flag

Sailing is steeped in tradition. Even though aspects of the activity have been heavily modernised, several actions are much as they were decades, even centuries ago. One of these is courtesy flag etiquette - the act of flying a foreign nation’s flag as your boat enters and passes through its waters. Sounds simple enough, but there are actually a fair number of regulations and expectations on how to fly these flags:

Where to fly your courtesy flag

Referred to as “making colours”, sailors are expected to fly several flags. One of these is the national ensign. In principle, the colours should be made at 0800 local time, and then struck at sunset. If entering or leaving port, then you may display your flags even outside of those hours.

There are three main location from which to display flags:

  1. The masthead
  2. The starboard spreader
  3. The aft
A courtesy flag is flown at the starboard spreader. In legal terms, there’s nothing wrong with flying a flag on a different mast, but for many its seen as breaking the traditions of flag etiquette.

In cases where a boat has more than one mast, it must be flown from the forward most mast. When flying the flag of another nation, it is usually tied in place of a flag of your home waters (and only after maritime authorities have granted you clearance into their waters). Until you have clearance, you should fly the Q flag as a signal.

The reason courtesy flags are named as such is because flying them is just that - a courtesy. There’s no legal requirement to fly one. The only legal flag for a foreign visitor is a Red Ensign. However flying a courtesy flag is acknowledgement to other sailors that you will respect the laws and sovereignty of that country while passing through.

Key points for courtesy flag etiquette
  • Never fly a flag that is tattered, dirty or in bad condition. This is considered rude and disrespectful. If you lack the necessary flag for your destination, or are in need of a new one, browse through Seachest’s range of courtesy flags.
  • Another, lesser known courtesy, is that you should also fly the national flag (or flags) of any guests on board.
  • Some countries have their national flag as a courtesy flag, including France and the U.S.A. However some use a version of the national flag with a device (e.g. Italy), and some have a different flag altogether. These countries include the UK and other crown countries like Australia and New Zealand.

As a final piece of boat courtesy flag etiquette, remember to always strike down the flag of a country you’ve just visited, when you return home. While you may wish to keep it up to highlight which country you’ve been to, it’s not proper etiquette. Keep the bragging for Instagram! If you want to keep up to date with future Seachest blogs on admiralty charts, give us a like on Facebook, or follow us through @seachestcharts.