Flag Etiquette
Barbara Theisen


Flags are flown aboard boats to show certain information. It’s important to know what flags you can fly, when you should display them and from where they should be displayed.
An ensign is your national flag. It identifies the country from which your boat is registered. A boat that is registered in the US and is located in US waters can fly either the US ensign (this is “Old Glory” – 50 stars and 13 stripes) or the US yacht ensign. The US yacht ensign shows 13 stars with a fouled anchor in the union. But once you begin cruising in international or foreign waters, US registered boats must fly the US ensign (50 stars).
Generally, your ensign is flown from a stern staff. However if this is not possible, there are other locations from which it can be flown. Check with Chapman Piloting, one of the best reference books for boaters, for more information. The stern staff is considered a place of honor. Do not fly state flags, pirate flags, gag flags etc. from the stern staff.
You need to choose the proper size national flag for the size of your boat. It should be one inch for each foot of overall length of the boat. For example, a 40-foot boat would choose a flag whose length is 40 inches. Round up if necessary to find a flag of the right size.
Whenever you enter foreign waters you must hoist the Quarantine flag. The “Q” flag is a plain yellow, rectangular flag. Hoisting this flag signals that the “vessel” is healthy and that you are requesting clearance into the country. This flag is flown from the starboard spreader. On a boat with more than one mast, the flag is flown from the starboard spreader of the forward mast. The “Q” flag would displace any other flags that you had hoisted on the starboard spreader (yacht club burgee, Seven Seas Cruising Association pendant, state flag, etc.). These flags can now be flown from the port spreader. The “Q” flag is brought down after you have formally cleared into a country.
It's customary to fly the flag of a foreign nation just below your starboard spreader when you are in foreign waters. These flags are called courtesy flags. Although the word “courtesy” is used, in many countries it would be considered disrespectful to not fly the courtesy flag and it is possible to receive a fine for not flying it. These flags are available from marine stores such as West Marine or Boat US. You can also sew your own courtesy flags. But be sure to have accurate copies of the flag and be sure to match colors correctly.
It’s important to fly the courtesy flag right side up. This might seem simple but take a look at the Cuban flag. It has blue and white stripes with a white star set on a red triangle. Can you tell which way it should be flown?

Cruiser Nigel Calder in his guidebook, Cuba, A Cruising Guide says that he was told by Cuban officials that flying the flag upside down is considered to be a declaration of a state of war. So be sure to fly the Cuban courtesy flag right side up! The star has five points. The flag must be flown with the point of the star facing up.
When do you raise the courtesy flag? There are two thoughts on this. Some believe that you should display the courtesy flag from the starboard spreader with the quarantine flag beneath it as soon as you enter a country’s waters. But Chapman Piloting says that the courtesy flag “is not hoisted until clearance has been completed and the quarantine flag has been removed.”
Some cruisers like to fly courtesy flags of other countries when they arrive back in their home waters. I guess it’s kind of a boastful way of saying, “been there.” However, whenever I see this I wonder if perhaps they’re lost. “Look, that boat is flying the Bahamian courtesy flag. Do you think they know that they’re actually in Michigan?” It’s also not proper flag etiquette to fly the courtesy flag of another country when you are not in that country.
Flags see a lot of wear and tear on boats. Wind and sun especially, can shorten the life of your flags. The first thing we do when we get a new flag is to reinforce the stitching. Adding a zigzag stitch to the edge of your flag will help keep it from fraying. We’ve also sewn a sunbrella cover for our stern flagstaff. We roll the US flag around the staff and slip the cover over it every night. This has extended the life of our US flag by years.

Barbara Theisen has spent the past twelve years living aboard Out of Bounds with her husband Tom and daughters, Kate and Kenna. The Theisens are currently cruising the Northwest Caribbean. For more information on living the cruising life, visit the Theisens’ Website at www.TheCruisingLife.com.