A maritime flag is a flag designated for use on boats and other watercraft. Naval flags are considered important at sea and the rules and regulations for the flying of flags are strictly enforced.
Types of flags
Ensigns are usually required to be flown when entering and leaving harbour, when sailing through foreign waters, and when the ship is signalled to do so by a warship. Warships usually fly their ensigns between the morning colours ceremony and sunset, when underway, and at all times when engaged in battle—the "battle ensign". When engaged in battle a warship often flies multiple battle ensigns. This tradition dates from the era of sailing vessels. Tradition dictated that if a ship lowered its ensign it was deemed to have surrendered. Masts were targets of gunfire, and the second and subsequent ensigns were flown in order to keep the ensign flying even after a mast hit.
JacksJacks are additional national flags flown by warships (and certain other vessels) at the head of the ship. These are usually flown while not underway and when the ship is dressed on special occasions. Jacks in the Royal Navy must be run up when the first line is ashore when coming alongside.
In the Royal Navy, the Union Flag at sea serves both as a naval jack and as the rank flag of an Admiral of the Fleet. It is illegal for a merchant ship or yacht to fly the Union Flag: a civilian jack (sometimes known as the pilot jack as it was formerly used to request a pilot) exists, and consists of the Union Flag with a white border. The St George's Cross flown from the jack staff is known as the Dunkirk jack, and is customarily flown by ships and boats which took part in the Dunkirk evacuation operation in 1940. The flying of the St George's Cross elsewhere on a civilian ship is illegal, as it is the rank flag of a full Admiral.
The Rank Flag or Distinguishing Flag is the flag flown by a superior officer on his flagship or headquarters (hence the term flagship ). The origins of this are from the era before radiotelegraphy and radiotelephony, when orders were given by flag signals. The flag denotes the ship which must be watched for signals designating orders. Such flags also flown by members of the government (presidents, prime ministers or defense secretaries) when aboard Navy ships, showing the ship to hold the headquarters of highest level of authority for the Armed Forces. Today, with the progress in communications, this flag indicates the obligation of the other Naval vessels to pay the relevant honours (Manning the rails, firing cannon salute, attention, etc.) according to nautical etiquette. In a group of naval ships all commanded by superior officers, only the commander of the group or the officer of the highest rank can fly his flag.
- In the Royal Navy, admirals fly rectangular rank flags: an Admiral of the Fleet flies a Union Flag, while an admiral flies the St George's Cross. The flags of vice-admirals and rear-admirals have one and two additional red balls respectively. Commodores fly a Broad Pennant which is a short swallow-tailed pennant based on the St George's Cross, with a red ball at the canton (upper quarter next to the staff).
- In the United States Navy as well as in some other countries, admirals fly rectangular flags with stars according to rank. Line officer flags are blue with white stars, while staff officer flags are white with blue stars.
- In the Hellenic Navy (Greek Navy) Admirals fly blue square flags bearing a white cross (similar to the Hellenic Navy Jack) with four six-point stars (one in each of the squares formed by the cross); Vice-Admirals fly the same flag but with three stars; Rear Admirals two stars; and Commodores one star. Captains, when commanding a flotilla or squadron, fly a burgee (square swallow-tailed flag) with the colours of Hellenic Navy Jack. When a rank flag is flown the commissioning pennant is displaced downward.
The pennant, or historically called a pennon, is a long narrow flag which conveys different meanings depending on its design and use. Specific pennants might include:
- A commissioning pennant, or masthead, which a warship flies from its masthead and indicates the commission of the captain of the ship (and thus of the ship itself). In the Royal Navy, the commissioning pennant is a small St George's Cross with a long tapering plain white fly. In the United States Navy, it is red above white, with seven white stars in the blue hoist. The commissioning pennant may be displaced by various rank flags, namely the flags or pennants of admirals or commodores, and the personal flags of heads of state and members of royal families.
- A church pennant, as used by the Royal Navy, European Navies and Commonwealth Navies, is a broad pennant flown on ships and at establishments (bases) during religious services, and has the George Cross and Dutch flag incorporated chosen after the English Dutch Wars where both sides stopped for Church on a Sunday.
- A Senior Officer Present Afloat pennant using the NATO signal flag for "Starboard" is green on the hoist and fly with a white field between.
- A Gin Pennant means that the wardroom is inviting officers from ships in company to drinks. The origins of the Gin Pennant are uncertain, but it seems to have been used since the 1940s and probably earlier. Originally it was a small green triangular pennant measuring approximately 18 inches by 9 inches (460 by 230 mm), defaced with a white wine glass, nowadays the gin pennant is a Starboard pennant defaced with a wine or cocktail glass. Its colour, size and position when hoisted were all significant as the aim was for the pennant to be as inconspicuous as possible, thereby having fewer ships sight it and subsequently accept the invitation for drinks.The Gin Pennant is still in regular use by the Royal Australian Navy (RAN). Within the RAN it is common practice, whilst in port, for junior officers of one ship to attempt to raise the Gin Pennant on the halyard of another ship, thereby forcing that ship to put on free drinks for the officers of the ship that managed to raise the pennant. If, however the junior officers are caught raising the pennant, then it is their ship that must put on free drinks within their Wardroom. Usually this practice is restricted to Commonwealth Navies, however in the past, prior to increased force protection, RAN officers have successfully raised the Gin Pennant on a number of units in the USN.
House flagSome ships fly a house or company flag that indicates the company that they belong to. This was formerly flown from the mainmast but is now usually flown from a short mast at the bow.
Yacht club burgeeMembers belonging to a yacht club or sailing organization may fly their club's unique triangular burgee both while underway and at anchor (however, not while racing). Traditionally, the burgee was flown from the main masthead, however it may also be flown from a small pole on the bow pulpit, or even the starboard rigging beneath the lowest starboard spreader on a flag halyard.
Traditionally, the first time a member of one club visits another, there is an exchange of burgees. Exchanged burgees are then often displayed on the premise of each, such as at a club office or bar.
Unit citationsWarships of various navies may be awarded a unit citation, for which a burgee (tapering flag with swallow-tail fly) is flown when in port.
- Ships of the United
- Presidential Unit Citation - yellow with blue stripe on top and red stripe at the bottom.
- Navy Meritorious Unit Commendation - green with four yellow stripes divided by two blue and one red stripes at the centre.
- Navy Unit Commendation - symmetrical colouring from the centre: green, red, yellow, blue.
- Ships of the Royal
Australian Navy may have:
- Unit Citation for Gallantry - burgee with narrow white band surrounding green field surmounted by a silver star.
- Meritorious Unit Citation - design as above with yellow field.
Signal flagsThere is a system of International maritime signal flags for each numeral and letter of the alphabet. Each flag or pennant has an additional meaning when flown individually.
Flag EtiquetteThe position of honour on a ship is the quarterdeck at the stern of the ship, and thus ensigns are traditionally flown either from an ensign staff at the ship's stern, or from a gaff rigged over the stern. Nowadays when a ship is at sea the ensign is often shifted to the starboard yardarm. The usual rule that no flag should be flown higher than the national flag does not apply on board a ship: a flag flown at the stern is always in a superior position to a flag flown elsewhere on the ship, even if the latter is higher up.
Nautical etiquette requires that merchant vessels dip their ensigns in salute to passing warships, which acknowledge the salute by dipping their ensigns in return. Contrary to popular belief the United States Navy does dip the Stars and Stripes in acknowledgement of salutes rendered to it. Merchant vessels also traditionally fly the ensign of the nation in whose territorial waters they are sailing at the masthead or yard-arm. This is known as a courtesy flag. The flying of a ship's ensign upside-down is a mark of distress. The flying of two ensigns of two different countries, one above the other, on the same staff is a sign that the vessel concerned has been captured or has surrendered during wartime. The ensign flying in the inferior, or lower, position is that of the country the ship has been captured from: conversely, the ensign flying in the superior, or upper position, is that of the country that has captured the ship.
- Rules of Flag Usage in the Merchant Marine
- All About Flags - A simple guide to marine flags and basic flag etiquette
- Flag Advisor - Flag etiquette and recommendations
- TheCrusingLife.com's Flag etiquette
- Seagate Yacht Club's exchanged burgee collection
- Crystal Lake Yacht Club's Burgree collection
- Nautical Flags Alphabet
burgee in Esperanto: Maraj flagoj
burgee in Spanish: Bandera de proa
burgee in French: Pavillon (drapeau)
burgee in Polish: Bandera wojenna
burgee in Portuguese: Bandeira marítima
burgee in Thai: ธงฉาน