Flag Protocol

Fly It Proudly

Yachts and yacht clubs are great users of flags. They are colorful, festive and informative. Every yacht owner should be familiar with the customs that apply to all the types of flags typically flown on a vessel.

Unlike buildings and houses ashore, a vessel has a limited number of places from which to fly flags, and thus the yachtsman must be selective in the flags that he or she flies afloat. A yacht will ordinarily display three flags: one announcing her nationality, one announcing her owner’s club affiliation, and one announcing her owner’s status (private signal or club officer’s flag).

National Ensign (50-Star US flag)

The familiar 50 star “stars and stripes” flag is also known as the national ensign afloat. It is the most important flag on board and identifies her national character. A vessel’s character is determined by her registration, which may differ from that of her owner. This is especially important abroad and on the high seas. Most HYC members’ vessels are federally documented or state registered and thus should fly the national ensign.

A ship’s national ensign is immediately recognizable because it flies farthest aft (the place of honor), but not necessarily from the highest point in the rig. With the possible exception of battle flags, it should be the vessel’s largest flag.

Normally the national ensign is flown from a staff on the vessel’s stern. No other flag may be flown from this position. However, it is also permissible on a sailboat to fly it from the leech of the aft-most sail about two-thirds of the way up; or from the peak of the gaff on a gaff-rigged vessel. Sport fishing boats, which cannot fly the ensign from the stern when underway because of interference with fishing lines, fly the ensign from the aft end of the tuna tower on the centerline; and often leave it there when not underway. When not underway, the national ensign is only flown from the stern staff on all vessels.

Here are some tips for flying the American flag correctly:

Do: Choose the right size!
The fly (length) should be one inch per foot of overall boat length, with the hoist two-thirds of the fly. Use closest ready-made size.

Don’t: Fly a flag that is too big!
It doesn’t mean you are more patriotic, it only means you aren’t displaying the flag respectfully!

Do: Fly it during daylight hours ONLY!
The American flag is properly flown ONLY from 0800 to sundown while in the harbor. Other flags (e.g. club burgee, officer’s flags, private signals, fish flags, etc.) may be flown at any time the vessel is in operation.

Don’t: Fly the American flag from the:

  • Top of the mast
  • Spreader flag halyard
  • Bow staff
  • Fishing outriggers

Flag Diagram