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Maritime flag


Maritime flag

A medieval ship flag captured from a James the Greater, identified by his scallop shell emblem.

A maritime flag is a flag designated for use on ships, boats, and other watercraft. Naval flags are considered important at sea and the rules and regulations for the flying of flags are strictly enforced. The flag flown is related to the country of registration: so much so that the word "flag" is often used symbolically as a synonym for "country of registration".


  • Types of flag 1
    • Ensigns 1.1
    • Jacks 1.2
    • Distinguishing marks 1.3
    • Rank flags 1.4
    • Pennants 1.5
    • House flag 1.6
    • Private signal 1.7
    • Yacht club burgee 1.8
    • Unit citations 1.9
    • Signal flags 1.10
    • Courtesy flag 1.11
  • Flag etiquette 2
    • Dressing overall 2.1
  • See also 3
  • References 4
  • External links 5

Types of flag


The Red Ensign, as currently used by the United Kingdom's Merchant Navy.

Ensigns are usually required to be flown when entering and leaving harbour, when sailing through foreign waters, and when the ship is signalled to do so by a warship. Warships usually fly their ensigns between the morning colours ceremony and sunset when moored or at anchor, at all times when underway, and at all times when engaged in battle—the "battle ensign". When engaged in battle a warship often flies multiple battle ensigns. This tradition dates from the era of sailing vessels. Tradition dictated that if a ship lowered its ensign it was deemed to have surrendered. Masts were targets of gunfire, and the second and subsequent ensigns were flown in order to keep the ensign flying even after a mast hit.


Jacks are additional national flags flown by warships (and certain other vessels) at the head of the ship. These are usually flown while not under way and when the ship is dressed on special occasions. Jacks in the Royal Navy must be run up when the first line is ashore when coming alongside.

Distinguishing marks

The flag of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, flown by all commissioned NOAA ships as a "distinguishing mark."

On 16 January 1899, commissioned ships of the United States Coast and Geodetic Survey were authorized to fly their own flag to distinguish them from ships of the United States Navy, with which they shared a common ensign. Although they continued to fly the same ensign as U.S. Navy ships, ships of the Survey flew the Coast and Geodetic Survey flag as a "distinguishing mark" until the newly created National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) took over control of the Survey‍ '​s ships in 1970. Since then, commissioned ships of NOAA, which also fly the same national ensign as U.S. Navy ships, have flown the flag of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration as a distinguishing mark.

Similarly, all ships of the United States Lighthouse Service flew the U.S. Lighthouse Service flag until the service merged into the United States Coast Guard on 1 July 1939,[1] and ships of the United States Bureau of Fisheries flew the Bureau of Fisheries flag until the bureau was merged into the United States Fish and Wildlife Service on 30 June 1940.

Rank flags

Rank flag of a Rear Admiral of the Indian Navy.

The rank flag or distinguishing flag is the flag flown by a superior officer on his flagship or headquarters (hence the term flagship). The origins of this are from the era before radiotelegraphy and radiotelephony, when orders were given by flag signals. The flag denotes the ship which must be watched for signals designating orders. Such flags are also flown when leaders of the government (presidents, prime ministers or defense secretaries) are aboard Navy ships, showing the ship to hold the headquarters of highest level of authority for the Armed Forces. Today, with the progress in communications, this flag indicates the obligation of the other Naval vessels to pay the relevant honours (Manning the rails, firing cannon salute, attention, etc.) according to nautical etiquette. In a group of naval ships all commanded by superior officers, only the commander of the group or the officer of the highest rank can fly his flag.

  • In the United States Navy as well as in some other countries, admirals fly rectangular flags with stars according to rank. Line officer flags are blue with white stars, while staff officer flags are white with blue stars.
  • In the Hellenic Navy (Greek Navy) Admirals fly blue square flags bearing a white cross (similar to the Hellenic Navy Jack) with four six-point stars (one in each of the squares formed by the cross); Vice-Admirals fly the same flag but with three stars; Rear Admirals two stars; and Commodores one star. Captains, when commanding a flotilla or squadron, fly a burgee (square swallow-tailed flag) with the colours of Hellenic Navy Jack. When a rank flag is flown the commissioning pennant is displaced downward.


The pennant, historically called a pennon, is a long narrow flag, conveying different meanings depending on its design and use. Examples:

  • A United States Navy, it is red above white, with seven white stars in the blue hoist. The commissioning pennant may be displaced by various rank flags, namely the flags or pennants of admirals or commodores, and the personal flags of heads of state and members of royal families. In former centuries, masthead pennants were of a length similar to that of the ships that wore them, but nowadays very long pennants tend only to be seen when a ship is paying off.
  • A church pennant, as used by the Royal Navy, Royal Netherlands Navy and Commonwealth Navies, is a broad pennant flown on ships and at establishments (bases) during religious services, and has the George Cross and Dutch flag incorporated; chosen after the English Dutch Wars where both sides stopped for Church on a Sunday.
  • A Senior Officer Present Afloat pennant using the NATO signal flag for "Starboard" is green on the hoist and fly with a white field between.
  • A Gin Pennant means that the wardroom is inviting officers from ships in company to drinks. The origins of the Gin Pennant are uncertain, but it seems to have been used since the 1940s and probably earlier. Originally it was a small green triangular pennant measuring approximately 18 by 9 inches (460 by 230 mm), defaced with a white wine glass, nowadays the gin pennant is a Starboard pennant defaced with a wine or cocktail glass. Its colour, size and position when hoisted were all significant as the aim was for the pennant to be as inconspicuous as possible, thereby having fewer ships sight it and subsequently accept the invitation for drinks. The Gin Pennant is still in regular use by Commonwealth Navies, such as the Royal Australian Navy (RAN). Within the RAN it is common practice, whilst in port, for junior officers of one ship to attempt to raise the Gin Pennant on the halyard of another ship, thereby forcing that ship to put on free drinks for the officers of the ship that managed to raise the pennant. If, however the junior officers are caught raising the pennant, then it is their ship that must put on free drinks within their Wardroom. Usually this practice is restricted to Commonwealth Navies; however, prior to increased force protection, RAN officers have successfully raised the Gin Pennant on a number of units in the USN.

House flag

House flags, ca. 1900

Merchant ships often fly a flag identifying which company owns the vessel. This was formerly flown from the mainmast but is now usually flown from the jackstaff.

Private signal

Private signals are custom designed flags used to symbolize and identify the owner of a boat.

Yacht club burgee

Burgee of Barrachois Harbour Yacht Club, Nova Scotia, Canada

Members belonging to a

  • All About Flags - A simple guide to marine flags and basic flag etiquette
  • Flag Advisor - Flag etiquette and recommendations
  •'s Flag etiquette
  • Seagate Yacht Club's exchanged burgee collection
  • Crystal Lake Yacht Club's Burgree collection
  • Nautical Flags Alphabet

External links

  1. ^ United States Coast Guard Historian's Office: Flags, Logos, Pennants, Seals & Streamers Of the Coast Guard & Its Predecessor Services
  2. ^  


See also

As a sign of celebration, ships in harbour may be 'dressed overall'.

Dressing overall

The flying of two ensigns of two different countries, one above the other, on the same staff is a sign that the vessel concerned has been captured or has surrendered during wartime. The ensign flying in the inferior, or lower, position is that of the country the ship has been captured from: conversely, the ensign flying in the superior, or upper position, is that of the country that has captured the ship.

Nautical etiquette requires that merchant vessels dip their ensigns in salute to passing warships, which acknowledge the salute by dipping their ensigns in return. Contrary to popular belief the United States Navy does dip the Stars and Stripes in acknowledgement of salutes rendered to it. Merchant vessels traditionally fly the ensign of the nation in whose territorial waters they are sailing at the starboard yard-arm. This is known as a courtesy flag, as for yachts.

Motor boats without masts should always fly the ensign from an ensign staff at the stern. Conventionally, courtesy flags are flown from the jackstaff at the bow. This seems to some landsmen as being a reversal of priorities. However, a boat is steered by the stern and this gives it pride of place.

Another recent custom has been to fly a burgee and/or a cruising or power squadron flag from the starboard spreader. This custom has arisen because many sailboats today place a racing flag or wind indicator at the masthead.

The Canadian Heritage web page states:

At sea, it used to be that the ensign was flown from the mizzen gaff. When Bermudian sails came into general use, some skippers started to fly the ensign from two-thirds the way up the main-sail leech. Many consider this an affectation with the past. Others have taken to flying the ensign from a backstay. These are not good locations because the flag does not fly out well when hoisted raked forward.

When in port, the ensign should always be flown from the staff at the stern. This is traditional, because in former times the gaff was then lowered along with the mizzen sail. The only ensign ever flown from the starboard spreader or yardarm is that of a nation being visited. This is known as a courtesy hoisting of a courtesy Flag.

The priority of hoisting locations depends on the rig of the vessel. With sloops, ketches and schooners the starboard yardarm or spreader of the highest or main mast is the second most honoured position. (That is, after the ensign at the stern.) Next after the starboard spreader is the port spreader. House flags (those defining the owner) are usually flown from the mainmast truck. When a club burgee is flown, it will normally be hoisted to the truck of the most forward mast. On a sloop, then, not having a foremast, the house flag could be moved to the port spreader if the starboard spreader was in use, and a burgee was being flown. On a ketch, the house flag would be moved to the mizzen.

The usual rule that no flag should be flown higher than the national flag does not apply on board a ship: a flag flown at the stern is always in a superior position to a flag flown elsewhere on the ship, even if the latter is higher up.

The position of honour on a ship is the quarterdeck at the stern of the ship, and thus ensigns are traditionally flown either from an ensign staff at the ship's stern, or from a gaff rigged over the stern.

USS Chesapeake flying Stars and Stripes below White Ensign after her capture by HMS Shannon

Flag etiquette

A courtesy flag (or courtesy ensign) is flown by a visiting ship in foreign waters as a token of respect. It is often a small (that is, smaller than the ship's own national ensign) national maritime flag of the host country, although there are countries (such as Malta) where the national, rather than the maritime flag is correct. The flag is customarily worn at the foremasthead of multi-masted vessels, the dockside yardarm or crosstree of the mast of single-masted vessels, while the house flag would be outboard. It may be flown from the jackstaff of vessels without masts.

Courtesy flag

There is a system of International maritime signal flags for each letter of the alphabet, and pennants for the numerals. Each flag (except the R flag) has an additional meaning when flown individually, and they take other meanings in certain combinations.

Signal flags

Warships of various navies may be awarded a unit citation, for which a burgee (tapering flag with swallow-tail fly) is flown when in port.

Unit citations

Traditionally, the first time a member of one club visits another, there is an exchange of burgees. Exchanged burgees are then often displayed on the premises of each, such as in a club office or bar.

Power boats fly the burgee off a short staff on the bow. [2]

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