Nautical Etiquette

Nautical Traditions

Nautical Traditions and Courtesies

Pleasure boating, frequently called yachting, is over 300 years old, and in that time sailors have developed many traditions, ceremonies and courtesies that add enjoyment in many ways. No one has to adhere to them to operate a boat competently, but they make the sport more meaningful and enjoyable.

The following information is a brief overview of some of the more important customs, traditions and courtesies, with emphasis on how things are done at HYC. This information will be most valuable to those who are new to boating and/or the club.

Note that HYC House Rules are found on a separate page. 

Traditional Ceremonies
Boat Christening – Each year on the day prior to Opening Day, HYC conducts a boat christening to welcome new boats into the club’s fleet. Boats to be christened are usually lined up at the guest dock, and the christening party (chaplain and officers) visits the boats in turn. The chaplain blesses the boat and the officers welcome the new boat and its owner. Owners typically serve light snacks and beverages. An appropriate plaque is presented to the owner during Opening Day ceremonies. It is recommended that boats fly appropriate flags, especially “dress ship” <Link to Flag Protocol page>.

Opening Day – In parts of the country where the boating season is short and boats are hauled out for the winter, the beginning of the new season each spring is cause for celebration. Here in Texas, where we use our boats all year, it is simply a reason for a big party! This is a very big event in the club’s calendar. A band plays, officers, past commodores and dignitaries are introduced, awards are presented and other ceremonies are conducted. The ceremonies are followed by a champagne reception. All HYC members are invited to participate.

Change of Watch – Shortly after the HYC annual meeting, a Change of Watch ceremony is held to swear in newly elected officers and trustees are duly sworn in and relieve the previous year’s group of command.

Commodore’s Ball – Each year in January the Commodore’s Ball gala dinner-dance is held to honor the outgoing commodore and introduce the new commodore. The officers, trustees and past commodores are recognized at this formal occasion.

Memorial Service and Burial at Sea – Traditional ceremonies have developed over the years for these solemn events. The HYC chaplain is available to conduct these services. 

Naming Your Boat
When naming a boat, three criteria should be followed:

- Pleasing to the owner and his/her family
- In good taste
- Appropriate to the type of boat
- Easily and clearly communicated
The importance of clear communication of a boat’s name is especially important in an emergency. This tends to eliminate names that are odd, lengthy or difficult to spell or pronounce. Boat names are not copyrighted, so you are free to select whatever name pleases you and meets the above criteria. 

Boating Etiquette
Boating etiquette afloat basically consists of respect for others and common courtesy. But sometimes doing the right thing is not always obvious; thus rules have been developed to define correct behavior.

Know the Rules of the Road – The Navigation Rules are internationally recognized requirements for the safe passage of vessels. They are of the utmost importance for the safety of people and boats and they are mandatory. But it is surprising how many boats are operated in violation of these rules, either because of ignorance or willfulness. Classes presented by the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary and the U.S. Power Squadron are available at little or no cost, making it easy to learn these rules.

Courtesies Afloat – In addition to the mandatory Navigation Rules, there are many simple courtesies that have developed to make boating more enjoyable for everyone. Some of the more important ones are:

Respect for privacy and quiet: Whether docked, moored or anchored, don’t infringe on your neighbors need for privacy and quiet. This is especially important if you are having a party, need to run your generator, have a smoky barbecue or anything else that may offend your neighbors.

Invitations to socialize: Be cautious when inviting a neighbor to socialize. A brief conversation will quickly determine whether they are open to this or prefer to be left alone.

Pass upwind of boats fishing: When your course takes your vessel close to boats that are fishing, be sure to pass upwind of them so as not to scare away the fish or become entangled in their lines.

Racing boats don’t have special privileges: There is no requirement that non-racing boats must keep clear of racing boats. However, it is courteous to do so provided that safety is not compromised. It is very discourteous for a racing boat to insist on the right of way just because they are racing.

Anchoring: Anchored boats have precedence. Don’t expect them to move or be pleased that you are anchoring too close or over their anchor rode. If possible, anchor downwind; but in any case anchor in such a way that if the wind shifts there will be no chance of collision.

Excessive speed: Remember that you are responsible for your wake. This means don’t exceed speed limits or go too close to other boats.

Mutual aid: It is a long-standing tradition of the sea that you must assist other boats in trouble, provided it doesn’t compromise the safety of your boat.

Float plan: A float plan tells someone about your boating plans. They may be filed with the HYC Harbormaster or left with friends. If you are overdue, someone will know you are missing and can notify proper authorities. A float plan is especially important when you will be gone for an extended period or you plan to be in offshore waters. A float plan form is available: <Link to Float Plan>

Guests on Your Boat: The skipper has a special responsibility for guests, especially guests that are not knowledgeable about things nautical. Guests should be informed in advance about what clothing is advisable, including clothing needed ashore after being out on the water. They should also be informed about food they are to bring or informed not to bring any. Upon arriving at the boat, guests should be instructed on safety equipment, operation of the head, where and how to store their gear and recycling requirements. 

Clothing and Uniforms
Casual Clothing – Houston Yacht Club is a very casual and relaxed club. One of the nice things about a yacht club is that it is expected that people will come into the club after having been out on their boat. This means you don’t have to get “dressed up” to come into the club. However, shirts and shoes are required inside the club. For most club events, “dressy casual” is appropriate unless otherwise specified.

Traditional Blazer – A single or double breasted blazer in navy blue is always appropriate for events such as Opening Day, boat christenings, etc. The club emblem is worn on the left breast pocket 1” below the top of the pocket. Devices of office are worn in a straight-line midway between the club emblem and the top of the pocket. Yachting affiliated lapel pins may also be worn.

Formal Coat – Officers, past commodores and trustees of the Houston Yacht Club wear a double-breasted naval service coat in black, with appropriate sleeve insignia. Yacht club emblems are not worn. The formal coat is generally worn only on special occasions such as Opening Day and the Commodore’s Ball.

Formal Dress – When wearing a tuxedo or white dinner jacket, it is appropriate to wear stars or other device of office on the top of the left breast pocket.

Shirts and Blouses – A white dress shirt is always worn with the formal coat. A white or light blue dress shirt may be worn with the traditional navy blue blazer. It is in poor taste to wear insignia of office on the collar of a shirt.

Ties – Only black ties are worn with the formal coat. Club ties are worn with the blazer. Women may elect to wear a scarf in lieu of a tie.

Pants & Skirts – Pants and skirts should be black with the formal coat, and grey with traditional blazer. However, in summer, white pants and skirts are worn.

Shoes – Black dress shoes are always appropriate. White shoes may be worn with white pants or skirts in the summer.

Caps –The traditional naval officer caps, with emblem of the club may be worn with the formal coat or blazer. HYC uses white caps. Gold embroidery or “scrambled eggs” is incorrect, improper and inappropriate. These caps are worn only on formal occasions and never while boating. Baseball type caps with nautical themes are frequently worn while boating.

Summer Wear – For special occasions during summer months, a white pilot shirt with white shorts may be worn. Officers may also wear blue shoulder boards signifying their office. Shoulder boards with black and gold or silver stripes are never worn. 

Flag Etiquette
Please see this site’s Flag Etiquette page.

Other Traditions
Commodore - The commodore of a yacht club is addressed in formal and also most informal situations as “Commodore.” The title “Commodore” is also used for all past commodores. This form of address for both current and past commodores is in recognition of the time and effort it takes to become commodore of a yacht club: “Once a commodore, always a commodore.” The word “commodore” comes from the Dutch word komadeur. It was adopted by the British Navy to denote the officer temporarily in command of a squadron or fleet. At one time, the United States Navy used the term to denote a one-star officer above the rank of captain but below the rank of rear admiral. But the Navy abolished that rank. Today, the word is used to designate the chief officer of a yacht club. The commodore commands the fleet but does not necessarily lead it because leading the fleet is only one part of the operation of a yacht club.

Corinthian – This word simply means “amateur yachtsman.” For this reason it is often found in the title of some yacht clubs, e.g. Texas Corinthian Yacht Club. It also has a connotation of sportsmanship because yacht racing involves a high degree of integrity in following the yacht racing rules. 

Some Interesting History
What is a yacht? The word “yacht” is derived from the 16th century Dutch word jagh that later become jacht. The word is short for jacht-schiff, which a 1559 dictionary defined as a swift vessel of war, commerce or pleasure. It is commonly accepted that a yacht is any boat, other than one propelled by oars or paddles that is used for pleasure. For many people, the word has a connotation of luxury or large size but in fact it is the purpose of the boat that determines it is a yacht. For sailboats, Yacht Racing Rules (Now called the Racing Rules of Sailing) apply equally to an eight-foot Optimist and the largest ocean racer.

How did yachting begin? Although there is no clear historical record, we know that in 1660 the Dutch presented a yacht to Charles II when he was crowned King of England. The king and his brother, the Duke of York, had other yachts built that were raced. The sport caught on quickly and spread to Ireland and mainland Europe.

Origin of yacht clubs. In 1720 the Water Club of Cork (Ireland) was formed. It was actually a coast guard and cruising association. The club developed a formal protocol, including a dress code. In 1828 it become the Royal Cork Yacht Club. It is the oldest continually organized boating club. In 1815, “The Yacht Club” was formed in England; it later became the Royal Yacht Squadron. There is controversy about the first yacht club to be formed in the United States. The Detroit Boat Club was formed in 1839 but was actually a rowing club. The New York Yacht Club was formed in 1844 and is generally regarded as the oldest. The second oldest club is the Southern Yacht Club in New Orleans, founded in 1849. HYC was founded in 1897.