Yachting Flags

United States Yacht Ensign

United States Yacht Ensign Related material: Return to Sea Flags home page

About the United States Yacht Ensign

"All such licensed yachts shall use a signal of the form, size, and colors prescribed by the Secretary of the Navy...."
-- Act of August 7, 1848 (9 Stat. 274)
The U.S. yacht ensign is a variant of the national ensign in which the union consists of thirteen stars in a ring surrounding a fouled anchor set diagonally.  It was authorized by Congress in 1848 on the recommendation of the commodore of the New York Yacht Club as a signal to be flown by yachts holding special licenses from the Secretary of the Treasury so that they could be exempted from having to enter with or clear customs every time they put out to or returned from sea.  The design was prescribed by the Secretary of the Navy and introduced into use in 1849.

As indicated by the use of the term "signal" in the enabling legislation, it was never the intention that this flag would replace the standard national ensign as a means of identifying a yacht's nationality, nor did the law authorize it to be used in that fashion.   When the secretary of the New York Yacht Club solicited members' ideas for a design in late 1848, he specifically described the flag as a "distinguishing flag to be worn at the masthead," not as an ensign that would have been worn at the stern or gaff.  Eight years later, the authoritative Rogers' American Code of Marine Signals (1856), which was approved for official use by the Navy and Treasury departments, stated that "the Yacht Flag is only displayed above the telegraphic numbers of the Yacht Club vessels."

Nevertheless, probably because of its resemblance to the national ensign, the yacht ensign came to be flown in lieu of it as early as 1850.  In 1916, Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels and Secretary of the Treasury William McAdoo both argued against the the practice of using the yacht flag in this fashion.  On February 12 of that year, Daniels wrote to the House Commerce Committee that "in the opinion of the department [of the Navy], all American vessels should fly the American flag, and any other signals and any other flags should be in addition to the national ensign and not in lieu thereof...."  McAdoo went further in a letter of February 10, not only stating that "the propriety of permitting this custom to continue--using the so-called yacht ensign as a substitute for the national ensign--may well be questioned," but providing draft legislation criminalizing the display of any flag but the national ensign from the points of hoist normally reserved for the ensign:  the flagstaff at the stern or the peak of the gaff of the aftermost mast.  Nevertheless, most yachtsmen continued to use the yacht flag in lieu of the national ensign.  Some even believed that it was illegal to fly any ensign other than the yacht ensign on a yacht large enough to qualify for the Treasury license.

Eventually the Navy gave in.  A 1939 opinion of the Navy Judge Advocate General, approved by the Secretary of the Navy, extended de facto recognition to the use of the yacht ensign as a substitute for the national ensign by allowing Navy ships to return salutes rendered by dipping the yacht ensign and by authorizing members of the Navy to salute the yacht ensign upon boarding or leaving a boat on which it was displayed.

The other perennial issue with the yacht ensign was enforcing the rules on its use.  From its first adoption, its purpose was to indicate that a yacht was licensed by the Treasury Department, allowing it to enjoy the exemptions from customs procedures set forth in the law.  Vessels below a certain size threshold, which was changed over the years, were not even eligible for such licenses (because they were not subject to the normal customs rules in the first place), yet the yacht ensign was used widely by boats of all size.  Many yacht clubs even had (and have) club rules requiring the use of the yacht ensign rather than the national ensign, whether or not a given member held the Treasury license.  The issue became moot in 1980 when the new Vessel Documentation Act (Public Law 96-594) did away with both the special yacht license and the accompanying requirement to display the yacht signal.  The yacht ensign is now flown as a matter of custom as an alternative to the national ensign by recreational craft sailing in U.S. territorial waters, but should not be displayed in foreign waters.  Most yacht ensigns are manufactured in proportions of 2:3 or 3:5, but the traditional dimensions, as shown above, were the same as those for the national ensign, 10:19.

I am indebted to James Liston, attorney-at-law, Houston, Texas, for the historical and legal insights provided to this discussion.

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Rules for Display of Flags aboard Recreational Vessels

There is no universal codification of the right way to display flags on a private pleasure boat, since there are no laws on the subject.  Even the U.S. Flag Code is largely silent on how to fly flags afloat.  At the same time, many yacht clubs do prescribe procedures to be followed by their own members; enforcement varies from club to club.  The guidelines below draw on several relatively authoritative sources, particularly the New York Yacht Club's "yacht routine" and the 62nd edition of Chapman's Piloting, Seamanship and Small Boat Handling (1995).


As in the case of public and merchant vessels, boats at anchor or tied up fly the ensign from the stern staff, although only if someone is aboard. As noted above, either the national or yacht ensign may be used.  In either case, vessels not under way display their colors only between the hours of 8:00 a.m. and sunset. When making morning colors, the ensign is hoisted first, then the club burgee, officer's flag, and private signal; at evening colors the reverse order is followed, with the ensign being lowered last.  If leaving the boat for the day, evening colors are made before departure.

Under sail, a sailboat rigged with a gaff flies the ensign at the peak of the gaff of the aftermost mast.  Those without gaffs, such as Marconi-rigged sailboats, traditionally sew the ensign to the leech (aftermost edge) of the mainsail, about two-thirds of the way to the top, putting it at a comparable position to where the gaff would be if there were one.  Modern sailboats whose booms are high enough to clear the staff when coming about often fly the ensign at the stern whether under way or not, although traditionalists frown on this.

Power yachts equipped with a mast with a gaff display the ensign at the gaff when under way.  Motorboats without such a gaff--today the majority--normally display the ensign at the stern staff, unless doing so would interfere with the activity of the boat, as in the case of a deep sea sport fishing boat.  In that case, a halyard is rigged to fly the ensign elsewhere, such as behind the tuna tower.

Vessels under way display the ensign in inland or territorial waters or when passing other vessels on the high seas.  It is not normal to keep the ensign flying in international waters if no other vessels are in sight.  Ensigns are not flown while racing.  And no flag other than the ensign--national or yacht--is ever displayed at the stern flagstaff, the gaff, or the leech of the sail.

Union Jack

Pleasure craft customarily display the union jack only on Sundays and holidays or when dressed or full-dressed, if at all.  It is flown at the jackstaff at the bow of the boat.

Burgees and Flags of Yacht Clubs and Other Organizations

A burgee is the signal of membership in a yacht club or other boating organization.  It is usually triangular, but sometimes swallowtailed or even rectangular.  It traditionally flies at the forwardmost masthead.  Alternatively, in a single masted sailboat or in a motorboat with no masts, it flies at the jackstaff at the bow.  Flags indicating the presence on board of an officer of a yacht club or other organization are traditionally displayed at the head of the mainmast..  Modern sailboats carrying communications and navigation gear at the masthead now customarily fly the burgee or the officer's flag at the starboard spreader. Click here for examples of club burgees.

Private Signals

A private signal is the yacht owner's personal flag.  It may be of any shape, although in the United States it is usually swallowtailed. It is traditionally displayed at the head of the mainmast but, as in the case of the burgee and officer's flag, many modern sailboats put the private signal at the starboard spreader to avoid interfering with communications and navigational antennas.  A private signal and an officer's flag should not normally be flown at the same time.

State Flags

Many boaters choose to display the flags of their home states aboard their craft, and a number of states, such as Maryland and Arkansas, have adopted official protocols for this purpose.  Both Maryland and Arkansas provide for single-masted vessels to fly the state flag at the starboard spreader both under way and at anchor.  Schooners fly the state flag at the head of the forward mast when under way and at the starboard spreader when at anchor.  In each case, the boater must make a choice between flying the state flag and other flags such as the club burgee, an officer's flag, or a private signal.  Motorboats without masts may fly the state flag at the bow staff in lieu of the yacht club burgee.

Size of Flags

The ensign should measure at least one inch on the fly (i.e., in length) for every foot of height of the mainmast for a sailboat, or for every foot of overall length in the case of a powerboat.  ("At least" meaning that one rounds the size up to the next commercially available flag dimensions.)  Other burgees, private signals, officers' flags, etc., should measure approximately one-half inch on the fly for every foot of mast height or overall length.

Full Dressing

Dressing a yacht is quite similar to full dressing a ship of the Navy or Coast Guard.  It consists of arranging a rainbow of signal flags from stem to stern, over the top of the masts, to observe holidays and other festivities.  When in a foreign port, a yacht or other ship follows the practice of the host country in dressing for local holidays, as well as dressing for its own national days.  The standard sequence of flags is:
A B 2 U J 1 K E 3 G H 6 I V 5 F L 4
D M 7 P O 3rd Sub R N 1st Sub T 0 C X 9 W Q 8
Z Y 2nd Sub

Quarantine and Courtesy Flags

It is customary, and in many countries compulsory, that visiting vessels display the host country's national ensign while in foreign territorial waters.  This flag, known as a courtesy ensign, is traditionally hoisted at the head of the foremast (or, in a single masted vessel, at the head of the mainmast).  Given the infeasibility of doing this in many modern sailboats, the courtesy ensign is instead hoisted at the starboard spreader in place of any burgees or other flags that may normally be flown there.  In a motorboat without a mast, the courtesy ensign is shown at the jackstaff.

However, the courtesy ensign is not flown on an arriving vessel until it has cleared customs and immigration.  Upon arrival, it hoists the so-called "quarantine flag," the solid yellow International Code of Signals Quebec flag.  Despite the popular name, this flag does not indicate a vessel under quarantine but rather says "I am free of disease and request free pratique," i.e., approval to land.  Once customs, immigration, health, and other formalities are completed, Quebec is hauled down and the courtesy ensign flown until the vessel leaves the host country's territorial waters.

Although there are no United States laws or regulations requiring the display of these flags, even American vessels should fly the Quebec flag until completing arrival formalities.  While U.S.Customs is now normally notified of arrival by radio or telephone, the display of the yellow flag indicates to inspectors exactly which boats need to be cleared, which can expedite matters considerably in a crowded marina.

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Special Yachting Signals

At least as early as the first decades of the 20th century, a series of special signal flags had been adopted for use by yachts to convey certain messages.  Some of these are still in use, at least in the old line yacht clubs aboard large sailboats.

Owner Absent

The solid blue "owner absent" flag is flown from the starboard main spreader to prevent visitors from having to pull a rowboat across the harbor in order to find out that only the hired crew is aboard to receive them.


The same flag with a white diagonal stripe flown at the starboard spreader indicates that, although the owner is not aboard, a guest is.   Just in case you are coming across to visit the guest instead of the owner.

Owner at Meal

A plain white flag at the starboard main spreader says the owner is at the dinner table.  Only flown in daylight hours while not under way.

Crew Meal

A red pennant at the port fore spreader indicates that the crew is at a meal.  Only flown in daylight when not under way.

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Copyright 2000, 2001 by Joseph McMillan