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:
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