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Flags at Sea!

Flag Facts

It’s time for a plunge into nautical flags – and if you thought there was a bunch of esoteric knowledge and etiquette accompanying the flying of flags on land, well, batten down the hatches and prepare for the hurricane of complex rules, regulations, procedures, and traditions of flying flags at sea! Just for the record, this is only going to be a quick and basic breakdown of maritime flags, so we apologise to all the meticulous and pedantic nautical enthusiasts out there who might find it lacking in detail. 

The principal component to cover is the classification of different nautical flags – because referring to all of the flags flown from a ship as just “flags” simply will not do.

The first and largest flag found on a ship is called the ensign. This flag, flown from the stern (the back of the ship) denotes the vessel’s nationality. Often it is simply a country’s national flag, but some countries make use of a civil, state, and a naval ensign; differentiating merchant and civilian vessels, government vessels, and ships of the nation’s naval forces respectively. 

During the Age of Sail, warships commonly flew a war or battle ensign from their topmost mast during battle. As masts were main targets of cannon fire, and the striking of colors (lowering the flag) was the signal for surrender, the ensign flying from the stern was a way for a ship to show that it was still in the fight even if their mast, and battle ensign along with it, was shot down. It has been suggested that this is where the tradition of flying the ensign from the stern, rather than from the highest and most visible point on top of the mainmast, originates.

Often the battle ensign was simply the national flag or the naval ensign, although there were instances of distinct battle standards or banners used.

Captain Oliver Perry’s “Don’t Give Up The Ship” flag at the top
Netherlands using their national flag as a battle ensign
Netherlands using their national flag as a battle ensign

A jack is also a national flag, although smaller than the ensign and sometimes square, flown from the bow (the front of the ship). It is only to be hoisted when the ship is at anchor or made fast to the shore or to a buoy, and not to be flown when underway. Again, some countries simply use their national flag – either a square version or the standard rectangle – while others use one of special design.

Flown from the top of the mainmast is usually a streamer or pennant which can convey different meanings depending on its design and use. Warships fly a commissioning pennant, indicating the commission of the captain of the ship (essentially denoting nationality), or sometimes rank flags which indicate that the superior officer is on board (making that ship the “flagship”). There are also church pennants, flown during religious services, as well as gin pennants, which officers fly to invite officers from other ships over for drinks.

There are, not surprisingly, more types of flags to be flown at sea, but we’re just covering those most widely used. There are several miscellaneous nautical flags that are flown, and a few worth mentioning are: a courtesy flag, flown by a visiting ship in foreign waters or ports, which is the national flag or ensign of the host country (always smaller than the ship’s own ensign); a private signal, which is a custom flag identifying the owner of a vessel; a house flag, which merchant ships fly identifying which company owns the vessel; and burgees are flags of specific sailing clubs or organizations. 

Most of the ships at sea are commercial or merchant vessels, shipping goods from port to port, and there are a number of specialized flags to accompany that official and standardized process:

From right to left: Port of registry, Burgee, Country of Destination, Signal Flags, House flag, Ensign, and Customs inspection

Last, but certainly not least in number, are the maritime signal flags. They are internationally recognized and used as a means of communication between ships and between ships and harbors. They can convey specific messages such as “I am on fire and have dangerous cargo on board: keep well clear of me,” “I require a tug,” and “Stop carrying out your intentions and watch for my signals.” They can also represent letters of the alphabet, enabling the spelling out of messages. In 1805 at the battle of Trafalgar, Admiral Lord Nelson famously signaled from his flagship Victory: “England expects that every man will do his duty.”  

Often at times of celebration, a ship will be “dressed overall,” which essentially means it is flying every single flag that it possibly can – including the signal flags, which are strung from one end of the ship to the other.

HMS Victory
HMS Victory, circ.1911, fully dressed (Royal Navy’s ensign visible)

Although flags are still flown at sea, they are mostly flown out of tradition rather than for practical use. The days of peering through the distance at a fluttering flag, as the principal means of identifying ships at sea, are essentially gone – radar, GPS, and radio communication mostly takes care of that. However, power failures do occur, and then why not use flags to do what they are meant to do best: be discernible and recognizable from a distance.

 If, say, one was in a situation where “I am on fire and have dangerous cargo on board: keep well clear of me,” it would most likely be wise to run up that signal flag message in addition to yelling it over the radio… just in case.

What is your favorite naval ensign? Do you know how to use signal flags? Let us know in a comment below, or get in touch via our social media! 

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