahem, ensign—billowing in the wind in Little Harbour, Peter Island, he told me about the different rules of flag etiquette which includes everything from which flags to fly, when to fly them, where to fly them, and why to fly them. I further researched this information for both the BVI and US to find out the etiquette for the different areas.


The most important flag that should be displayed on a boat is the ensign—this flag primarily designates the boat’s nation of origin. According to sailonline.com, the preferred flag for US-registered boats to fly is the National Flag, Old Glory, and it is required in foreign waters. Domestically, it is acceptable to fly the yacht ensign, or Betsy Ross flag for US boats in US waters. Boats registered in the BVI should fly the BVI flag as the ensign. According to the Royal Yachting Association’s website, UK-registered boats should fly the Red Ensign, mentioned above, unless they are given permission (by the Queen) to fly a special Ensign or a Red Ensign with a badge. The boat’s ensign should be on display, weather permitting, from 8am until sunset (except when racing) “as close to the stern of the vessel as possible”, according to the RYA, and when entering or leaving port.

After the ensign comes the burgee, in order of importance. A burgee is unique flag of a yacht club or a sailing organization and is usually triangular in shape. The burgee should be flown on the main masthead, from the bow staff, or on a starboard spreader as long as no other flag is flown above it, according to Wikipedia. Only one burgee should be worn on a vessel.

The aptly named courtesy flags should be flown in foreign waters as a courtesy to the country being visited. Typically, they are the national flags of the country, and they can be flown as soon as you enter the foreign land, but there are exceptions, such as in the UK where the Red Ensign should be flown as the courtesy flag. Some other countries do not wish for you to fly their flag until you have cleared customs. In the BVI, you should fly the BVI National Flag as the courtesy flag. In the USVI, the US National Flag is the more common choice. St Thomas Yacht Club manager Bill Canfield said, “I’ve never seen anyone fly a USVI courtesy flag.” Courtesy flags should be flown on the starboard spreaders of sailing vessels or at the bow if the boat is mastless, and they should be taken down at the same times as the boat’s ensign, says the United States Power Squadron website.


These are the most simple and basic rules for flag etiquette at sea. For more detailed information, visit the RYA website, sailonline.com, or ask your favourite expert salty dog!

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