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The Royal Mersey Yacht Club’s own Blue Ensign.

Who may and  when, where, and how to fly it?

A short guide to the Law (what must be done) and Etiquette (maritime traditions and expectations of behaviour between seafarers) about the flying flags on board yachts. There a several, substantial, books in print. What I write here is only intended to be an outline, or introductory guide to this topic.

Perhaps it ought not be a surprise in an activity as old, and ingrained in our Island history, as going to sea, that the etiquette part is a lot longer, and much more complicated, than the legal part. That is why I am going to start with the law. It’s; for once in our lives, clear and short.

Before even the legal part it will help you if I clarify a few points of basic terminology. Yes, I know what you are thinking, even retired lawyers can’t pass an opportunity for a couple of definitions. Bear with me, I promise that it will help.

Let’s talk now about flags, and the all-important difference between a land flag and a marine ensign, or “colours”. The Union Jack, Welsh Dragon, the Crosses of Saints George, Andrew, Patrick and the EU flag are all, primarily, land flags and must never by flown at sea by educated yachtsmen like members of Royal Mersey. They are confusing too. The cross of Saint Andrew corresponds to International Code flag M (my vessel is stopped and making no way through the water) and Saint Patrick to Code Flag V (I require assistance) and Saint George (flown only by an admiral— don’t argue) I have seen all of them hanging over the sterns of yachts, even British ones in foreign waters. Makes you shudder. Most countries have no such thing as a maritime ensign, and just fly their national flag.

The Union Jack, or Union Flag if you prefer (both terms are correct), is the property of the Royal Navy who fly it on a jackstaff at the bow, hence Union Jack. Non-military ships are allowed to fly a union flag with a white border, which is called a Pilot Jack, or Civil Jack or Merchant Jack, on a jackstaff at the bow. This used to mean that she required a pilot, but this has fallen into disuse.

The main source of law is the Merchant Shipping Act 1995 (the Act) which is written in the clearest terms:

“Section 2. The flag which every British ship is entitled to fly is the red ensign (without any defacement or modification) and, subject …………….as below, no other colours.”

The “subject …………….as below” which concerns us, is: –

“any colours allowed to be worn in pursuance of a warrant from Her Majesty or from the Secretary of State”;

A ”British Ship”, for our purposes, means any craft owned by a British Subject. The Act also lays down that a British Ship must show her colours in only two circumstances; when required to do so by one of HM Ships and when entering and leaving a foreign port.

Britain, and a few former colonies, are unique in having special maritime ensigns, the white, blue and red. Sometimes plain or, like ours, with a motif in the fly. The white is for HM Ships, a Naval Officer (or RNVR) on his own yacht and members of The Royal Yacht Squadron, the blue for a privileged few, and the red for everyone else.

Royal Mersey was, as number 26 of our Laws states, and it’s written each year in our yearbook, granted permission by warrant from the Secretary of State on September 24th 1844 for its own unique Club Flag

 “the Blue Ensign of Her Majesty’s Fleet, with a crown over the “Liver” in the fly of the Ensign….and the Burgee shall be blue, with the crown over the Liver”

However, just by being a member of RMYC does not give you the right to fly our ensign. You need to apply to our Hon Sec for a Permit for your yacht, and to qualify for that your yacht need to be owned by you, not a limited company, not used for trade and must be registered under either Parts I or III, of the Register of British Ships (Small Ships Register).  To register under Part I, the yacht must over two tons gross or, under Part III, over 7 meters overall length. In other words, only reasonably substantial vessels can fly our Blue.

So, there you have it, the law. Simple isn’t it? I told you it would be.

Now here we go with the etiquette, and this is where things get a lot more complicated. First of all, the law only refers to ensigns on ships or vessels, but we all know that our blue ensign is flown on the mast on the lawn in front of the clubhouse. This is the first of the traditions, that shore establishments of a club holding a Royal Warrant can fly the blue there, or premises occupied by a flag officer of the Club. 

On a yacht her ensign, whatever its colour, should be flown in the most senior position, usually on the ensign staff on her stern, though ketches often fly them from the mizzen masthead and gaff rigged yachts from the gaff peak. The point is that the ensign must be plainly in view to establish the vessel’s nationality. A blue ensign is flown together with the corresponding burgee. That is why our Warrant describes the burgee. It is usual to hoist the burgee then the ensign, and lower in the reverse order. Some yacht clubs with blue ensigns, and the One with a white one, require their members to fly the burgee from the masthead, but because mastheads have become very crowded spaces with lights, wind instruments and multiple radio antenna, it is usual to see the club burgee flown from the next most important place on a yacht, the starboard spreader. The blue ensign may only be flown when the holder of the Permit is on board, or ashore nearby.

Flying the burgee, incidentally a burgee is always triangular excepting only a Commodore’s broad swallow-tailed pennant, from the starboard spreader is a cause of flag etiquette complications because the starboard spreader is the place for signal flags, such as the Q flag (yellow rectangle) on entry to a foreign port, and the courtesy flag of a foreign state. The problem is that it is discourteous to fly anything superior to either a courtesy flag or your own burgee! Perhaps the solution is, when entering foreign waters, to fly a red ensign. That will also avoid the confusion caused to foreigners by the blue ensign, which has caused awestruck enquiries as to whether we had sailed all the way from New Zealand!

The size and condition of flags is important. I used to think that my faded ensign was a source of pride showing that I had left a long wake. Not so. All ensigns and courtesy flags of foreign countries ought to be clean, bright and free from frayed ends. Foreign nationals can be touchy on this subject.

What is the right size? I suppose the main rule is “if it looks right, it is right”, but never so big that it trails in the water.

The practice of the Royal Navy, which is universally followed by yachtsmen, is to hoist their Colours- Union Jack at the bow and then the White ensign at the stern- daily at 0800 with a ceremony, usually involving the ship’s bugler, referred to as Morning Colours. They then haul them down, in the reverse order, in a ceremony called Evening Colours, more bugles, at sunset or 2100.

I have only once “dipped”, that is temporally lowered, my ensign to one of HM Ships (HMS Tyne) at sea, and was thrilled to see a rating standing at her ensign staff, with the flag halliard in one hand and a cigarette in the other, as she sailed past with her white ensign lowered in answer; and never a word spoken.

Every racing man knows the difference between a rectangular racing flag at the masthead and a burgee, and that ensigns and burgees are always struck at the five-minute gun, just to show that she is racing and might be given the courtesy of a little indulgence by non-racing ”stand on” vessels.

In the last word of this piece the verbal pedant just below the skin of every lawyer knows that I will “fly” my ensign, but my yacht will “wear” it.

Andrew Whittingham-Jones.

August 2019.