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Showing Our Colors

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In the wake of the terrorist attacks, American flags flew off store shelves. We can’t remember a time when the Stars & Stripes were so publically displayed as the last few weeks on houses, T-shirts, cars, boats - you name it, old glory was everywhere.
Until last month, the tradition of flying ensigns off yachts had fallen off significantly, at least here in the Bay. About the only times we recall seeing a significant number of ensigns on boats is during the Master Mariners Regatta and Fourth of July weekend. We welcome its return, and offer the following guidelines for those interested in showing their patriotism from their own boats.

  • Boating flags come in two versions. One is the 50-star national flag known in nautigal lingo as the ‘ensign.’ The other is the so-called ‘yacht ensign.’ It has the same 13 stripes, but the blue field is occupied by a fouled anchor on a field of 13 stars. Either is acceptible for most boats, although you may be interested to know that documented vessels are actually required by law to fly the yacht ensign. It is also generally recommended that yachts traveling international waters or visiting foreign ports fly only the 50-star ensign.

  • The size of the ensign is determined by the size of boat that flies it. On the fly (the flag’s horizontal measurement), the rule is 1 inch minimum of flag for every foot of LOA. The hoist (vertical measurement) is two-thirds the length of the fly. When it doubt, err on the side of a larger flag. (For example, there are no 41-inch flags for your 41-footer. You have to go with the standard 48-inch flag.)

  • The ensign or yacht ensign may be flown from either of two locations: the stern or the leech of the aftermost sail. The stern position (on centerline or just to starboard) usually involves buying a wooden staff and deck-mounted receiver for it, both of which are readily available at any marine outlet. Choose a staff long enough to keep the flag free of gear or the engine exhaust no matter which way it streams.
    Although the stern mounting is probably the most commonly seen, the leech of the aftermost sail is the most traditional position. The flag may be sewn to the leech, or flown from a separate halyard. The proper position is 2/3 of the way up from the clew on a marconi rig, and just below the gaff on a gaffer. One of the reasons this arrangement is so seldom seen any more is that the flag is so prone to foul on the backstay of modern rigs.

  • Whatever method you choose, the proper hours are from morning colors (8 a.m.) to evening colors (sunset), whether you are underway or not. There are three exceptions to this rule: 1) Boats entering or leaving port, even at night, should fly an ensign; 2) An ensign is not flown during races; 3) To save wear and tear, a boat need not fly an ensign when out of sight of land or other vessels.

  • There is no provision to fly ensigns at ‘half-staff’ aboard boats. One way to signify recognition of those killed in the terrorist attacks might be to stream a black ribbon with the flag, as was done after the JFK assassination.

There are a ton of other archaic, half-forgotten ‘rules’ for ensigns, and for the most part we hope it stays that way. (For example, ‘dipping the colors’ when a flag officer from the skipper’s yacht club anchors nearby.) But as for sailors ‘showing our true colors’, we welcome the practice back in a big way. Next time you go out, show your colors! (For more on general flag etiquette, see the nifty website at

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This story was reprinted from the the October 2001 issue of Latitude 38. To order a copy (complete with b&w photos), use the subscription order form, and specify the 10/01 issue, or just drop us a note with a check for $7 to Latitude 38, Attn: Back Issues, 15 Locust Ave., Mill Valley, CA 94941.

Please note: If the actual issue is no longer available, we will still be able to make photocopies or PDFs of it.


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