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Flag Etiquette


Flag etiquette is a matter of law, custom, and the rules of the Club. The law requires that a private pleasure yacht should display its nationality, if required, by wearing ‘proper national colours’ (Merchant Shipping Act 1995 s.2). In the case of a British registered vessel or a vessel under 24 metres which would be entitled to be a British registered vessel if the owner(s) chose to register, ‘proper national colours’ is the red ensign.

RNYC EnsignIn the case of RNYC, British registered vessels owned by Ordinary, Country or Life members may be entitled to wear a blue ensign defaced with the badge of the club, the Percy Lion, as proper national colours. To wear this defaced blue ensign is a privilege granted to the Club under the conditions of a Warrant from the Secretary of State for Defence. The Club cannot vary these conditions and will enforce them strictly. They include wearing a Club burgee (or Flag Officer’s broad pennant) whenever the blue ensign is worn. Owners must apply for a permit, as specifiedĀ here. The Club encourages owners to keep up the blue ensign tradition and apply for a permit. The ensign and all other flags should be in good condition. If they become faded or frayed they should be replaced.

Any flag other than a red ensign (or blue ensign in the circumstances set out above) is not proper national colours and wearing such a flag as a national ensign may be a criminal offence.

On a sloop the ensign is worn at the stern of the vessel (with variations for ketches, yawls and gaff rig). This is the senior position. The second most senior is the masthead, traditionally the place for the burgee, after which is the starboard crosstrees (spreader), and finally the port crosstrees.


burgee4A RNYC burgee signifies that the owner or skipper is a member of the Club. It (or a Flag Officer’s broad pennant) should be worn with the ensign (whether red or blue). It is now common practice to fly the burgee from the lower starboard crosstrees. Strictly this is the place to fly the Q flag or the national courtesy flag when visiting a foreign country. It is a breach of flag etiquette to fly any flag above a national courtesy flag on the same flag halyard. The only solution would appear to be to have two flag halyards on the starboard crosstrees.

House flags (e.g. the RNLI flag or the RYA member’s flag) may be hoisted on the port crosstrees flag halyard.

Union Flags have no place at sea (except by commissioned warships and submarines of the Royal Navy when in use as a Jack in the bows of the vessel). Neither has the Scottish Saltire (except as code flag M) nor St Patrick’s flag (except as code flag V). St George’s Cross is the flag of an Admiral. The use of the Euro flag is similarly deprecated. And, please, no skull and crossbones ‘pirate’ flags. When dressing the vessel overall use signal flags.

The ensign and any other distinguishing flags are collectively referred to as ‘colours’. Colours are worn at sea (unless racing), and in harbour between the hours of 0800 (0900 in the winter months from 1 November to 14 February inclusive). Colours are struck (lowered) at sunset or 2100 if earlier. If you are going ashore and are not likely to return before the relevant time you should adopt the practice of ‘early colours’ and strike the ensign and burgee when you leave the vessel. Nothing should be left flying on an unattended vessel.

Flag Officer’s broad pennants

Flag officers broad pennants are akin to commissioning pennants and are worn day and night whenever the Flag Officer in question is in effective command of the vessel. Other colours worn on a Flag Officer’s yacht are subject to the normal rules.


It is customary for yachts to salute Royal Yachts and warships both British and foreign. They will usually respond. Flag Officers of a yacht club may be saluted by members’ yachts, but this is not compulsory and should be restricted to special occasions such as a meeting at sea away from home waters or a Commodore’s sail past.

A flag salute consists of dipping the ensign, by lowering it by one third of the ensign staff. If that is impractical hold the ensign staff in a horizontal position. The dip should be maintained until the other vessel responds by dipping its ensign, when both vessels should hoist their ensigns close up. Don’t worry about being a nuisance to warships. They are aware of the custom. If they do not respond it will be for operational reasons.


Racing yachts traditionally do not wear either an ensign or burgee, although they may wear a square racing flag. A yacht while racing is subject to the Racing Rules of Sailing (RRS) but that does not exonerate her from complying with COLREGs. Wearing a burgee and ensign signifies that the yacht is not racing, or has retired from the race.

Going foreign

The custom is to wear the maritime colours of the country being visited, known as a ‘courtesy flag’, close up to the starboard cross trees. No other flag should be in a superior position to the courtesy flag, so if that is where you normally fly the club burgee you will need to find somewhere else for it.

The courtesy flag for visitors to the UK is the Red Ensign, no matter which part of the UK you are visiting.


Ensigns should be half masted for the day of the death of the member (or at the Flag Officer’s discretion the next following day) until the next time of striking colours. They should not be half masted again until the day of the funeral when they are raised at the time of the internment or cremation.

Half masting for the whole period between death and funeral is reserved for the death of the Sovereign.