Your Guide to Boat Flags

Your Guide to Boat Flags

Posted by Hayley Adams on Apr 28th 2022

Have you ever noticed how many boat flags are out there or wondered what do they all mean? To the untrained eye, boat flags might appear to be no more than just decor or showing your pride (don't get us wrong, there is plenty of pride out there and it can often be found on boats), but in reality, nautical flag etiquette is an essential part of sailing and we are here to give you the rundown.

The most common types of boat flags you will see are Diver flags, Storm Warning flags, Coast Guard boat flags, US Jack flags, Maritime flags and Pennants, Yacht Ensign & Officer flags, and maybe the most importantly the International Code Signal flags.

Code signal flags are commonly used by boats to send messages to other boats. They are made with a sequence of twenty-six square flags that represent a letter of the nautical alphabet. Ten numbered flags, one answering pendant, and three repeaters also form part of the nautical flag sequence.

What is Nautical Flag Etiquette?

As silly as it might seem, boat flag etiquette can play a crucial part in the boating world. In a worst-case scenario, it could mean the difference between life and death. Generally speaking, the nautical flag etiquette is a combination of years of maritime tradition and laws that help boats communicate messages to each other.

However, with the rise of technology, communicating solely through flags may no longer be a necessity like it was in the past, but this does not mean that boat flags are ineffective and shouldn’t still be used. In fact, to die-hard sailors, it’s not only about communication, it’s about respecting the long-standing maritime tradition.

Common Flag Boating Terms to Know

  • Hoist- the raising of flags
  • Butt Diameter- the width of the bottom of the flagpole
  • Canton- the rectangular part of a flag, usually at the top hoist corner of a flag 
  • Close Up- means that the flags are now fully hoisted
  • Courtesy Flag- is the national flag of the country that a boat is entering. Ex: Boats entering the United States would display an American flag as a courtesy flag.
  • Dip- means to lower a flag by turning it forward from an upright position to an angle or horizontal as a sign of deference or respect
  • Jack- mean the additional national flags flown by warships (and certain other vessels) at the head of the ship
  • Pennant- is a triangular-shaped flag
  • Yardarm- refers to the horizontally mounted and tapered pole attached to a flagpole to create a "t" or a cross
  • Gaff- is a rig that extends from the flagpole that allows for more flags to be hoisted, which usually rises at an angle and represents the mast of a ship
  • Nautical Flagpole-refers to a flagpole with a yardarm and or gaff

The Bottom Line?

While the need for nautical flags might be dwindling in the boating world, they are still pleasing to the eye. Learning when to use nautical flags and how to use them is a skill every sailor should have. Not only is it essential for safety reasons, but boat flags can also be a lot of fun!