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What are the rules to wear a blue ensign?

Do you know the rules for wearing a blue ensign? Do you know who is entitled to wear a privileged ensign? What happens when a yacht with a privileged ensign visits a foreign port?

A blue ensign being worn by a yacht
Do you know the rules for wearing a blue ensign? Credit: Eleni Mac Synodinos/Alamy Stock Photo

What are the rules to wear a blue ensign?

James Stevens answers your Questions of Seamanship.

Question:

Paul has purchased his first yacht, a 10m production cruising boat.

He has a berth in the local marina, next to a yacht club.

The club has a blue ensign on its flagstaff, and the same flag is worn by some of its members on their yachts.

Paul likes the look of this flag and reckons it would enhance the appearance of his boat. However, he is confused.

He knows that wearing a blue ensign comes with rules.

Looking around the marina, a couple of yachts fly their club burgees from the masthead and the club itself has the burgee at the top of its mast outside the clubhouse.

Most owners fly their club burgees from the spreaders, some on the port and some on the starboard side.

Other yachts have a blue ensign at the stern but with no burgee on the mast.

Paul also knows that when he goes abroad he should wear a courtesy ensign of the country he’s visiting.

Continues below…

Where does that go, and what happens if there is a burgee in the way?

In the evening, some owners take their ensigns down, while some leave them up. Others take the burgees down too. What are the rules about burgees and ensigns and where would Paul find them?

Who is entitled to wear a privileged ensign and who, if anyone, polices it?

What happens when a yacht with a privileged ensign visits a foreign port?

Answer:

Authority to wear a privileged ensign is granted by yacht clubs to their members in the form of a permit for the yacht and owner, which usually comes with instructions on flag etiquette requiring the club burgee to be flown with the ensign.

The RYA also provides advice.

Traditionally, burgees are flown from the masthead, but only a few clubs insist on it – notably the Royal Yacht Squadron and the Royal Cruising Club.

Most other clubs allow their members to fly the burgee from the starboard spreader halyard.

Offshore passage

James Stevens, author of the Yachtmaster Handbook, spent 10 years as the RYA’s Training Manager and Yachtmaster Chief Examiner

In harbour, the ensign should be raised at 0800 local time from 15 February to 31 October, and 0900 from 1 November to 14 February, and lowered at sunset or 2100 local time, whichever is earlier.

It is now the custom for the burgee to stay up for the duration of the cruise.

The starboard spreader halyard is the signalling halyard and is where a courtesy ensign is worn.

The real controversy starts when yachts go abroad.

Flag etiquette states that no flag shall be flown above the burgee on the same halyard and no flag shall be above the courtesy ensign.

How you choose to resolve this is a matter of choice.

If you don’t want to break any rules, fly a masthead burgee or forget your yacht club and wear a red ensign.

On the other hand, no one is going to get too excited if you use the port halyard for one of the flags.

Except for a few clubs who could withdraw a permit, flag etiquette is not really policed, it’s up to you.


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