Etiquette & Traditions

“Fly It Proudly

Yachts and yacht clubs are great users of flags. They are colorful, festive and informative. Every yacht owner and yacht club member should be familiar with the customs that apply to all the types of flags typically flown on a vessel.

Unlike buildings and houses ashore, a vessel has a limited number of places from which to fly flags, and thus the yachtsman must be selective in the flags that he or she flies afloat. A yacht will ordinarily display three flags: one announcing her nationality, one announcing her owner’s club affiliation, and one announcing her owner’s status (private signal or club officer’s flag).

Yacht clubs traditionally follow nautical rather than shore practice. Their flagpoles have gaffs like the ones on a ship’s mast, and the flag is flown from the peak of the gaff, as it is properly done onboard ship. PYC follows this tradition with its gaff rigged flag pole.

National Ensign (50-Star US flag)

The familiar 50 star “stars and stripes” flag is also known as the national ensign afloat. It is the most important flag on board and identifies her national character. A vessel’s character is determined by her registration, which may differ from that of her owner. This is especially important abroad and on the high seas. SomePYC members’ vessels are federally documented or state registered and thus should fly the national ensign.

A ship’s national ensign is immediately recognizable because it flies farthest aft (the place of honor), but not necessarily from the highest point in the rig. With the possible exception of battle flags, it should be the vessel’s largest flag.

Normally the national ensign is flown from a staff on the vessel’s stern. No other flag may be flown from this position. However, it is also permissible on a sailboat to fly it from the leech of the aft-most sail about two-thirds of the way up; or from the peak of the gaff on a gaff-rigged vessel. Sport fishing boats, which cannot fly the ensign from the stern when underway because of interference with fishing lines, fly the ensign from the aft end of the tuna tower on the centerline; and often leave it there when not underway. When not underway, the national ensign is only flown from the stern staff on all vessels.

Club Burgee

Yacht and sailing clubs have flags to distinguish them, called a burgee. Most yacht club burgees are pennant (three sided) shaped like the PYC burgee, but a few clubs use swallow-tailed flags, while a very few use rectangular flags. Our club has a collection of burgees from many other clubs around the United States and World that are displayed in The Upper Deck.

Flying the burgee is an important part of belonging to a yacht club and a vessel owned by a member of PYC should fly our burgee with pride. Our burgee has appeared in its present form since 1890.

The burgee is flown from the bow staff on a powerboat, while most sailboats fly the burgee from the starboard spreader. The traditional position at the top of the mast is no longer used because of interference with wind sensors and antennas. Normally a vessel displays only one burgee at a time. Exceptions are made for opening day and other special occasions when owners will string together all burgees of clubs to which they belong, with the PYC burgee at the top of the string for PYC functions.

Officers Flags

The yacht ensign’s circle of 13 stars surrounding an anchor forms the basis for the officer flags used by PYC and many other yacht clubs for the commodore, vice commodore, rear commodore, and fleet captain with the background being blue, red and white respectively. Other officers, such as secretary, treasurer, and past commodore, etc., have their own flags. The 13 stars represent the original 13 colonies found on the “Betsy Ross” flag with a fouled anchor in the union. The medallion configuration, was entered into official use in 1848, following an act of Congress that made it the official signal for U.S. pleasure sailing vessels. On sailboats the officer flag is flown immediately below the burgee. On powerboats, the officer flag is flown from the mast, with the club burgee keeping its place flown at the bow staff. Officer flags are flown only when the officer is aboard.

PYC tradition provides that when an officer is on the PYC premises or is aboard their vessel in local waters, the officer’s flag shall be flown on the PYC Yacht Club Mast. All officer flags shall be flown during national holidays (such as 4th of July) and Regatta’s during the boating season.

PYC has 4 Flag Officers; Commodore, Vice Commodore, Rear Commodore and Fleet Captain, plus 2 other Officers, Secretary and Treasurer,each of which has their own Flag of designation that flies in accordance with PYC tradition.

The club burgee should be flown at the masthead, ensign on the gaff, and when you add additional flags, you start with the halyard on the right (from the land side, facing pole) and move inward with flags of lower status.

 Commodore’s FlagVice Commodore’s Flag 

Rear Commodore’s FlagFleet Captain’s Flag 

Treasurer’s FlagSecretary’s Flag 

PYC Gaff-Rigged Flag Pole 

“What is the proper way to fly flags on a gaff-rigged pole?” That is probably the most frequently asked question received by the USPS Flag & Etiquette Committee. Gaff-rigged poles are used by navies,boaters and yacht clubs around the world. Onshore, the”yacht club style flagpole” with a gaff represents the mast of a ship. A gaff-rigged pole may, or may not, have a yardarm or cross tree. A gaff-rigged pole with ayardarm is illustrated above flying the Ensign, PYC club burgee and an officer flag. (Gaff-rigged pole flyingUSPS flags)

 Many people are confused about the proper way to fly the national ensign from a gaff-rigged pole. As depicted in the drawing above, the national ensign should beflown from the gaff and the club or organization burgee should be flown at the masthead.

 The gaff-rigged pole had its origins at sea. Because of all the sail carried by the rigging of these vessels, the flag of a nation could not be clearly viewed if it was placed at the top of the mast. The stern of the vessel was the position of command and the captain’s quarters were located aft. Early boats also had the nobleman’s banner,king’s banner, or English ensign staff fixed to the stern rail. As sails changed, long booms sweep across the stern rail every time the ship tacked, so the ensign staff had to be removed when the ship was under way. Since the captain and other officers were still aft, the nearest position from which they found it practical to fly the ensign was the gaff. Over time, this became the place of honor to display the national flag.When the ship was moored, the ensign staff was set up again on the stern rail.

This was the practice in the eighteenth century, when the U.S. Navy was created. Now that warships are made of steel and thesignal mast no longer carries a boom, our navy still flies the ensign at the gaff peak when under way and at the ensign staff when not underway. There is no law specifying how a flag should fly on a gaff-rigged pole, instead it is based on longstanding nautical tradition.

The usual argument given by those that think it is wrong to fly the national ensign from the gaff is that the national ensign is flying below a club burgee or other flag contrary to the Flag Code. Notice that even when the national ensign is flown from the stern of a ship, it is lower in height than other flags flying on the ship. When the ensign is flown from a gaff-rigged pole, a flag flown at the top of the mast is not considered above the ensign because it is not being flown directly above the ensign on the same halyard.

 The ensign should be flown from the highest point of honor, and over time, that has become the peak of the gaff. Flying the national ensign from the top of the mast while flying another flag at the gaff would be flying another flag in a position of superior honor since the peak of the gaff is the highest point of honor.

 Colors (the raising &lowering of our American flag) 

When making morning colors, the ensign is hoisted first, then the club burgee, officer’s flag, and private signal; at evening colors, the reverse is followed with the ensign being lowered last. Colors are hoisted smartly and lowered ceremoniously. 

The time-honored naval tradition of Evening Colors each day at sunset is followed by PYC. Evening Colors at PYC begins with the ringing of a ships bell and the command, “Attention to Colors” followed immediately thereafter by a cannon shot. Upon hearing the cannon shot, or the command “Colors,” all those on Club property in sight of the flag will stand and face the flag, in silence, with their right hand over their heart, until the flag is fully lowered. At that point, the command, “Carry on” will be given.

The tradition is naval; it began with the British Royal navy, and continues with the U.S. Navy. Cannons or guns are fired at sunset when the flag is taken down, as a sign of respect. In the days when sailing ships were armed with cannon, it could take as long as twenty minutes to load and fire a gun. When a ship fired her guns in salute, she rendered herself powerless for the duration. By emptying their guns, the ship’s crew showed shore batteries and forts that they were no threat. Over time, this gesture became a sign of respect, with both shore and ship gun batteries firing volleys.

Member Boats

Members and visiting yachtsmen are encouraged to follow the Flag Etiquette and Traditions that apply to their respective vessels. For more information, we suggest researching the book “Chapman Boating Etiquette”.

Source: Some information in this article was borrowed from the Houston Yacht Club website,  for history and more detailed information, see Yachting Customs and Courtesies by J.A. Tringali.  Other sources are United States PowerSquadron (USPS), Wicked Local Article 7.19.2016 – Marblehead 101: The Tradition of sunset cannons and the Plymouth Yacht Club Handbook.