Editor’s note: As an etiquette guide, this article is based on opinion. It’s goal is to create a standard.
Flags are among the most important symbols. Whenever you fly a flag you’re sending a strong message, good or bad. Yet people often do it without knowing the proper etiquette. I’m going to remedy that.
Order of Precedence
The order in which you fly flags shows each flag the appropriate respect and even changes the significance of certain flags. The exact order of precedence is generally decided by national governments for use on their own ships and lands, but they typically follow the same pattern;
- Provinces, States, etc.
- Historical flags
Typically, the highest precedence within each group is the one that best represents whoever is flying the flags. For example, the highest precedence national flag on land is always the flag of the nation it’s physically in, and at sea it’s the ship’s nation of registry.
One unique case is the “Union Jack,” as it’s most commonly known to laymen. Where it’s flown determines whether it represents the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, the shared monarchy of the Commonwealth Realms, or a British colonial history.
Order of Flags
The order of precedence comes into play when deciding where to place flags relative each other. Flags should run in descending order of precedence from left to right, from the intended observer’s perspective. The exception is that the centre position is often considered to be the most honoured when there are precisely three flags. Also, no flag should ever be flown higher than a flag of higher precedence in the same display, but don’t fly more than one flag from one staff.
Flags on land are always to be the central element of a display, usually surrounded by flowers, shrubbery, or other decorations. The hardest part is deciding which way it should be oriented. A flag display should be facing the main public road, the pathway immediately outside the main entrance to an important building, an outdoor gathering place like a park or town square, or the entrance to a yard or complex. It’s also crucial that the display be prominent and positioned away from unsightly areas, like heavy equipment storage. The staffs need to be tall enough that they tower over the rest of the display and have the flags be visible from as many angles and as great a distance as practical. The flags themselves must be small enough so as to only occupy a small portion of the staff but large enough so it looks like the staff is there to hold the flag, not so the flag looks like it’s there to decorate the staff. The staffs should be spaced by approximately twice the length of the flag.
When to Fly Flags
If you fly flags at all you should fly them every day. Generally flags are raised at either sunrise or 8AM and lowered at either sunset or 8PM. If you want to fly your flags at night you’ll need to illuminate them. For security reasons, I would say you should fly your flags around the clock when you’re away, illuminated or not.
Choosing Your Flags
Choosing which flags to fly is a very personal decision. Any flag that represents the site in some way is appropriate. However, I’m of the opinion that you should always fly the highest appropriate flag in the order of precedence. You can also change what flags you fly anytime, for any reason, even if just for a day.
Displaying flags indoors is very similar to outdoors but the lack of wind, and the impossibility of “flying” them, does make a difference. The staff should be five to six feet tall and the flag should be about two feet of the ground. You’ll also need to put more thought into the finial, the decoration on the top of the staff. Also, indoors is the only place you want to use a flag with fringes.
You can also display folded flags or hang flags on a wall. When hanging on a wall the flag should be unfolded with the canton (top of the edge that would be along a staff) in the top left.
Flying a flag at half staff, or half mast, is a common symbol of mourning. When flying at half staff a flag should be about halfway up the staff, more importantly needs to be high enough to remain visible but low enough to not look as though it has slipped. When you raise a flag you always raise it all the way before lowering it to half staff, and you always raise the flag from half staff before lowering it.
The etiquette for flying flags at sea is much more strict than in land.
The most important flag to fly at sea is the ensign. The ensign is flown from the stern, most often a staff added for that purpose, and is the only flag that can be flown there, unless it’s a recently captured warship. When in port, the ensign is flown from 8:00AM until sunset while the vessel is occupied. At sea, it’s flown when in sight of other vessels or land, but is best flown at all times.
The ensign serves to identify where the vessel is registered and often categorises its owner and use. Every coastal nation has its own ensign and many have naval ensigns for warships, civil ensigns for merchant ships, and yacht ensigns for pleasure craft. Usually it’s pretty obvious what nation they’re from, but not always. In same cases, like the American yacht ensign, they’re not to be used in international or foreign waters, where the national flag or civil Ensign is used instead.
In this case quarantine is a good thing. It simply means the vessel has yet to clear customs and invites the inspectors aboard. It’s then lowered after the inspection and may be replaced by a courtesy flag. The quarantine flag is the yellow “Q” signal flag and is flown from the starboard (right) side of the forward most mast.
A courtesy flag is exactly what the name implies. Raising a courtesy flag after clearing customs is a way of saying to a nation’s people and government, “thank you for welcoming us into your waters.” The courtesy flag is usually a smaller version of your host nation’s ensign or national flag. If possible, it’s flown from the starboard side of the forward most mast, otherwise it’s flown from a staff at the bow.
House Flags & Personal Signals
House flags and personal signals are entirely optional and serve to identify the vessel’s owner. House flags identify companies and personal signals identify individuals or families. Most are swallowtail shaped and are flown from a bow staff or the top of a sailing vessel’s mast.
Signal flags are a communication method that was commonly used at sea before the development of the radio and aldis lamp. By running a set of them up the mast, any short text message can be sent to everyone who can see it. These days, they’re mostly used as decorations, just don’t display them outside if you aren’t following any standards.
A diving flag is literally a matter of life and death. A vessel flying a diving flag is telling all the other vessels in the area that it has divers in the water, so they must keep their distance or face serious legal consequences or risk seriously injuring or even killing divers.
Dipping the Ensign
“Dipping the ensign” is a traditional nautical salute, typically given to passing warships. The ensign is noticeably lowered and then raised back to its normal height when the warship has dipped theirs or passes out of sight.
Dressing overall is a form of ceremonial decoration, typically reserved for occasions of great importance to the vessel’s owner or crew. An ensign is raised at the stern as well as the bow and all the masts. In port a random string of signal flags is run up from the stern, over the masts, and then back down to the bow.
There are other flags that are sometimes flown at sea, like rank flags and club burgees. If you’re unsure if you should use them, you shouldn’t.