Maritime Navigational Flags and Uses

Here we talk about some important flags you need to know, flag position in the boat, flag size, when and what flag you should fly, etc.


Various flags in boats are used as signals for communication.

There are four types of flags on every ship

  • national flag 
  • house or owner flag
  • alphabetical flag
  • numeral pennants

You can find details about every flag in the below link

Here we talk about recreational vessels, not commercial vessels, and any possible legal requirements they may have to meet.

 I’m sure you’ll be familiar with your own bylaws and your own protocols specific to your flag etiquette, so I’m talking a bit in general here.

Flag Types:

The most senior position on the boat is reserved for your National flag or a yachting ensign.

The yachting ensign is a flag approved for recreational vessels to fly instead of your national flag.

 e.g., In the U.S, it is the u.s flag with an anchor surrounded by stars in the blue field with red and white stripes.

 In the UK, the union jack is in the corner on a red field for recreational vessels so that you can fly instead of your national flag, and UK naval vessels fly on a white field with union jack in the corner in white field.

UK naval vessels
for recreational vessels

The next most senior position on the vessel is reserved for the courtesy flag

It is the flag of the foreign country you visit and is only flown while you’re in that country.

Yacht club burgee will be in the third most senior position if the courtesy flag is flying. 

Rnzysakl, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

In-home waters, while courtesy is not flying, the yacht club burgee would fly in the second position of seniority, and in foreign waters, this would fly below the courtesy flag,

Then an officer’s flag would fly either instead of your burgee or below the burgee, depending on your club bylaws.

This particular code flag is called Q or Quebec, and it also stands for my vessel is healthy. And I’m looking for customs clearance, and this would be flown best to my knowledge in the second position until you have cleared customs. Once you’re cleared through customs, this comes down, and the courtesy flag of the visiting country goes up. The courtesy flag comes down if you return to your home waters.

Distress Signals:

The flag N or November and Charlie, November over charlie is an international distress signal.

An upside-down national flag or upside-down ensign is also considered a distress signal. Be careful not to fly your flag upside down. Some might think you’re in trouble.

Dive Flag:

It says to stay at about 100 yards or 100 meters away at slow speed. Be aware that there are divers in the area, so this is your typical diver’s flag or the blue and white alpha. 

Flag Positions:

The most senior position on the boat is at the stern, on a transom staff on the backstay. 

To brush up on the boat parts, click here.

The next most senior is the courtesy flag, flown in that second position of seniority, which is the starboard spreaders on a signal halyard.

The yacht club burgee will be either in that position or below it in the third position of seniority if you’re visiting a foreign country and flying the courtesy flag.

club officer burgee would be flying instead of or below your yacht club burgee.

The pratique flag flies on the starboard side in that second position until the courtesy flag goes up.

Owner absent flag, a blue flag that would fly in the port spreaders and should be flown sparingly.

A little Diagrammatic representation:

The national flag is flown on staff at the stern.

Or at the leech.

An approved yachting ensign may be flown as a substitute for the national flag, which is flown in the same positions.

The courtesy flag is flown in the second most senior position at the starboard spreaders.

A yacht club burgee is flown below a courtesy flag in foreign waters.

Or in the second position when in home waters.

A yacht club officer’s flag may be flown below or instead of the burgee.

Novelty flags such as this owner absent flag are flown sparingly at the port spreaders.

And finally, the q or Quebec flag request for free pratique is flown upon entering foreign waters and is lowered to be replaced by a courtesy flag upon clearing customs.

Size of the Flag:

The size of the national flag should be one inch long for every foot of length of your boat, and the staff should be twice the length of the vertical edge of your flag.

For example, A 33-foot boat would fly a 24 by 36-inch yacht ensign or national flag on a 48-inch flagstaff.

When should you fly a Flag: 

The national flag or your ensign should be flown from 8 in the morning until sunset and only be flown when the vessel is occupied.

The courtesy flag as mentioned in foreign waters after clearing customs,

The Quebec flag has been lowered, and the courtesy flag is then raised and lowered once you clear back into your home waters.

Dressing Ship:

Dressing ship is done on festive occasions for regattas national holidays, typically in anchorage or a marina; take all the alphanumeric flags and fly them alternately.  

It typically goes from the masthead to the bowel, from the masthead to the stern.

They would be lowered before heading out to sea.

What flag should be flown:

There’s no ideal flag or better flag. It depends on the boat you buy, the flag flown at the time, the passports you carry, and the cruising agenda the boat tends to follow.

Advising people on the flag is difficult because we have to know several things,

The location of your boat when you’re closing, 

And what flag is it flying at the time because that might impact duty or taxation, 

And what is the cruising agenda, i.e., where’s the boat plan to be going? Certain flags offer either tax advantages or the ability not to pay a duty.

And we have to know the passports and nationalities of the people buying the boat because those passports could impact where you can go with certain kinds of flags. 

For example, if you are an individual from the European Union, you want to fly the European flag. And if you purchased a boat in Florida the first time you landed in the European Union, you would be tagged to pay VAT tax.

So depending on where you sail, do some homework, looks into your personal areas, know if there are any legal requirements or different protocols specific to you, and choose a flag.

All images used in this post belong to Carpe Diem Sailing. Youtube link

Recent Posts