Flags, Ensigns, and Burgees – Getting it Right

26th July 2023

Flags, Ensigns, and Burgees

Getting it right.


Flags and pennants tell a story to those who observe them, so a code of conduct or etiquette has been developed over the years to determine how flags and pennants should be properly flown. Here are eight simple tips on the proper way to display flags, ensigns, and burgees:



  1. There is only one flag to fly as the ensign on a Canadian yacht – the Maple leaf, the national flag. Resist the urge to fly the red ensign, the Union Jack or, heaven forbid, the skull and cross-bones.
    U.S. vessels also fly the national flag, the Stars and Stripes, as an ensign: however, two modified versions of the U.S. flag are sometimes flown as an ensign on pleasure craft – the yacht ensign (an anchor in a circle of stars with horizontal red stripes) or the U.S, Power Squadron’s ensign (an anchor in a circle of stars with vertical blue stripes). Strictly speaking, the modified versions are only supposed to be flown in U.S. domestic waters. U.S. Vessels travelling abroad should properly fly their national flag.
    A proper national flag size is one inch of flag for every foot of vessel length.
  2. The correct position for the ensign is the taffrail, (aftmost railing on the stern) set from a staff; or, under sail from the peak (upper end of a gaff) or two-thirds up the leech (Marconi-rigged) of the aftermost sail. If the boom of a sailing vessel will clear the ensign staff, it is acceptable to fly the ensign at the taffrail while under sail.
  3. Never hoist a faded or ragged flag. This should be self-explanatory but since many yachts still go about with a tattered flags, it seems we need to be reminded that flying flags is like dressing up or wearing a uniform.
  4. The ensign must come down at night. Colours should be made (ensigns and other flags hoisted) at sunrise. They should be lowered at sunset.
  5. The courtesy flag, the ensign of a foreign country, should be flown from the starboard crosstree while in the waters of the country (except for number six below). Some cruisers indulge in the mistaken belief that the higher a flag is the more important it is, and object to a foreign flag being hoisted above the height of their own national ensign. This is utterly misguided – the place of honour is at the stern – not flying a courtesy flag is not only rude but can lead to a fine in some countries.
  6. When entering foreign waters, and before clearing customs, the “Q” flag (yellow) should be hoisted and left up until clearance is granted. At that time a “Q” flag is replaced with the courtesy flag, which will remain flying until leaving that country’s waters.
  7. A club burgee (which is a pennant or triangular flag) is flown from the masthead, although many power boats follow Chapman’s rules of flag etiquette and display the club burgee on the bow. The difficulty nowadays is that many sailboats have wind vanes and antennas mounted at the masthead, which make flying a burgee from there problematic. One solution is to ensure the wind vane is mounted far enough forward or aft that it won’t hit a pig stick rising aloft on a separate halyard. A second option is to fly the burgee from a halyard attached to the starboard spreader.
  8. If you dress with code flags for special occasions they should be up only when you’re at anchor or moored to a dock, not underway. The flags are strung together in no special order except that, for appearance’s sake, The square flags and the pennants (triangular) are evenly spaced and the colours well contrasted. They should be strung from the stem head (or bowsprit end) to the masthead(s) and then down to the taffrail. Traditionally the pilot jack (a Union flag with white boarder) is hung below the end of the bowsprit. No club burgee, ensign or other distinguishing flag shall be included in the line but should be flown in their usual places.





(Deane Hislop in Partnership with Freedom Marine)