"Flag signaling has been replaced by radio and direct verbal communication in all but a few situations. Yet there remain a few flags in common usealthough exactly how they should be best used is not commonly understood. While words describe actions and objects, and navigation lights reveal the boat's type and heading, the most popular flags today tell about the vessel and the skipper. The bright burgee marks the skipper's sailing or yacht club, the quirky private signal identifies him or her by name, and the glorious stars and stripes in an ensign reveal nationality.
"This information makes little sense if it's presented randomly. If another person is to understand words, lights, or flags, these must be organized in a commonly understood patternin other words, in a grammar. Flag grammar is called flag etiquette, and it has been passed down to us by generations of commercial, naval, and yachting skippers.
The Ensign "All vessels of significant size 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 is two-thirds the length of the fly.
"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.
"Most boats today fly the ensign from the stern, which provides the best all-round visibility. If it's flown from the transom, 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 the rigging.
"For many years, until around World War II, most ensigns were flown from the leech of the aftermost saila 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.
Flagpoles "People often wonder why at a yacht club or other boating organization's headquarters there is a flagpole on which the ensign is flown below the burgee. This is not a sign of disrespect but a carryover of the tradition of flying the ensign on the leech under the gaff. Look carefully and you'll see that the flag pole is a gaff-rigged mast with the gaff on the shore side, as though the yacht club were a ship heading out to sea with her ensign flying aft and the burgee at the flagpole's head, just as it would be flown at the masthead of a pre-VHF sailing vessel.
"In days of mourning, the national ensign should be flown at half mast both on shore and on board. The flag should be full-masted (hoisted all the way) before half-masting as well as before being lowered all the way.
"By following proper flag etiquette, we sailors not only honor our traditions and our country, but we tell the world how distinct and involved we are."
Signal Flags by Ralph Doolin
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