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Flag Etiquette

August 29, 2016

It's here! My latest book, Years of Ideas from a Simple Sailor is now available on Amazon.

Courtesy flags are not a badge of honor. It is not appropriate, good seamanship, or in accordance with maritime law to fly your Bahamian courtesy flag after returning to the US, regardless of how much you may want to flaunt your "accomplishment." Of all the annoying breaches in flag etiquette that we've seen over the years, this is the most bothersome because it shows a distinct lack of respect for the Bahamas or any other country's flag that cruisers may display incorrectly. So many Americans get uptight when a "foreigner" disrespects the Stars and Stripes, but few feel the same need to courteously display others' courtesy flags.

NOT a Bahamian courtesy flag

Flags are not decoration to be flown wherever your boat may need a little color. There are distinct rules, many of which vary by country, concerning when and where to fly other countries' courtesy flags. Nowhere have we seen these rules disregarded more discourteously than in the Bahamas this summer.

The correct Bahamian courtesy flag for foreign vessels

Let's start with the basics, such as flying the correct flag. The Bahamian flags is NOT to be flown from the spreaders of a foreign vessel. The Bahamian flag is reserved for BAHAMIAN boats.

The courtesy flag to be flown on American (and all other foreign) boats is quite different.

Flying the correct flag may require a little advanced planning. Before we left land 15 years ago, I purchased a handy book for making your own courtesy flags. It has since gone out of print, but you may be able to find one in a used book store. Make Your Own Courtesy Signal Flags: Caribbean Courtesy Flags; International Signal Flags gave precise instructions on making ALL the courtesy flags needed in the Caribbean. My husband laughed at me at the time, "Like we're ever going to go to Colombia!" but when we pulled into Providencia, Colombia a few years ago, he sure was glad I ignored his comments and made every flag in the book. While we were living in the house, the sewing machine was out, getting materials was easy, and I had snow outside my window was the perfect time to make these, not while we were underway from Panama and decided unexpectedly to stop in Providencia. Yes, I have a few flags we haven't flown (yet), but it's not like they'll go bad while they wait. I equate it to having charts of the entire area, not just where you plan to sail, because we all know how plans don't always work out when you're cruising. You cannot always count on being able to "buy it when I get there," which is how I know many people justify not leaving port with appropriate flags. Chances are good that you will not find a courtesy flag in most ports of entry. If you do manage to find a flag, it will likely be the country's flag, not the courtesy flag we should be flying from our foreign boats. And if by some strange set of circumstances you DO find the correct flag, I guarantee you it will be more than the few dollars the material would have cost before you left your home country.

This boat is apparently cleared into BOTH the Bahamas AND the US at the same time.

Some (I can't even say "most") cruisers managed to at least have the correct flag once they arrived in the Bahamas, but many seemed to believe that where they fly it is irrelevant. It's not. There are numerous regulations depending on whether the boat is power or sail, how many masts, how many flag halyards are flying from each spreader, and many other considerations, but we'll stick with the typical cruising sailboat. And the spreaders we refer to will be from the main mast. A country's courtesy flag should be flown from the STARBOARD spreader. Any flag you normally fly there (sailing club ensign, for example) should be moved to an INBOARD halyard (in the event that you have two halyards flying from your starboard spreader) or (most likely) the port spreader. Some countries ask that you fly their courtesy flag UNDER the Q flag before you have cleared into the country, others ask that you fly the courtesy flag only after you have cleared in, flying the Q flag in the interim, from the time you enter their waters until you have cleared in. If we are in doubt, we fly the Q flag only. In 15 years and over 100 clearances in and out of a dozen or so countries, we have never been corrected on this point.

This boat is saying that it is cleared into the Bahamas (with the wrong flag) and has Canadian crew onboard, but the boat is not Canadian, when in fact it IS a Canadian flagged boat. Wrong starboard flag, wrong placement of Canadian flag.

The condition of the courtesy flag is as important as the condition of your own country's flag (which we'll get to in a minute). We have been in countries so long that I have had to lower our flag and spend hours at night hand stitching the fly that has started to wear, especially if we are sitting to current for very long, in which case the flag is not flying straight back and will wear on our standing rigging. I have even replaced panels in some of our flags as necessary. (White always wears out more quickly than colors because of its lack of protection against UV.) The point is to keep it in respectful condition.

These flags indicate that the boat is cleared into the US, flagged in some different country, with Bahamian crew. The truth is, they are a US boat cleared into the Bahamas.

Next to the courtesy flag of the country you are visiting, your own country's flag is the next important component of a properly dressed boat. You should NOT fly any type of yacht ensign, but rather just the good ol' Stars and Stripes from your stern in some way, usually from the back stay. We have split backstays so we rigged a line between them with a small block for our flag halyard. Again, this flag should also be in good repair.

This boat is apparently not cleared into ANY country, but has Bahamian crew onboard.

So what do you do with all the other flags you have? Well, if you're referring to the various "pirate flags," may I suggest you grow up and realize you're not a pirate and being one is only cool if you're 5 or if you're really into raping and pillaging. In some countries (including French islands) you will be told to remove such offending flags. But generally speaking, the "pirate crowd" rarely makes it very far, so once you get to the Caribbean there are few of these to be embarrassed by.

Yet another boat cleared into both countries at the same time.

As for more respectable flags such as yacht clubs and cruising clubs, these are flown from your PORT spreader. Also allowed to fly from your port spreader is the nationality of any crew that is different from the boat's home port (which should be the flag flying from your stern).

Finally! This boat's flags are telling the truth: a Canadian-flagged vessel cleared into the Bahamas with Quebecois crew onboard.

The short version is:
STARBOARD = Q and then courtesy flag
STERN = home port flag
PORT = nationality of crew and respectable club flags

These pictures were taken of boats in the Bahamas. The captions are what their flags are saying to the knowledgeable boating community and officials. Probably NOT what was intended at all. Be careful what you say, even if you're saying it with flags.

MONDAY we'll respond to a reader's question about our "newbie" years.


Connie McBride's work has been published in Good Old Boat, Sail Magazine, Small Craft Advisor, Cruising World, All at Sea, and Blue Water Sailing. As a full-time liveaboard cruiser for over 15 years, she has written several books and in her spare time, well, who has spare time?

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