Monday, January 23, 2012

Flag Placement Basics for Recreational Boaters

Article by William L. Gills aka Bos'n Bill

Flag placement has its foundation in the historical maritime traditions and codes of the merchant ships and navies of the world.  It can be quite intricate and involved, but it's more than most recreational boaters need to know. A full immersion in the steeped conventions of the use of flags on the high seas is rarely necessary in close range of a coastal marina or anchorage.

I don't think I'm alone when I see the confusion that still exists where this tradition in recreational boating is concerned.  Whatever the reason, boaters  might need a little clarification in view of the vagaries on the subject.  To be sure, there are a myriad of types of maritime flags with distinguishing marks and shapes, but in this discussion I'll narrow the field to recreational boats, power and sail, and focus on the basic rules of flag placement.

The most senior position for a flag on a vessel is at its stern.  It was customary during the Roman Empire for Roman ships to carry small religious statues or puppis on the aft deck section of a ship; a sacred spot reserved for worship. You've probably heard the term "poop deck" which is the deck that forms the roof of a cabin built in the rear part of the superstructure of a ship at its stern.  The stern became regarded as a place of authority and respect in the generations that followed; it was where the captain's quarters could be found.  It continues to be a place of honor on a vessel to this day and it's where the national flag or derivative of it can be proudly displayed. 

The ensign, the national colors, is rectangular in design, often a 1:2 or 3:5 ratio of width to length.  It should be flown from a staff off the stern unless it interferes with the operation of the vessel like a boom that extends over the stern.  Should this be the case it can be flown from a backstay from the aftermost mast, at the peak of the gaff* or the leech** of an aftermost sail.  (see terminology below)

The ensign should be flown, according to tradition, between 8:00 a.m. and sunset.  If you plan to leave your boat and don't expect to return before sunset you should take it down; the ensign should never be flown at night.

A few examples of ensigns flown in the western hemisphere are the following:

The United States
The 50-star national flag, "Old Glory", the Stars and Stripes

The U.S. Yacht Ensign, a fouled anchor in a circle of 13 stars

The United Kingdom 
The "Union Jack", the national flag, with its 3 superimposed red and white crosses on a blue background is reserved for warships.

The "Red Ensign", the flag of less engaging maritime traditions, is the ensign for recreational boaters.  It's a red flag with the "Union Jack" displayed in the upper left quadrant.

The Maple Leaf, the national flag, is the preferred ensign for all Canadian vessels. It consists of two vertical bands of red with a red maple leaf centered and emblazoned on a white background

The burgee is usually triangular in shape, your typical pennant, adorned with the distinguishing characteristics of the yacht club or boating organization it represents.  The burgee takes the next most senior position on a vessel, usually the main masthead or starboard spreader or backstays.  In a powerboat, the burgee flies off a short staff on the bow.  It can be flown both while underway and at anchor.

Courtesy flags are generally flown in foreign waters or in waters in which you are a guest; they are a token of respect.  On a sailboat its flown on the boat's starboard spreader. If your burgee is on the starboard spreader you can move it to the masthead.  In a powerboat it's displayed on a bow staff displacing the burgee which could be placed on the portside spreader or antenna.
Courtesy Flag for the Bahamas

How much flag do I need?  How much flag is too much? The rule to follow for a proper size ensign is one inch for every foot of overall boat length (LOA).  So, if your boat is 30 feet in length your ensign should be a minimum of 30 inches long.  If it's not, the rule is to round up to the next available size.  All other flags:  burgees, courtesies and others should be approximately 1/2 to 5/8 inch for every foot of overall boat length (LOA).  So if your boat is 30 feet in length, your flag should be 15-19 inches long.  For recreational boaters we'll keep it simple:  all flags should be approximately 1/2  the size of the ensign.

That's it.  Pretty simple, huh?  Flag placement isn't as complicated as many make it out to be.  Knowing what flag is what and what flag goes where is all you need to know.  Remember, national colors to the stern, the most important place on a boat with burgees and courtesy flags to starboard for sailors, to the bow for power. Any questions?

Terminology (see asterisks above):
*Gaff: the outer end of the spar(a sailing ship's mast, boom or yard) extending aft from the main mast.

**Leech: The vertical back edge of a sail.

William L. Gills aka Bos'n Bill is the author of the book, Lubber's Log published by Llumina Press; a boating primer and adventure story about a couples experiences in moving up to a bigger boat.  

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