What's the proper etiquette for flying the American flag on a recreational sailboat?
John Rousmaniere responds:
Boats should fly the national flag, and most pleasure boats in US waters have a choice between two of them. One is the yacht ensign, with its fouled anchor over a circle of 13 stars, and the other is the familiar 50-star flag. While some yacht clubs specify that one or the other be flown, discretion often lies with the skipper, except that the 50-star flag must be flown by any boat outside US waters and also by documented boats in all waters.
The size of a nautical flag is determined by the size of the boat that flies it. On the fly, the ensign should be a minimum of one inch of flag for every one foot of the boat's overall length. The hoist should be two-thirds the length of the fly.
I'ts customary to fly the ensign from morning colors (8:00 a.m.) to evening colors (sunset) whether the boat is at rest, under sail, or under power. There are exceptions to this rule. The ensign is not flown by a boat in a race, as a signal to other boats. To prevent wear and tear, the flag need not be flown when out of sight of other vessels or when nobody is aboard. The flag is flown while entering or leaving a port, even at night. At morning colors, the ensign is hoisted rapidly before other flags. At evening colors, the ensign is lowered slowly and with ceremony after other flags come down.
Boats today fly the ensign from the stern, which provides the best all-round visibility. It should be on a staff that is sufficiently long and angled, and that is offset to one side (traditionally the starboard side), so the flag flies clear of engine exhaust and rigging.
For many years, until around World War II, most ensigns were flown from the leech of the aftermost sail—a sloop or cutter's mainsail or a ketch or yawl's mizzen. That position is still available. On a Marconi rig, the ensign may be flown about two-thirds of the way up; on a gaff rig, just under the gaff. In either case the flag may be sewn into the leech or hoisted on a halyard through a leech cringle (reinforced hole) so the ensign can be lowered to avoid chafe, say on a permanent backstay. For additional information on flag etiquette, have a look at the article I wrote for SailNet on this topic: Flying the Flag.
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