Flags & Signalling

I love flags, when yachts are flying them it looks like a real celebration going on. I fly mine at every suitable opportunity! Flags have a lot of history in the yachting world – mainly for being a way of sending messages to one another before the days of VHF and mobile phones.

These days flags are still used on yachts in an official capacity. Yachts visiting another country need to show the Q – Quarantine flag which officially means “my vessel is healthy and I request free pratique” or please let me in to your country. On a yacht with mast with spreaders, the courtesy flag (or Q) should be flown at the starboard spreader. If the yacht has more than one mast, the courtesy flag should be flown from the starboard spreader of the forward mast.

Once you have cleared in to the country, you lower your Q glad and then as a gesture of courtesy, yachts should fly the local country flag when they enter and operate in its waters. Not flying the flag of the country you are visiting can be considered very rude in some places, but is even illegal in other countries and you can be fined or have your boat or passports impounded until you comply! Make sure the flag is in good condition – and flown the right way up! Tatty or faded flags can also cause offence and an upside down flag can mean the country is at war!

Your own country’s ensign – which is a national flag should be lowered at sunset or 9.00pm, or earlier if you are leaving the boat. You should only fly them at night if there is sufficient light to show them. They will last much longer if you don’t fly them continuously.  Your home country ensign or national flag should be flown from the stern of a yacht.



There is a whole lot of etiquette surrounding the use of flags, so it is good to read up on how it is all done so you don’t offend anyone and to make sure you obey the number one rule “Look Good” – or alternatively – “make your best efforts to not look like a dick“.

Flags are ‘worn’ by a yacht and ‘flown’ by the owner.

The ensign – which is a national flag should be lowered at sunset or 9.00pm, or earlier if you are leaving the boat. You should only fly them at night if there is sufficient light to show them. They will last much longer if you don’t fly them continuously.

Flags should be worn when entering or leaving a foreign port, and when approaching signal stations. They should be handled with respect and should not touch the deck.

Club flags, burgees and house flags should be flown from the port spreader and that the maritime ensign courtesy flag for the country you are visiting should be flown from the starboard spreader. The Q flag should be also flown from the starboard spreader until entry formalities have been completed. The courtesy flag should be about 1/2 an inch of every foot of length of the vessel.

Your own home flag – National Ensign can be flown from the stern and should measure about one inch on the fly for every foot of the overall length of the vessel – so a yacht between 37′ – 48′ should fly an ensign measuring 30 x 48 inches.

Yachts should salute all Royal Yachts and all warships of any nationality. A salute is made by dipping the ensign to a position two-thirds the way down the halyard from the close-up position. The vessel saluted responds by dipping her ensign then rehoisting it. The saluting yacht then re-hoists her ensign.

To purchase country flags click here. 

I have just bought some signaling flags from Amazon which was much cheaper than some of the boat shops in New Zealand. They seem to be ok quality. These ones come with a pouch to store them in, but mine didn’t so I have bought a folder with 40 plastic pouch pages and have printed out a page with the letter/number that the flag represents, a picture of that flag and it’s meaning. The flag is then inserted in to each page with the corresponding information.


Taking care of your flags:

  • Only fly them during the day
  • Dry wet flags before storing them
  • Regularly check for any fraying and re-stitch as necessary
  • Sew some tulle on one side of the flag for further protection

You can also use flags to spell out words using semaphore:


Flying a flag at half mast

  • Flags should be flown at half mast doing periods of National mourning. The house flag flown at half mast denotes the death of an employee
  • When flying a flag at half mast the flag should first be hoisted to the peak for an instant and then lowered to the half mast position. The flag should again be raised to the peak before lowering for the day.

In New Zealand the NZ Flag should be flown from the Senior flagpole – which is either the highest one or the right hand side now (when your back is to a building)

Commonwealth flags fly in alphabetical order after the NZ flag and then other countries are then flown in alphabetical order. If two flags are flown from one flagpole a National flag may be flown above the house flag but no two National flags should be flown together as this indicates that the top country has defeated the bottom one in a battle.

If you don’t have flags, then you can use morse code to send messages to others.

Morse Code

Yachts can ‘dress’ on special occasions, The correct order for flying the signalling flags is as follows – from stem to stern:

E, Q, p3, G, p8, Z, p4, W, p6, P, p1, 1Code, T, Y ,B, X, first Sub, H, third Sub, D, F, second Sub, U, A, O, M, R, p2, J, p0,

N, p9, K, p7, V, p5, L, C, S.


You can buy flag sets on Amazon – In the Breeze 40 Flag String Maritime Signal



One thought on “Flags & Signalling

  1. Pingback: RYA Offshore Yachtmaster | Astrolabe Sailing

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