Wednesday, 12 June 2019

Flag Etiquette for UK boats: Part 1 What to fly and what not to fly

Sailing and boating is a popular pastime in the United Kingdom for those that are fortunate enough to own or have access to a vessel. With all these pleasure craft come a large scale use of flags often without knowledge regarding the dos and don'ts so i think it might be fun to explore these.

Flags Required By Law

Now not every craft requires a flag to be flown by law. The Merchant Shipping Act only applies to vessels over 50 tons. It also only applies for sea going vessels so vessels on inland waterways ie rivers and canals are not required to fly a flag. The national flag on a ship is called an ensign and in the United Kingdom there are various types of ensigns but the default ensign is the red ensign undefaced. This is a red flag with the Union Jack in the canton.
In some cases this can be defaced with a badge in the fly of the flag or the colour of the field could be blue (a blue ensign) with or without a badge. Certain Yacht Clubs are entitled to have badges on their ensigns or use blue ensigns. Chances are if you are a member of one of these clubs you will know if you are entitled to use one. If you are unsure I would recommend simply using the red ensign as you will always be on the right side of the law with this flag. Likewise while it may not be required by law for inland waterways, if you want to fly flags from your boat I would recommend flying the red ensign as one for best practice. Traditionally ensigns are flown at the stern of a vessel, although I will include diagrams. 

 Flags that should NOT be used 

There are certain flags that while popular on land are reserved for special vessels when it comes to the water. The first of these is the Union Flag also known as the Union Jack.
While this might be the national flag on land on the water it is the Naval Jack, meaning it is reserved for the Royal Navy. The origins of this dates way back to the reign of Charles I who reserved it for the King's Ships and this is still the case today. It is also the rank flag for the Admiral of the Fleet meaning the ship that the said individual in on will fly this flag from the top of their mast to signify their presence on board (hence the term flagship). While it is naturally a popular flag it should be noted that unauthorised use of this flag on the water is technically illegal and as such could result in a fine or prosecution, while this might be rare it is still bad etiquette to fly this flag.

The second popular flag on land which is has reserved status is the Cross of St George. 

Again on land it is the flag of England, but at sea it is the rank flag of an Admiral. You might think thats okay just don't fly it from the top of your mast, but no. For it is also reserved as a jack of special distinction for vessels that took part in the Dunkirk evacuations of 1940. 

The Royal Standard is a big no no as it can only be used by royalty on land and sea. However another flag that is very popular on land is the ancient royal banner of Scotland generally called the lion rampant (although technically this merely describes the posture of the lion rather than name the flag)
This flag is strictly speaking a royal banner and likewise it is used by various people representing the monarch in Scotland. George V did sign a warrant in 1934 allowing members of the general public to use this flag, however the catch is that it only apples to hand held flags, so Scottish sports fans can use it at the match but you can't fly it from your yacht. So unless you represent the crown (in which case you would know if you are entitled to use this flag) or have a said representative or a member of the Royal Family onboard you shouldn't use this flag.

Flags that are a grey area

The following flags are a bit of a grey area as their use is not strictly speaking illegal but for the reasons hereafter explained are probably best to avoid. The first is the flag of Scotland the St Andrew's Cross.
Whilst you will see this on may vessels in Scotland often being used as a jack it should be noted that it is virtually identical to the maritime signal flag M-MIKE which when hoisted by itself means "My vessel is stopped, making no way" Hence there is a possibility of causing confusion especially if you are flying this outside Scottish waters, which could be misinterpreted as  an improper use of signal flags which could result in prosecution.

 Likewise the Cross of St Patrick one of the flags often used to represent Northern Ireland is virtually identical to the signal flag V-VICTOR, which when used by itself means "I require assistance" and should probably be avoided.

A flag that I have noticed has seen a slight resurgence in recent years is the old royal banner of England the three lions passant. 
The English equivalent of the Scottish Lion Rampant, however unlike the Scottish banner this one is not used by representatives of the Sovereign nor does there seem to be any legislation around it that I am aware of. However like the Lion Rampant this is still technically a Royal Banner and hence the same reasoning should apply to it. I am not entirely sure if its technically legal or not but I will say it would be bad etiquette to fly it.

Likewise I would include the historic banner of the Prince Of Wales for the same reason as while it might not be used by itself it does make up parts of royal arms and likewise is technically still a royal banner.

Wimples should not be used as they resemble pennants and a the wearing of a pennant is the right of a warship.

Alternative flags

These are some possible alternatives that would be perfectly reasonable to fly. Although in all cases they should no replace the red ensign which remains the vessel's principle national colours.
First off it is possible to fly the Union Jack without breaking law or etiquette however it has to be a specific variant of the Union Jack. The Civil Jack sometimes known as the Pilot Jack is a Union Jack within a white border. 
Click for better view
It began life as a signal flag for summoning a pilot but has since ceased to be recognised for that purpose and is now often used as a jack. The fact it has a white border makes it distinct from the Naval Jack. 

An alternative flag to St George's Cross could be the old English red ensign.
This is a red flag with St George's Cross in the canton. It was the national ensign before the Union of 1707. 
Likewise an alternative to the St Andrew's Cross could be the Scottish red ensign:
This ensign was used by the Royal Scots Navy prior to the Union of 1707, it is also likely it was used by Scottish merchant ships. 
On the grounds to historic ensigns an alternative to St Patrick's Cross could be the Irish green ensign.

This variant of the flag was never official but appears in many Victorian charts and is recorded in use by Northern Ireland ship companies in the early half of the 20th Century. It is debated if the older version with a St George Cross canton had any official status.  
All these historic ensigns would be good alternatives to the equivalent home nations flags and in my opinion would nicely compliment the red ensign is used as a jack. Reproductions of them are readily available (in fact you can even buy them as boat flags complete with rope and toggle). I would suggest using the green ensign variant with the St George Cross as variations of the Ensigns proper to the British Register are illegal and a St George Canton would help distinguish it from this.

An alternative to the Welsh royal banner could be Glynd┼Ár's Banner which differs from the Welsh as the lions are rampant. This is a historic flag that although similar does not conflict with modern heraldry. 

Other flags 

For those who like me wish to show their support for the Royal National Lifeboat Institution it is probably best not to use the RNLI flag as that is for shore establishments and house flag on lifeboats. Although unless your vessel is painted orange its probably not going to be mistaken for a search and rescue craft for flying the RNLI flag it is still bad etiquette. Fortunately the RNLI sell their own flags for others to use, these are blue flags with the RNLI flag in the centre and come with rope and toggle both in flag and burgee form.

In regards to the Home Nations to fly these flags from the port spreaders would cause the least offence, however there is no real place for them in Flag Etiquette and their use is not condoned. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) states that the Ensign must indicate the vessel’s registration. There are no specific restrictions on the Welsh Flag, Cross of St David or Ulster Banner although as mentioned before their use is not condoned, this could also apply to county flags although ensign varrents with the Union Jack canton like those for Cornwall and Devon should NOT be used.

Other non official Irish flags such as the Ulster flag, Irish Four Provinces flag or Celtic Nations flag may also be used.
I would caution against the green harp flag as the jack of the Irish Naval Service is also a green harp flag likewise I would caution against use of the Irish tricolour as that is the ensign of another sovereign state and unless being used as a courtesy flag in Republic of Ireland waters might cause confusion for a boat to fly two national ensigns.
Other flags that would be acceptable would be any registered county flag as well as a club burgee if you are a member. Rainbow and pride flags as well as sports flags are also acceptable although good etiquette would avoid flags with text on them. None of these flags should replace or obscure the red ensign, but rather complement it.