sailboat flag halyard

Attaching Flags to Flag Halyards

Beneteau first 435 sloop, january 7th, 2018.

sailboat flag halyard

We all want to fly our bits of coloured cloth, proudly announcing where we’re from (national ensign), where we are (courtesy flags), and who we are (club and rally burgees, fishing flags, cocktail hour announcements, etc.).

The trouble is, they can be a pain to raise and adjust, and those little flag clips or halyard clips seem extremely costly ($13USD a pair at West Marine), and fragile.

There is a solution that is sturdy, appropriately marine-ized, and cost effective.

Next time you’re by a chandler or well-stocked fishing equipment store, grab some large-ish swivel/snap combos and a few split rings (actually, grab some extra split rings in various sizes for snap shackle repair down the road; they’re cheap and handy to have on hand).

Assemble the split rings to the swivels so you get a few like this:

To use them, pull the flag halyard through the split ring like this:

And double it back to make a ring knot like this:

Pulled tight on the halyard, it won’t slip, and can be adjusted up and down the halyard to accommodate different numbers of flags or burgees, or different sized ones with ease.

The fishing swivels and clips are an appropriate marine grade to last approximately forever, and the parts to make up a few of these are a fraction of the cost of the purpose-built ‘yachty’ ones you will see in the chandlery.

Next Article: An Easy New Year's Resolution: Updating Your BCA Profile

Previous article: the galapagos, about the author.

Rob Murray and Debra Zhou are doers currently on the Caribbean coast of Panama aboard Avant, their Beneteau First 435.

Boat Maintenance

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Excellent tip, thank you!

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Hi Rob good info. Might be worth letting members know that these flags should only be put on the port flag halyard, unless they are the Q or courtesy flag; which are the “only” ones that should be on the starboard flag halyard.

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Yes, in some countries the officials get upset if you don’t get it right!

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Your 2024 Guide to Nautical Flag Etiquette

Ever wonder why there are so many boat flags ? How do the sailors know which flag to put first and when? Nautical flag etiquette is an essential part of sailing. The seven most common types of boat flags are Skin Diver flags , Storm Warning flags , Coast Guard boat flags , US Jack flags , Maritime flags and Pennants, Yacht Ensign & Officer flags , and most importantly the International Code Signal flags .

Code signal flags and are frequently used by boats to send messages to other boats. They are made with a sequence of twenty-six square flags that represent a letter of the nautical alphabet. Ten numbered flags, one answering pendant, and three repeaters also form part of the nautical flag sequence.

As with most yesteryear traditions, the popularity of boat flags as a common communication tool is slowly reducing with the introduction of technology. This does not mean that we should discard this sacred tradition.

The world of nautical flags is broad, and we cannot possibly cover them all in this article. Navies, yachts and fishing boats have variations in the meaning of some flags.

While the need for nautical flags might be dwindling in the boating world, they are still pleasing to the eye. Learning when to use nautical flags and how to use them is a skill every sailor and thalassophile should have. Not only is it essential for safety reasons, but boat flags can also a lot of fun. Take a gander at our fun maritime flags and pennants !

Word of the Day: A thalassophile is someone that loves the sea!

This article will teach you the hows and whens of nautical flag etiquette. We will also provide you with a glossary of terms because, let's face it, some boating terms are pretty confusing even for a seasoned sailor.

So put your best sailor's cap on and join us on this great sea signal voyage.

What is Nautical Flag Etiquette?

Glossary of flag terms, flag courtesies.

As silly as it might seem, boat flag etiquette is crucial. In a worst-case scenario, it could mean the difference between life and death. Generally speaking, the nautical flag etiquette is a combination of years of maritime tradition and laws that help boats communicate messages to each other.

Different countries have varying legal requirements that should be observed for boats that enter and leave their waters or ports. So it is helpful to be mindful of sailing the vessel’s legal obligation for various countries. No one likes to pay a fine for something as simple as forgetting or putting up the wrong flag signal.

As we have stated before, the world of boating is vast and sometimes confusing. The terminology used is pretty unique. The key to understanding nautical etiquette is to know what everyone is talking about first.

Even professional sailors don't always get it right. So to help you brush up on your boating terms, we've put together this glossary with definitions. We hope this will help you to understand the nautical phrases that we will use in this article.

ABAFT - refers to the rear end or stern of a ship

AFT – means towards stern of the boat (the back of the boat)

ASTERN – it means to go towards the back of the boat

BOW - refers to the front of the ship

BUTT DIAMETER - is the width of the bottom of the flagpole.

CANTON - the rectangular part of a flag, usually at the top hoist corner of a flag, which occupies about a quarter of the total surface area of the flag

CLOSE UP - it means that the flags are now fully hoisted

COLORS - refers to the raising and taking down of the flags at 8:00 am and at sunset, respectively

COURTESY FLAG - is the national flag of the country that a boat is entering. Ex: Boats entering the United States would display an American flag as a courtesy flag.

DIP - means to lower a flag by turning it forward from an upright position to 45° or horizontal as a sign of deference or respect

ENSIGN - means a flag showing nationality of the boat, i.e. the country where the boat is registered. Ex:

  • The Red Ensign can be flown by a merchant vessel
  • The White Ensign can be flown by war or naval ships
  • The Blue Ensign can be flown by public or government vessels
  • The Civil Ensign is flown by civilian vessels
  • The Yacht Ensign is flown by yachts and is typically the largest flag on board; the flag may be flown at stern staff
  • The USPS ensign is flown by the United States Power Squadrons and is flown to signal that the boat is commanded by an active member of the USPS.

FLAG STAFF AT THE STERN - a pole at the stern/ back of the ship where the ship's country of registry flags is flown

FLY - refers to the length of the flag, measured from the heading to the fly end

GAFF - is a rig that extends from the flagpole that allows for more flags to be hoisted, which usually rises at an angle and represents the mast of a ship

HALYARD - rope or stainless steel cable used to hoist and lower flags

HOIST - the raising of flags

HOIST END - the edge of the flag that is closest to the flagpole

HOUSE FLAG - refers to the emblem that shows the company or commercial house that a merchant ship belongs to and also refers to a yacht owner's personal flag

INTERCO - stands for the International Code of Signals used in the maritime system

JACK - mean the additional national flags flown by warships (and certain other vessels) at the head of the shi

MASTHEAD - is the tallest part of a ship's mast or the lower section of a mast

NAUTICAL –refers to everything associated with maritime travel

NAUTICAL FLAGPOLE --refers to a flagpole with a yardarm and or gaff

PENNANT - is a triangular-shaped flag

PRATIQUE - refers to the license or permission to use a port from the host country

STARBOARD - is the right-hand side of the boat when you are facing the bow.

STARBOARD SPREADER - is the most forward part on the mast (if there is more than one) where the courtesy and q flags are flown

STEM – refers to the most forward part of the bow

STERN – refers to the back of the boat

STERN LINE – is the docking line that comes from the stern

TACK LINE - is the length of the halyard; it's used to separate the group of flags

UNDERWAY – means a vessel in motion

YARDARM - refers to the horizontally mounted and tapered pole attached to a flagpole to create a "t" or a cross

Now that we are familiar with some common terminology used in nautical language, let's move on to the order in which the flags must be arranged in terms of nautical flag etiquette rules.

This order is universal across the globe. We must follow the order to avoid confusing other ships. The flag with the highest honor should be flown at the highest point.

The order is as follows:

  • Gaff (reserved for the national ensign/ country flag)
  • Flagstaff at the stern
  • Starboard yardarm (Halyard)
  • Truck of mast (masthead)
  • Port yardarm (Halyard)

First, we need to establish the system that governs these nautical flag rules. INTERCO is the International Code of Signals. The system is used worldwide to communicate nautical messages related to navigation, safety, and maritime.

Signal flags like the ones we are discussing in this article form part of INTERCO's signals. The other signals include radiotelegraphs or radiotelephones, ALDIS lamps, hand signals and some sound signals to name a few.

Knowing and understanding the basics of the INTERCO signaling system is extremely important for anyone interested in sailing. Whether privately or otherwise.

The National Ensign/Flag

Let's talk about nautical etiquette rules that apply for the most critical flag signal, the national ensign.

The U.S. national ensign is the preferred flag for all U.S. vessels. This ensign is also known as the “50-star of “Old Glory.” This is also the preferred ensign for yachts, especially when sailing in international or foreign waters.

Great honor is given to the national flag of the country in which the ship is registered. On the order of positioning for the flags, the national ensign is given that most senior position; the gaff. If your boat does not have a gaff, then you should fly the ensign from the flagstaff at your boat's stern.

The second rule is that you can fly no other flag above the national ensign on the same halyard. Additionally, the Jack and the National Ensign should not be hoisted together. The Jack is only hoisted when the ship is at anchor or made fast to the shore or to buoy, never when the ship is underway, when the last line is cast off, and when the anchor is aweigh. We do not recommend hoisting the Jack for recreational purposes.

The scenarios where a national ensign should be flown include:

  • When dressing the ship
  • When occupying foreign waters during the daylight hours
  • When moving along a foreign port or a combat ship (man of war)

The Courtesy Flag

Flying the courtesy flag is a centuries-old tradition that is still relevant in these modern times. The act of flying a foreign nation's flag as your ship passes through or enters its waters is not only a sign of respect, it is an essential etiquette to observe. While there is no legal requirement to fly a courtesy flag, it is a polite custom to which you should adhere.

The only legal requirement for vessels in foreign water is to fly the red ensign flag.

Where does the courtesy flag fly? As per tradition, the courtesy flag is flown at the starboard spreader. If your boat has more than one mast, you must fly the courtesy flag from the forward most mast. The courtesy flag is tied and hoisted after the authorities have granted your vessel clearance to enter their space.

Key rules for courtesy flag etiquette include:

  • Never fly the national ensign and the courtesy flag on the same mast because that will be interpreted as a sign of you are challenging the foreign nation's authority
  • Never fly a courtesy flag that is in terrible condition; this is a sign of disrespect
  • If you have guests on your boat that are of another nationality, then you should also fly their national flags as a courtesy, but never on the same mast
  • When you return to your home country, always take down the foreign country's flag

Additional courtesy flag etiquette includes:

  • If your boat is mastless, then the courtesy flag can replace any flag which is normally flown at the bow of the boat
  • If your boat has a mast with a spreader, the courtesy flag is flown at the starboard spreader

However, you must keep in mind that these rules or traditions vary from one country to another, so always make sure that you look for the correct information.

Nautical Flag Etiquette Entering a Foreign Port

The Q flag is the first flag that you must raise when entering foreign waters or a foreign port. It signals to the port authorities that your ship is healthy and you require free practice.

We always fly the Q flag in international waters before customs clears you for entry. After clearing, you then replace the Q flag with the courtesy flag. You often fly the Q flag on the starboard yardarm.

Dressing the Ship

Certain occasions require that your vessel be decked up with all the flags that it can hold. We call this dressing the ship.

It is reserved for special occasions such as public holidays or when the ship is beginning its maiden or last voyage. Dressing the ship is only done when the ship is not underway.

The ship's full splendor will be on display, so this is the time to have fun. The dressing begins at 08.00 am at anchor unless it is the ship's maiden or last voyage, then the dressing can occur at sea.

The national ensign is first. All the other flags will follow, lining up from the waterline forward to the waterline after using the stem or bowsprit end and the masthead.

We have barely scratched the surface of all the rules and customs you need to follow to observe proper nautical flag etiquette. However, we hope that we have simplified some of the most important customs in maritime tradition. Hopefully, the next time you are on a boat, you will understand the meaning of the signals and flags better. Happy sailing!

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Anchoring clearance, standing rigging clearance, running rigging clearance, deck hardware clearance, chandlery clearance, safety clearance, flags - bending and hoisting methods for sailing flags, courtesy flag bending and hoisting methods, hoist loop and tails – a simple method.

Hoist loops and lines are the most convenient attachment to either the flag halyard or another flag above or below, combined with the added benefit of stowing flat.

The Hoist Loop and Hoist Tail are stitched into the Hoist Tape making a strong connection.

Keep the ends of the halyard securely tied together when no flags are being flown, so that a free end can’t slip upward through the spreader block and embarrassingly out of reach.

Take steps to ensure that you don’t lose control of either end, when separating them to bend or unbend a flag.

The halyard is quite likely to be different in diameter to the hoist loop or the hoist tail. The optimum knot for this application is therefore a Sheet Bend or Double Sheet Bend. A few half hitches can be added if you are concerned about the finished knot shaking itself loose. A short strip of white insulating tape neatly applied around the loose end and the standing part will secure the free end and offer additional peace of mind.

Sheet Bend:

The correct knot for tying two ropes together when they are different in size (diameter), fibre e.g. nylon, polyester, Dyneema, or construction e.g. braided, 3- strand.

Ensure that both the free tails are aligned on the same side of the finished knot.

The Double Sheet Bend is tied in the same way but with an extra turn around the standing loop, which makes it more secure and therefore eminently suitable for attaching a flag, to either the flag halyard or another flag.

Hoist Loop and Tails – an alternative method

Study the picture. There are loops formed in the flag halyard. These can be positioned to accept single or multiple flags.

The advantages of this method:

  • Successfully employed on a voyage from Plymouth to the Caribbean via Spain, Portugal, Madeira and the Canaries and then north via Bermuda to New York and New England before returning across the Atlantic
  • The top flag can be simply and securely cow hitched onto the flag halyard ~ pass the halyard loop through the hoist loop on the flag ~ thread (stuff) the flag back through the halyard loop
  • The leading edge of the flag can be tensioned to a lower halyard loop or the next flag below.
  • The flag halyard is continuous allowing good tension to be applied without overloading the narrower gauge hoist line stitched into the flag.
  • The leading edge of the flag or flags can be tensioned separately and appropriately.
  • If a hoist tail or hoist loop wears through and fails, all is not lost, the flags should still be up there flapping about and the halyard will be intact, enabling the flags to be struck, repaired and re-hoisted.

Bending on Portugal with loops in the flag halyard

Flag toggles and Inglefield clips - the traditional method.

Flag toggles add to the look of a flag, but they won’t be very apparent from deck level when flying at the spreaders.

Inglefield clips are an advantage if your crew can’t tie knots successfully, but they don’t stow flat and the increase in weight, although minimal, may still be a disadvantage on a light weight halyard aloft.

Inglefield Clips, also known as Sister Clips or Brummel Hooks, are designed for attaching (aka bending) flags and ensigns quickly and securely to a halyard or more flags in series.

The clips interlock and disengage by careful alignment of the chamfered split in one side of each link.

The clip is secure when under tension

Inglefield Clips are available from in alloy and traditional bronze.

Wooden Flag Toggles

Wooden Toggle

Grommets (eyelets) – an alternative method

Grommets can also be used for attachment. These are generally punched into the top and bottom of the hoist making connection reasonably simple. The downside is that they won’t happily stow flat. They will rapidly deteriorate if they are not made entirely from a marine-proof metal/alloy

Grommets are also usually fitted to flags that are manufactured from shiny, less flexible material e.g. nylon (polyamide) which may need the the folds and crinkles ironing out before deployment.

Flags made from this shiny, crinkly material, which are especially prevalent in the USA, tend to be less expensive but don’t fly at all well in the breeze and frankly, just don’t look the part.

Just imagine a shiny, crinkly ensign flown from the stern of a beautiful yacht- not a pretty sight.

Grommets (Eyelets)



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Picking the right halyard rope

Picking the right halyard rope

March 28, 2020 3 min read

Here at Sailing Chandlery we have over 100 different reels of rope on the wall all with their own uses and in various colours.

We understand that if you were to stand in front of them it's hard to know what is for what. In this article we are going to help you by providing advice on what the right halyard rope might be for your use.

This article is focussed on dinghy halyards but we also sell halyards for cruisers and yachts.

You can explore our halyard rope options on our website.

When we think of rope halyards we think of the following categories:

  • Flag halyards
  • Main halyards
  • Kite/spinnaker halyards
  • Jib halyards

Most sailors automatically look at a dyneema rope option for halyards, but that's not always needed for your boat.

We recommend you also look at what your boats manufacturer is recommending for the job.

Flag Halyards

Believe it or not we sell a fair amount of rope to be used as flag halyards. In all instances we recommend an 8 plait standard polyester, it's a basic rope but is more than up to the job for hoisting your flags on your boat or race box.

Main Halyards

Our main halyard rope recommendation will depend on how the sail is attached when fully hoisted. If like our catamaran the rope clips onto a hook at the top then you only need a basic rope to get the sail up, and then the load is taken on the hook and the sail is secured in place with the downhaul.

If you are using a cleat then you're going to need a rope which is grippy, and also will resist some stretch. If your boat is going to be putting minimal pressure on the halyard rope then you should look at an 8 plait pre stretched rope, if there is going to be more pressure then upgrading to a dyneema core rope would be a good idea.

In most cases with dyneema it's best to use a dyneema core rope with a harder wearing polyester cover/jacket. If you can attach your halyard through a loop then a 12 strand dyneema could be a good option as it's stronger as a pure dyneema and won't have any wear in a cleat.

Kite/Spinnaker Halyards

Some sailors like to have a tapered spinnaker halyard, in this case you'll be looking at a dyneema core rope, or you could make up your own using 12 strand dyneema and a hollow braid rope.

Most sailors who use dyneema don't taper halyards and use the dyneema core rope with jacket as standard.

If you're not bothered about tapering, and you don't need dyneema then an 8 plait pre stretched polyester rope for smaller sails would be perfect.

Jib Halyards

Some jibs are hoisted using a wire halyard with a tail rope to follow the metal wire halyard up inside the mast. For tails we recommend a 12 strand polyester rope such as Evolution Splice, this can be easily spliced onto the wire halyard.

The same process should follow as the main halyard when picking a jib halyard. If the mast tension is taken up by the jib halyard then dyneema should be your choice of halyard rope in this instance.

Our Most Popular Halyard Ropes

8 Plait Standard Polyester -

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SK78 Dyneema Core -

12 Strand Dyneema SK78 -

All of these ropes are available in various diameters and with different colour options.

If you've got any questions about our ropes and what might be best for your boat then we are always happy to help. Simply give us a call, or drop us an email [email protected].

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Sailboat Flag Etiquette: What You Need to Know

Sailboat flag etiquette is steeped in maritime tradition and enshrined in law. If you're new to the world of sailing, you may have wondered about the various flags that you see flying on other sailboats or that you are expected to fly on your own. What do they mean? How should they be displayed? What are the rules and traditions that govern them?

Flag etiquette on Bowman 57

An experienced sailboat skipper will know that flag etiquette is a way of showing respect, courtesy and recognition to other vessels, countries and organizations.

It also helps you communicate important information, such as your nationality, your club affiliation, your intentions or your distress.

For the less experienced we'll explain the basics of sailboat flag etiquette and how it should be applied in practice:

  • The types of flags that you can fly on your boat;
  • The sizes and positions of the flags;
  • The occasions and situations when you should fly certain flags;
  • The common mistakes and pitfalls to avoid when flying flags.

The skipper of the Bowman 57 staysail ketch shown here is correctly flying a burgee (the Flying Fish burgee of the Ocean Cruising Club ) from the port spreader, and a courtesy ensign (of Spain in this case) from the starboard spreader.

The ensign, in this case that of the Republic of Ireland, is flown from a flag halyard fom the mizzen mast to the end of the missen boom. Alternatively the ensign could be flown from a staff attached to the taffrail.

The Types of Flags

There are many types of flags that you can fly on your boat, but the most common ones are:

  • The ensign: This is the flag that shows the country of registry of your boat and indicates its nationality. It is usually flown at the stern of the boat, as close as possible to the waterline. It is the most senior position for a flag on a boat and it should always be larger than any other flag. A UK flagged boat (sail or power) must wear the national maritime flag, the Red Ensign, unless entitled to wear a special ensign.

Yachtclub burgee at masthead

  • The burgee: This is the flag that shows the yacht club or association that you belong to. It is usually flown at the main masthead of the boat above any other flag, but can be flown from the port spreader unless otherwise stipulated under a special warrant. 
  • The courtesy flag: This is the flag that shows the national flag of the country that you are visiting or whose waters you are sailing in. It is a sign of respect and goodwill to the host country and it should be flown at the starboard spreader. It should be hoisted as soon as you enter foreign waters and lowered as soon as you leave them.
  • The Q flag: This is a yellow flag that indicates that you are requesting clearance from the local authorities when entering a foreign port. It is also flown at the starboard spreader of the boat, below the courtesy flag if there is one. It should be hoisted before you enter the port and lowered after you have been cleared.
  • The signal flags: These are flags that have specific meanings in the International Code of Signals. They can be used to spell out messages or to convey information such as your position, your course, your speed, your intentions or your distress. They can be flown individually or in combinations at various locations on the boat.
  • The private signal: This is a personal or family flag that has no official meaning or recognition. It can be flown at the port spreader of the boat, below any other flag. It is optional and purely decorative.

The Sizes and Positions of the Flags

The sizes and positions of the flags on your boat are important for both aesthetic and practical reasons. They should be proportionate to your boat size, visible from a distance and clear from any obstruction.

The general rules for sizing and positioning flags are:

  • The ensign should be one inch on the fly (the length) for every foot of overall length of your boat. It should be flown on the stern staff or on a gaff if there is one.

Ensign incorrectly flown at top of mizzen

  • The burgee should be half an inch on the fly for every foot of overall length of your sailboat or five-eighths of an inch for every foot of overall length of your powerboat. It should be flown at the main masthead or on a pigstick (a vertical extension) if there is one.
  • The courtesy flag should be the same size as the burgee or slightly smaller. It should be flown at the starboard spreader, preferably on its own halyard.
  • The Q flag should be the same size as the courtesy flag or slightly smaller. It should be flown at the starboard spreader, below the courtesy flag if there is one, on its own halyard.
  • The signal flags should be sized according to their function and meaning. They can be flown individually or in combinations at various locations on the boat, such as the masthead, the yardarm, the bow or the stern of the boat.
  • The private signal should be the same size as the burgee or slightly smaller. It should be flown at the port spreader, below any other flag, on its own halyard.

The Occasions and Situations When You Should Fly Certain Flags

The occasions and situations when you should fly certain flags on your boat depend on where you are, what you are doing and who you are with. Some flags are mandatory, some are optional and some are forbidden.

The general rules for flying flags are:

  • You must fly your ensign at all times in daylight, especially when near to or in sight of land or another boat. You must also fly your ensign when entering or leaving a foreign port and on demand. You can fly your ensign at night if you wish, but it is not required.
  • You can fly your burgee at any time, but it is customary to hoist it at 0800 and lower it at sunset. You can also fly your burgee at night if you wish, but it is not required.
  • You must fly the courtesy flag of the country that you are visiting or whose waters you are sailing in as soon as you enter their jurisdiction and until you leave it. You must also fly the Q flag when entering a foreign port until you have been cleared by the local authorities. You can lower the Q flag after you have been cleared, but you should keep the courtesy flag until you leave the port or the country.
  • You can fly signal flags whenever you need to communicate with other boats or shore stations using the International Code of Signals. You can also fly signal flags for decorative purposes, such as dressing your boat for a special occasion, but you should avoid using flags that have specific meanings or that could cause confusion.
  • You can fly your private signal whenever you want, but it has no official significance or recognition. It is purely a personal or family emblem.

The Common Mistakes and Pitfalls to Avoid When Flying Flags

Flying flags on your boat can be fun and rewarding, but it can also be tricky and challenging. There are some common mistakes and pitfalls that you should avoid when flying flags, such as:

  • Flying an incorrect, damaged, wrongly sized or otherwise invalid ensign. This is a breach of law and etiquette and could lead to fines or penalties.
  • Flying a special ensign without being entitled to do so. This is a privilege granted by a warrant from the Admiralty or by an Act of Parliament and it requires certain conditions to be met.
  • Flying a burgee that does not match your ensign or that is higher than your ensign. This is a sign of disrespect and ignorance and could offend other boats or authorities.
  • Flying more than one burgee at a time. This is considered sloppy and excessive and could imply that you are showing off or indecisive.
  • Flying a courtesy flag that is larger than your burgee or that is above your burgee on the same halyard. This is a sign of subservience and inferiority and could insult your own country or club.
  • Flying a Q flag when you have already been cleared or when you are leaving a port. This is unnecessary and confusing and could cause delays or misunderstandings.
  • Flying signal flags that have specific meanings or that could cause confusion for decorative purposes. This is irresponsible and dangerous and could lead to accidents or incidents.
  • Flying a private signal that resembles an official flag or that has an offensive meaning. This is misleading and rude and could provoke anger or hostility.
  • And you should never, ever, fly a skull-and-crossbones flag. There is nothing amusing or glamorous about pirates.

Sailboat Flag Etiquette: A Few FAQs...

Why do some British sailboats fly a White or Blue Ensign rather than the traditional Red Ensign?

Some British sailboats fly a white or blue ensign because they belong to certain yacht clubs or organisations that have special permission to use these ensigns.

The white ensign is a variation of the national flag that is normally used by the Royal Navy, but it can also be worn by yachts owned by members of the Royal Yacht Squadron , which is a privileged yacht club with a long history and close ties to the monarchy.

The blue ensign is another variation of the national flag that is normally used by government vessels, but it can also be worn by yachts that belong to one of the 32 yacht clubs or associations that have a warrant from the Admiralty or the relevant authority to use the undefaced blue ensign.

Additionally, some yachts can wear a blue ensign defaced with the badge of their club or association, if they have a warrant for that as well. There are 57 yacht clubs or associations that have this privilege.

These special or privileged ensigns are considered a mark of distinction and honour, and they should only be flown with proper authorisation and following the rules and regulations of wearing them.

What is the difference between an ensign and a burgee?

An ensign is a flag that shows the nationality of the vessel and must be worn at the stern or as close to it as possible. A burgee is a flag that shows the membership of a yacht club or sailing association and can be worn at the masthead or the port spreader.

What is a special ensign and how can I get one?

A special ensign is a variation of the national flag that can be worn by certain yachts that belong to a privileged yacht club or organisation. To get one, you need to apply for a warrant from the Admiralty or the relevant authority and follow the rules and regulations of wearing it.

How big should my flags be and how should I hoist them?

The size of your flags depends on the length of your vessel, but as a general rule, your ensign should be about one inch for each foot of overall length. Your burgee and courtesy flag should be smaller than your ensign, but not too small to be seen. You should hoist your flags using halyards or staffs and make sure they are not tangled, faded, or torn.

When should I raise and lower my flags?

You should raise your flags at 0800 hours or when you leave harbour, whichever is later, and lower them at sunset or when you enter harbour, whichever is earlier. You should also lower your flags when out of sight of other vessels or when nobody is aboard.

Can I fly more than one burgee or other flags on my vessel?

Traditionally, you should only fly one burgee at a time, but some yachts may choose to fly more than one to show their affiliation with different clubs or associations. However, you should always make sure that your burgee matches your ensign if you are wearing a special one. You can also fly other flags, such as signal flags, house flags, or personal flags, but they should not take precedence over your ensign, burgee, or courtesy flag.

How should I salute other vessels or authorities with my flags?

You can salute other vessels or authorities by dipping your ensign, which means lowering it halfway down the staff or halyard and then hoisting it back up. You should only do this if you receive a salute first or if you are passing by a naval vessel, a Coast Guard vessel, or a foreign warship.

What are the rules for flying flags in a race?

The rules for flying flags in a race may vary depending on the organising authority, but generally, you should not fly your ensign during a race, as this signals that you are not racing. You should also follow any instructions given by the race committee regarding signal flags, class flags, or protest flags.

What are the consequences of not following flag etiquette?

Not following flag etiquette may result in fines, penalties, or even confiscation of your vessel if you break the law or offend the host country. It may also cause confusion, misunderstanding, or disrespect among other sailors or authorities. Therefore, it is advisable to learn and follow the proper flag etiquette whenever you go sailing.

I wrote this article using GPT-4, OpenAI’s large-scale language-generation model, as a research assistant to develop source material. I wrote the final draft in its entirety and believe it to be accurate to the best of my knowledge.

Dick McClary

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Flying a Flag on Shrouds ?

sailboat flag halyard

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I know i talked to some of you about this before , but i forgot what the hardware was called? I am looking for something to allow me to hoist and lower flag real easy i have a small block to attach to shroud cross bar just didn't know how to attach the rope? And what side is right in flying flags, im on a lake so it doesn't matter but always good to know! thanks  

sailboat flag halyard

Typically quarantine & courtesy flags, and often club/event burgees are flown from the Stbd spreaders. Technically a club burgee is supposed to be flown off a 'pig stick' at the masthead but few do this. Any viable method of mounting a small sheave in the spreader proper is good for the top end, you can get small cleats that are meant to attach to a shroud.. placing directly below the sheave on a lower diagonal seems to work best. Alternate locations would be a cleat on the mast, a convenient handrail, or even perhaps the turnbuckle barrel opening.  

sailboat flag halyard

I added a little block on my spreader to hoist a burgee. I thought about getting the kit shown above, but the cleat is metal, and someone pointed out that I should probably avoid that to eliminate the chance of corrosion from dissimilar metals. That seemed resonable, and the plastic one has worked just fine. I connect the burgee to the line with nylon sister clips, which make the flag easy to take on and off. I have some pics here: Maintenance Results | Sailing Fortuitous I also have those clips that SchockT linked to for my ensign, which I just clip onto the backstay. In general, the ensign goes on the stern. A courtesy flag, burgee, or club rank flag go on the starboard spreader, in that order from top to bottom. The Power Squadron has a pretty detailed writeup on flag etiquette: Flag and Etiquette Committee  

sailboat flag halyard

Related to this, Clue's little flag halyard is wrapped around the sheave (pulley) on the spreader... Short of bumming a lift from a passing bucket truck, any ideas in how to free the halyard? There is a worn out flag at the top that would make the captain of the black pearl wince. The boat (psc31) is on the hard . Would the spreader support a 40' extension ladder? It's a few feet out from the mast and I don't think I can reach from a bisun's chair.. Ideas? Thanks, Elsn  

You should be able to swing out to your shrouds on a bosuns chair, although most boat yards around here aren't big on people going up their masts when the boat is on the stands.  

sailboat flag halyard

Okay... I have a flag line on my stbd spreader, my ensign will fly on it's own staff off the stern. What order will I fly my jolly roger and cocktail flag off the spreader then? Does the Jolly roger take precedence over the cocktail flag?  

Yeah, shockt, the yard will not like that. If its still there when I splash in April, I'll try going aloft.  

Yep, I believe the Jolly Roger is the flag of greater dignity or precedence than the cocktail flag, so it would go above or to starboard. The tackier the flag, the lefter and lower it goes... I suppose the position of ultimate indignity or least precedence goes to oil-absorbing pads in the bilge.  

Makes sense to me Thanks  

Well my boat is in my back yard so i do not have to climb mast.. i do not know the order of the flags. If there is a order ? I know tho starboard is for non serious flags! Thanks for all of the replies!  

sailboat flag halyard

ImASonOfaSailor said: i do not know the order of the flags. If there is a order ? I know tho starboard is for non serious flags! Click to expand...
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How to Fly a Flag Above a Masthead

One of the hallmarks of sailing artwork is a flag or streamer flown above the masthead. You often see them in vintage photographs, paintings of tall ships, and modern digital art.

sailboat flag halyard

But you seldom see them in reality anymore. Why is that? Maybe it’s a dying tradition. Maybe its a practical result of all the gadgetry we mount on our mastheads today. Whatever the reason, I suspect that more skippers would fly them if they knew how easy it is to do.

Flying a flag above the masthead is especially fun for holidays and other special events. I sometimes fly a 5′ red streamer on Summer Dance for our family’s annual Independence Day celebration. We decorate for the lighted boat parade with red, white, and blue pennants hung around the deck and flashing LED lights up the backstay and down the forestay,  We have a great time and the spectators enjoy the show.

sailboat flag halyard

You don’t need any permanent hardware to fly a flag above the masthead unless you want to fly it often. You can rig one for special occasions in just a few minutes with common materials and without lowering your mast.

The traditional way to fly a flag high is with what is called a pig stick . It’s basically a flag staff that you attach to a halyard and raise so that the flag flies above all obstructions at the top of the mast. The biggest challenge is making it swivel around the pig stick and not wrap around it, your windex, VHF antenna, anchor light, or anything else up there. It’s not difficult, though.

To make a pig stick:

  • Find a lightweight wood, plastic, or fiberglass rod about 3′ long. The diameter is not critical but the rod should be strong enough to withstand bending in the wind. I’ve found that a bamboo garden stake works very well. They sometimes have a slight bend at one end that can actually make it stand straighter above the masthead than a perfectly straight rod since the masthead can be a little in the way.
  • Cut a straight section from a wire coat hanger that is a little longer than the height of the flag that you want to fly.
  • Bend the wire into a swivel like shown below. Form an eye at the top end that is slightly larger in diameter than the threads of a small tapping screw. Make another eye at the bottom end that is slightly larger in diameter than the pig stick.
  • Bend two more eyes with which to attach the flag using split rings. The eyes should be the same distance apart as the grommets of the flag that you intend to fly.
  • Slide the swivel onto the pig stick, place a washer between the swivel and the top of the pig stick, and secure the swivel with the tapping screw. Don’t tighten the screw completely. Leave the swivel loose so that it rotates freely around the pig stick.
  • Attach the flag to the swivel with split rings or equivalent clips.

sailboat flag halyard

To hoist the pig stick:

  • Select a halyard that you won’t be using while flying the flag. I use my spinnaker halyard. You could use the mainsail halyard but you won’t be able to raise the mainsail completely since the pig stick would be attached above it.
  • Tie a light line such as parachute cord to the halyard shackle to act as a downhaul. You’ll use this line to lower the pig stick and retrieve the end of the halyard after you raise it to the masthead. If you decide to use your mainsail halyard, you can skip this step because you can pull the mainsail down to retrieve the pig stick.
  • Attach the pig stick to the halyard in two places 6″ to 12″ apart above the shackle as shown below. I use zip ties and place one above and one below the joints in the bottom of the bamboo stake. This prevents the bamboo from sliding through the zip ties. Attach it in two places so that they will hold the pig stick vertically and securely.
  • Hoist the pig stick up to the masthead so that it passes by it on one side and the flag flies clear above. You might need to experiment a little to find the best place.
  • Cleat the halyard and pull tension on the downhaul until the pig stick is as vertical and stationary as possible.

sailboat flag halyard

That’s all there is to it.

The next time you’re celebrating or you want to dress up your sailboat, consider hoisting a pig stick to fly your nation’s flag, club burgee, or a streamer. For tips on flying flags from your spreaders, see Make a Flag Halyard to Fly Your Favorite Colors . For a good source of flags and streamers of various sizes, shapes, and colors, contact Pamela at  The Flag Chick .

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3 thoughts on “ how to fly a flag above a masthead ”.

Great practical post. I am going to try this as I prefer to fly my burgee from the mast where it is clearly visible. I have the materials so maybe a project for this afternoon. I really enjoy reading your small boat projects.

Thanks, love the tips.

Just made one following your concept. I used 3/8 diameter carbon fiber tube with some epoxy bedded into the top few inches so the screw could bite into something. It works great! Thank you.

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U.S. intel helped Ukraine sink Russian flagship Moskva, officials say

Intelligence shared by the U.S. helped Ukraine sink the Russian cruiser Moskva, U.S. officials told NBC News, confirming an American role in perhaps the most embarrassing blow to Vladimir Putin’s troubled invasion of Ukraine.

A guided missile cruiser carrying a crew of 510, the Moskva was the flagship of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. It sank on April 14 after being struck by two Ukrainian Neptune anti-ship missiles , U.S. officials said. Moscow said the vessel sank after a fire. The Moskva was the largest Russian warship sunk in combat since World War II. American officials said there were significant Russian casualties, but they don’t know how many.

The attack happened after Ukrainian forces asked the Americans about a ship sailing in the Black Sea south of Odesa, U.S. officials told NBC News. The U.S. identified it as the Moskva, officials said, and helped confirm its location, after which the Ukrainians targeted the ship.

The U.S. did not know in advance that Ukraine was going to target the Moskva, officials said, and was not involved in the decision to strike. Maritime intelligence is shared with Ukraine to help it defend against attack from Russian ships, officials added.

The U.S. role in the sinking has not been previously reported. But NBC News  detailed  last month how American intelligence shared with Ukraine had been instrumental in Ukraine’s successes to date, including in helping Ukraine target Russian forces and avoid Russian attacks.

Smoke billows from the damaged Russian ship Moskva on April 15, 2022.

American officials have expressed concerns that reporting about U.S. intelligence sharing with Ukraine could anger Putin and provoke an unpredictable response.

The White House did not immediately provide a comment to NBC News.

In a statement released after this story was published, Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said the U.S. did not provide Ukraine with "specific targeting information for the Moskva."

"We were not involved in the Ukrainians’ decision to strike the ship or in the operation they carried out," Kirby added. "We had no prior knowledge of Ukraine’s intent to target the ship. The Ukrainians have their own intelligence capabilities to track and target Russian naval vessels, as they did in this case."

The revelation about the Moskva comes on the heels of  reporting  by The New York Times that intelligence shared by the U.S. had in some cases helped Ukraine kill Russian generals. American officials did not dispute that, but pushed back strongly on the impression that the U.S. was explicitly providing information with the intent of striking Russian military leaders.

“We do not provide intelligence on the location of senior military leaders on the battlefield,” Kirby told reporters Thursday, adding that the U.S. shares intelligence with Ukrainian forces but does not tell them who or what to attack.

Current U.S. policy expressly forbids the sharing of lethal targeting intelligence about Russian civilian and military leaders, two U.S. officials familiar with the matter told NBC News.

The Moskva was considered Russia’s most lethal warship, rippling with cannons and missile systems, some of which were designed to defend it from attack. The credible account that it was hit and sunk by anti-ship missiles was widely seen as a deep humiliation for the Russian military.

In the early days of the war, the Moskva was part of what became an iconic incident, when officers on board ordered Ukrainian border guards on Ukraine’s Snake Island to surrender.

“Russian warship, go f--- yourself,” the guards answered.

They were captured and later freed in a prisoner exchange.

The sinking of the Moskva has reignited a longstanding debate among naval experts about just how vulnerable ships are to missiles and kamikaze drones. 

In the aftermath, the Russian Navy pulled back from the Ukrainian coast, U.S. defense officials told NBC News.

sailboat flag halyard

Ken Dilanian is the justice and intelligence correspondent for NBC News, based in Washington.

sailboat flag halyard

Courtney Kube is a correspondent covering national security and the military for the NBC News Investigative Unit.

sailboat flag halyard

Carol E. Lee is the Washington managing editor.

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Sidestay Flag Rigging

  • Thread starter jdratlif
  • Start date Feb 1, 2011
  • Forums for All Owners
  • Ask All Sailors


I want to be able to rig my boat so I can raise flags. The flags I want to fly are more recreational flags, so I don't need to follow any set standard as to where they are on the boat. I have been on a larger sailboat where they ran rigging up their sidestays so they could fly flags on their sidestays. My questions are, has anyone tried this? If this will not work, how have other people flown flags off of their boats? Some pictures of rigging and operation will be very helpful and appreciated. Thanks  

Roger Long

Standard is to fly flags from your starboard shroud (side stay). Roger has the typical setup that will work if not using the halyard for a radar reflector.  


While you're up in the air, I'd put one on BOTH sides.  

higgs said: Roger has the typical setup that will work if not using the halyard for a radar reflector. Click to expand

Mike B

If you mount alladin cleats on the stays place them so a flogging jib sheet wont get hung up on them.  

Mike B said: If you mount alladin cleats on the stays place them so a flogging jib sheet wont get hung up on them. Click to expand

Rick Sylvester

My flag halyard cleats are on the mast so we don't have those issues.  

Don S/V ILLusion

Don S/V ILLusion

Hummmmmm. With all the times I've stood on the spreaders I never considered them falling down.  


We ripped our new headsail last summer on the tiniest clip we used to hoist our club flag. Our sailmaker said he sees this all the time. It looked really similar to how Roger has his set up, so I am assuming there is no little metal clippy thing there. It was expensive and sad but we learned a great lesson!  


Use a separate flag halyard, don't attach them to the shrouds. Position the halyard block on the spreader so the flags wouldn't hang on the shroud. You can rig more than one flag halyard on the same spreader. Look at navy ships. To easily hoist multiple flags, as if you were signaling, attach a clip to the bottom corner of each flag to allow you to clip it to the top corner of the next one. If the flags are stored with rubber bands holding them folded, you can hoist the entire signal set before breaking them out simultaneously with a quick downward tug. Very cool. Just like the signal officer on a war ship.  

Dave Groshong

Dave Groshong

You can do it yourself of course, but we do offer the handy dandy spreader halyard kit:  



Not to hijack this thread but where are on a sailboat are you supposed to fly the US flag? I have never really been clear on this. Any thoughts? POTL  

WayneH This is helpful to me.  

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