We’ll Keep the Boat Flag Flying Here

Me, and the best house flag in the world

Me, and the best house flag in the world

Do you have a House Flag? I have. Did you know that it’s also called  a Private Signal? Mine has an orange ‘field’ and a black ‘charge’; that’s a black fish on an orange background for the non-vexillologists among you. It is a swallowtail shape.


Esper also has her own house flag; a classic rectangular shape, with a yellow smiley on a sky blue background, given to us by Liz’s friend Vicky. The first version eventually became too tatty to fly so we had another one made by a sail maker. Since then my Dad has made a third version which I reckon is the best one ever. He also made my flag, under my supervision. It was I who chose the design and colours. It’s the prettiest flag on Esper.

Esper smiles

Esper smiles

What my parents don’t know, though, is that it serves as a warning to other cats. It means ‘get off my boat and don’t come anywhere near my fish; they’re all mine’. In feline folklore orange and black are warning colours.  One thing I don’t understand, though, is why it is essential to swear when sewing a flag by hand?

Apparently there are lots of important things you should know about flags if you have a boat. There is a whole vast code of flag etiquette out there, just waiting to trip us up! Still, the RYA makes a few worthwhile points; where to put them, when to fly them, when to take them down and what size they should be. This is what they say (yawn):


Flag etiquette is a combination of law, good manners and tradition. Being ill-informed of your obligations could lead you to cause insult at home or abroad by giving a signal you do not intend to give, or could lead you to a fine for breaking the law.

Only with the right flag, correctly positioned, can you to be sure that you are giving the correct message and that any signal you are giving is clear.

1. The most senior position for a flag on a vessel is reserved for the Ensign – this is worn as close to the stern of the vessel as possible and denotes the nationality of the vessel. A UK registered vessel should wear the national maritime flag, the Red Ensign, unless entitled to wear a privileged Ensign.

2. The burgee takes the next most senior position on the vessel which is the main masthead. Only one burgee may be flown on the vessel. A privileged ensign may never be worn without its club burgee.

3. The starboard spreaders are used for signalling. This is where both a national courtesy flag and the Q flag should be flown.

4. It is now common practice to fly the burgee at the starboard spreaders, however, no other flag may be flown above the burgee on the same halyard. You also may not fly any other flag above a national courtesy flag on the same halyard. If you fly your burgee at the starboard spreaders and are sailing in the territorial waters of another country you have a dilemma, however you choose to solve this, unless you fly your burgee at the top of the mast you will be contravening one or another element of flag etiquette.

5. House flags are flown from the port spreaders. A house flag may indicate membership of an association (i.e. the RYA House Flag) or society or may be to indicate membership of another club, if the burgee of a more senior club is already being flown. More than one house flag may be flown on the port halyard, but with caution that they are flown in order of seniority.

Just watching that sun go down...

Just watching that sun go down...

6. The Union flag, Welsh Dragon and the Crosses of St Andrew, St George and St Patrick are primarily land flags and should not be flown at sea by cruising yachtsmen. At sea the cross of St George is the flag of an Admiral and it should therefore not be flown by anyone else, without special dispensation. A vessel flying the St Andrew’s Cross could be mistaken as saying “My vessel is stopped and making no way through the water” as this is the meaning of code flag M which has the same design and the St Patrick’s Cross could be misinterpreted as code flag V “I require assistance”.

7. The sizes and condition of flags are important. They should not be tatty and should not hang in the water, but should still be large enough to be seen.

Etiquette schmetiquette – all smacks a bit of golf club-style rules, but you’ve got to know the rules to break the rules, I suppose. The Har Why Hay doesn’t talk about when you hoist the ensign. Still, I expect that since everybody does it every day they didn’t think it was necessary. Does what, you might ask? You know, fly the ensign from 08:00 to sunset whether the boat is at rest, under sail, or under power (except when racing). I’m told that to prevent wear and tear, the flag may be taken down when out of sight of other vessels or when nobody is aboard, but should always be flown while entering or leaving a port, even at night. Blimey, we must all be off the boat a lot more often than I’d realized. Some nitwits can never stop competing and get up early to hoist the flag before anyone else (dah) and in the evening slowly lower it, with ceremony (probably over a pink gin fizz and bitters) after all the others are down. What must it be like inside their heads?


Korkma, sönmez bu şafaklarda yüzen al sancak; Sönmeden yurdumun üstünde tüten en son ocak

Korkma, sönmez bu şafaklarda yüzen al sancak; Sönmeden yurdumun üstünde tüten en son ocak

I’d like to add a few thoughts on the courtesy flag. We might have a British ensign but I’M TURKISH and we fly the Turkish flag on our starboard spreader. AND it’s not tatty. Us Turks don’t take too kindly to tatty national flags; in fact a friend of mine told me that his Dad got fined for having a dirty old tatty flag – serves him right!  I love courtesy flags. It gives you the chance to brighten the place up a bit. So far we’ve only flown the Turkish and Greek flags (oh yes, the Northern Cyprus flag too – no, it’s not the same as the Turkish flag).  If we get to Libya we’ll be able to fly their flag. It’s green. That’s all. Just green. The only flag in the world that is just one colour. I quite like the perversity of it.

A dragon slippinig on some marbles

A dragon slipping on some marbles

Can’t wait till we go to Bhutan ‘cos that’s my favourite national flag. It’s yellow and orange with a dragon slipping on some marbles. I told you orange is cat for ‘warning’. Yellow is cat for laughing. Mum says that it’s unlikely that we’ll be sailing round the coast of Bhutan, but I still want the flag.

The other thing I’m supposed to tell you about is etiquette for ‘dressing’ the boat, using signal flags. I found this from the Norfolk and Suffolk Boating Association (yawn):


Best order of signal flags for 'dressing'

Best order for dressing overall

‘Dressed Overall’ for private occasions – such as an Open regatta day. Yachts dressed overall make a wonderful spectacle and add to the atmosphere of any regatta. At the mast head the correct burgee with an appropriate ensign should be worn; if the yacht has two masts then it may fly a house flag at the mizzen truck. There is no single correct order for code flags used in dressing overall, but it is important to avoid any unintended signal through a particular sequence of flags and desirable to evenly spaced pendants. The order given here has been approved by the Admiralty and will avoid any confusion:

Bow to mast head: B, Q, U, 2nd substitute, L, Numberal 8, T, P, Numeral 5, S, Numeral 9, X,Z,3rd Substitute, R, Numeral 0, C, G, Answering Pendant, D.

Esper with Cyprus rally bunting

Esper with Cyprus rally 'bunting'

Mast head to stern W, Numeral 4, E, F, Numeral 7, N, Numeral 6, J, O, Numeral 3, H, Numeral 2, Y, M, Numeral 1, K, 1st Substitute, V, I, A.

On a national occasion, it becomes correct to fly an ensign at the mast head. If abroad it would be correct etiquette to fly that country’s ensign on the taff rail.


Finally. Did you know that the flag of Nepal is the only national flag in the world that is not a quadrilateral? Neither did I. My Mum probably won’t let us sail round that coast either. She can be a bit bossy.


The home made-y Nepalese flag

The home made-y Nepalese flag


I’m quite good at vexillology. Mum says I’m rubbish at geography though.

Don’t forget you can use the ‘Share’ button (below) to email this article to friends, and to vote its usefulness with bookmarking websites like Digg. Hover your mouse over the button for all the options.

Share this Post

10 Comments on “We’ll Keep the Boat Flag Flying Here”

  1. 🙄 I remember using a blue & white striped towel many years ago going past the Greekwaters,as a courtesy flag because I didnt have proper one,will I be forgiven not to have the cross on it dear sir,whatdya think? will I ever be forgiven? Is this considered an offence to proper seamanship? dear sir?…

  2. Millie! What a great article! I laughed and laughed at the dragon slipping on marbles and thought that the Bhutanese flag might be my fave til I saw the Nepalese flag. No contest. I have always gone for the strangely shaped ‘uns. You should see our house flag – it is in the shape of an isosceles triangle with little triangles framing it and a musical note in the middle. I will try to be flying it when u next see us cos you’ll never believe the colours – it was inspired by Chinese junk flags

  3. Great to read your article. Funny and informative. Your picture of dressing a ship is correct. Many people string the flags together then raise the middle on a halyard thus having the aft string upside down!!! They need help but dont know it. We Ozies fly on a registered vessel a red ensign but prefer the blue national flag not to be confused with the British.
    Regards Harry

  4. Meeow I loved your blog.
    Our house flag features an indian head with headress (Cacique our boats name means Indian Cheif) She sailed from UK to South America in 1977 and back, then did a circumnavigation 1990 to 93. We just wish we had more oppertunities to fly it. 😆

  5. Nice article Millie!

    I must remember to print a copy to quote inane facts about flag-stuff next time I’m on board Mianda! (I’m supposed tobe in charge of flags. I don’t know much though!)

    Keep up the Cat-a-log, it’s great stuff!

  6. 💡 ➡ nice blog 😀 😀 😀 😀 😀 😀 😀 😀 😀 😀 😀 😀 😀 ❗ ❗ ❗ ❗ ❗ ❗ 😯

    1. As we’ve said before we don’t edit or delete comments, even if they are a little childish like this one. Kathleen, if you’d bothered to read the About section you would know that a girl from south London and a bloke from Essex do not make us Turkish.

    2. Kathleen, we have avoided talking about the Armenian genocide in this blog, but if you insist on bringing up the subject here then I will use this opportunity to make a few comments of my own.

      The Turkish government should apologise for the genocide committed a hundred years ago. It happened and it does not serve them well to carry on denying it.

      The Turkish government should try to resolve its country’s problems with its large Kurdish population.

      Like ALL countries Turkey displays some reprehensible attitudes not reflected by the individuals one meets. There are stupid, foolish, dull, bigoted and aggressive Turks. There are intelligent, sensible, sensitive, charming, kind and funny Turks. We made many friends in Turkey and found them to be a positive, beautiful and passionate people. I suspect this is also to be true of Armenians… and Americans… and Pakistanis… and Iranians… and North Koreans… even the British.

      Do you think just because I am British I support the war in Iraq?

      Simply because we have lived in Turkey does not mean that we are anti Armenia. That is a simplistic and, frankly, daft conclusion to leap to.

  7. Milly ..we came across a boat called “Rocking Goose” in Alderney harbour dress over all ..we couldn’t work out why until we got the book out and worked out the signal which said “BAR OPEN”…well what an invitation …tender out and off we went …another good night …hic

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *