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  • Writer's pictureMartinon Yacht Club

Fun With Flags Voluntary MYC Flag Etiquette

Author - David Peer

This short introduction to flag etiquette is intended to give some background and simple guidelines for members of the MYC who want embrace this custom. The overarching rule is to wear flags properly or not at all. Flag etiquette for recreational boats is a combination of law, good manners, and tradition. Canada, as a member of the Commonwealth draws heavily on British flag etiquette.

This guide will provide an overview of the important points of flag etiquette for a boat with one mast and then note key differences, when they exist, for boats with two masts and with no mast.

Flag Hoist Positions

What flags you fly and where you fly them is what flag etiquette is all about. On a yacht with one mast there are four key flag hoist positions with a priority of importance:

1. The gaff or stern;

2. The main masthead;

3. The starboard spreader; and

4. the port spreader.

A jack staff at the bow can add another hoist of lower importance than the stern, which can be useful on a yacht with no mast

The Stern or Gaff

The most senior and important position is as close to the stern as possible. On a boat with a mast and a gaff it would be from the gaff, otherwise it is on the stern rail. This senior position is reserved for the ensign and indicates a boats country of registry or licensing. No other flag displaces the ensign; fly the ensign or leave the position empty.

The Main Masthead

The next senior position is the main masthead. This position is reserved for the club burgee, which is usually flown from a pigstick extending above the masthead.

The Starboard Spreader

The next position in seniority is the starboard spreader. The starboard spreader is a boats “signal station.” You should read signal flags of a single hoist from the top down. If a signal flown on the spreader is divided into more than one hoist, read from the top down and from outboard in.

The starboard spreader is where a courtesy flag or other signal such as a quarantine flag, race committee flag, or a distress flag is flown. It is now common practice to fly the burgee at the starboard spreaders when a burgee would interfere with instruments and antennae at the masthead. Although, there is nothing legally wrong with flying a burgee on the starboard spreader, it creates challenges for proper flag etiquette when a yacht should also fly a courtesy flag or needs to make a signal. It is a breach of etiquette to fly a burgee and a courtesy flag on the same halyard. The only solution that satisfies flag etiquette is to have multiple halyards on the starboard spreader so that the burgee and the courtesy flag or any other appropriate signal may fly on their own respective halyards.

The Port Spreader

The port spreader is the position with the lowest seniority and this is where house flags and private signals are flown. More than one flag may be flown on the port halyard, although too many might appear unbalanced. House flags are normally flown in order of seniority from the top down and from outboard in, if there is more than one hoist on the spreader.

The Jack Staff

The Jack Staff draws its name from naval practice where a naval jack is flown from the bow when at anchor or alongside. The Royal Canadian Navy flies the national flag as a Jack. British flag etiquette does not normally use the bow or jack staff, except when dressed overall for state celebrations.

The use of the jack or bow staff in Canada has been influenced by the custom among American yachts to use it to fly the club burgee, in preference to the top of the main mast, when it is fitted. It has become normal in Canada for boats without a mast to use a jack staff at the bow as a second, and subordinate, hoist to the stern.


There are a number of flags that a yacht may fly. Flag etiquette calls for yachts to wear flags properly or not at all.


The yacht ensign in Canada is the National Flag. If it is impractical to wear the ensign on the stern rail when underway, there are alternate positions from which it may be worn: at the top of the mizzen mast on a ketch or yawl, two thirds of the way up the leech of the main on a sloop or schooner under sail, or part way up the backstay. It should be transferred to the stern rail when moored or at anchor.

It is a serious breach of etiquette to fly anything other than the ensign from its position of honour. It is also a serious breach of etiquette to fly a national ensign that is not clean or is in poor repair.

A Canadian boat wears her ensign underway at sea for identification, especially near land, passing another vessel, or entering or leaving a foreign port. In harbour, the ensign should be raised at 0800 local time or as soon after that time as people come aboard and lowered when leaving, or at Sunset (or 2100 local time if the sun is still up). Ensigns are not worn when racing. It is British tradition that a racing yacht flying her ensign is signalling she has retired from the race.


Always fly your MYC burgee above the Canadian ensign and do not fly any other flag above your burgee on the same halyard. Remember, where you fly your burgee might affect the acceptable alternate positions for the ensign. In British tradition burgees and ensigns are linked because some yacht clubs are privileged to fly special ensigns when they fly their club burgee. The club burgee always flies at the highest position and above the Ensign with which it is associated. This was the case for the RKYC when members held warrants to fly the Blue Duster (the Canadian Blue Ensign). This tradition carries on in Canada, even though one Ensign is authorized for recreational vessels. This tradition of linking burgee and Ensign never existed in the United States and is one of the main differences between Canadian traditions and those of the United States.

MYC has a distinctive burgee, which following tradition is triangular in shape. Members may fly it on boats they own or skipper. Burgees belong to and are controlled by the club. For powerboats without a mast the burgee may be flown from a jack staff on the bow pulpit, it should fly higher than the ensign.

If you are a member of more than one club fly the burgee of the group you are with, or whose harbour you are in, just do not display more than one burgee at a time. You can show your membership in MYC with a club flag worn from the port spreader when flying the burgee of another club.

The MYC Commodore and Vice-Commodore fly their officer pennants instead of the burgee.

Courtesy Flag

A courtesy flag is small civil ensign of a foreign country flown as a mark of respect when visiting the national waters of another country. It is hoisted after clearing customs and takes precedence after your national flag. Never fly any other flag on the same halyard as — or on a halyard to starboard of a courtesy flag. If a yacht has more than one mast, the courtesy flag is flown from the starboard spreader of the forward mast. On a powerboat with no mast, the courtesy flag replaces any flag that is normally flown at the jack staff on the bow. Treat the courtesy flag with the same respect as the National ensign and hoist it and take it down with the yacht’s ensign.

Quarantine Flag

The international code flag Q (Quebec) (a yellow rectangle) when flown alone is prescribed as a quarantine flag worn by a vessel not yet cleared customs. Fly it from the starboard halyard or spreader when you enter a foreign port or when you return to a Canadian port from a foreign cruise.

Officer Pennants

The MYC Commodore, Vice Commodore, and Rear Commodore (if appointed) have distinctive pennants that are flown in place of the MYC burgee.

House Flags

House flags indicate membership in organization (for example the Canadian Power Squadron), a society, or a yacht club. A yacht club flag, for clubs that have them, is a small rectangular version of the burgee. MYC has a club flag and an Honorary Member distinguishing flag. Members and Associate Members may fly the MYC club flag; Honorary Members may fly the MYC Honorary distinguishing flag. These flags are flown from the port spreader to indicate club membership if flying the burgee of another club. A yacht on which a member is on board may also fly them.

Private Signal

A private signal communicates the presence of a specific individual or family on a boat. They are personal flags, similar a family crest. The tradition dates back to the 18th and 19th century when the sailing ship lines were at their peak. Officers of the MYC may fly their distinctive pennant as a private signal if flying the burgee of another club, or have the owner or skipper of a boat they are visiting fly it while they are on board.

Past-Commodores, past-Vice Commodores, and past-Rear Commodores of the MYC may fly the pennant of the position they once held as a private signal for life, as long as he or she is a member of the club.

House flags and Private Signals are normally flown in order of seniority by date, from the top down on a hoist and from outboard to inboard. For a ketch or yawl the most senior house flag or private signal may be flown from the mizzen masthead.

Size and Condition of Flags

The size and condition of flags are important. The size is particularly important for a balanced appearance and flags should be replaced before they get ragged or frayed. The general guideline for the right size of Ensign used to be an inch per foot of yacht, but on many modern yachts this can seem a little on the small side. Ensigns should be large enough to be seen without hanging in the water. Courtesy or house flags should be proportionately smaller. MYC has only one size of burgee, pennant and club flag. Use the table below to help size your flags:


MYC Burgees, Pennants, and Flags

MYC Burgee

All members may fly the MYC burgee. The burgee belongs to the club. It should be flown from the masthead whenever possible; acceptable alternate positions are the starboard spreader or the jack staff. The burgee should be flown above your ensign.

MYC Burgee

MYC Honorary Member Burgee

Honorary Members may fly the Honorary Member burgee; it is the same size and shape as the MYC burgee and only differs by the addition of a white stripe to the fly. The white stripe is emblematical of the path that our Honorary Members have followed in their long service to the club. The Honorary Member’s burgee and should be flown from the masthead whenever possible; acceptable alternate positions are the starboard spreader or a jack staff. It should be flown above your ensign.

MYC Honorary Member Burgee

MYC Officer Pennants

MYC has Officer Pennants for the Commodore, Vice Commodore, and a Rear Commodore should one ever be appointed. Serving officers fly these pennants instead of the burgee. After leaving office, Commodores, Vice Commodores, and Rear Commodores retain their Pennant as a personal flag and may fly them off the port spreader while they remain members of the club.

MYC Commodore Pennant

MYC Vice Commodore Pennant

MYC Club Flag

The MYC club flag is a rectangular version of the MYC Burgee flag. It can be flown as a house flag on the port halyard when flying the burgee of another club and members may allow it to be flown on another yacht they are visiting.

MYC Club Flag

MYC Honorary Member Distinguishing Flag

Honorary members may fly the Honorary Member distinguishing flag in the place of the club flag. It is the same size and shape as the Club flag and only differs by the addition of a white stripe to the fly. The white stripe is emblematical of the path that our honorary members have followed in their long service to the club.

MYC Honorary Member Flag

Dressing Overall

Dressing overall is done to celebrate state celebrations, special days, regattas and the like. It is only done when tied alongside or moored or at anchor in harbour. The flags used are international code flags and they are strung from bow to masthead to stern. There is a proper sequence to the code flags; all boats are supposed to look alike. The sequence is designed so that it does not spell offensive words. As a general guide triangular flags are placed between rectangular ones; though there are not enough to alternate the entire length. The ensign is flown at the stern, the national flag, or club officer flag, from the masthead, and the national flag from the bow if a jack staff is fitted.

A Yacht Dressed Overall

Reference Guide for Flag Positioning

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