A story about colors

Published on 21 june 2017 at 0h00

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The ensign is probably the defining characteristic of a ship.  Back in the day, it was the only way to know whether the vessel was a friend or an enemy. Today, it makes it possible to know if the ship is in distress, if it wants to communicate with you, or if the captain is on board, for example. In short, flags are still used for communication, and it helps to know how to use them before setting off around the world.

Welcome!  Flags are always a great way to communicate.

Use of the National Ensign

This subject is part of maritime etiquette that we all tend to forget, and it has a lot of peculiarities.

The national ensign, also known as one’s "colors", is used to identify the ship's nationality and possibly its status. The ensign is definitely not a "flag". This is not the correct maritime term. In Switzerland, as in the UK and other countries, there is a difference between the national flag and the maritime Ensign. In France, even though the appearance is the same as the tricolor flag, it is still slightly different. The width of the strips is progressive: blue 30%, white 33%, red 37%. This gives the impression of identical widths when the ensign flutters in the wind. Logical, since the last slice (red) waves more than the first (blue) that is attached to the mast.

Leisure craft use the same national ensign as the country’s Merchant Navy. It must always be in good condition, because in case of serious deterioration one could be reproached with an act of insult to the national flag.  Hoisting and lowering colors are always the responsibility of the captain.

Preparing to dress overall demands method and harmony…

The national ensign must be proportional to the size of the ship. The minimum size seems to be left to the skipper's judgment, whereas the maximum is 1/10 of the size of the boat, with the express condition that the ensign never touches the water or the deck.
For a 15 m boat, the flag will be at most 1.5 m long and 1 m high since the ensigns are in the format 2/3 (vertical width, or “hoist” = 2/3 of the horizontal length, or “fly”). In this example the ensign is very large, but if you like flags…! The ensign must be the largest flag on board. 

Racing pennants are the only flags which may be flown without the national ensign… 

An ensign is hoisted and lowered. We must not, however, say that we are lowering the national ensign. That would mean surrender to the enemy!

The colors are always hoisted unfurled, the national ensign is therefore already "open".

The ensign must be fully hoisted. It should not be fixed to the backstay (except for sloops which can hoist it on the backstay to two thirds of its height). Failure to respect these two points implies a specific meaning: mourning.

A catamaran proudly flying the flag of Mauritius… 

Under way:
Under way in foreign waters the national ensign must always remain hoisted.• sloop rigged vessel: it is placed on a straight staff, at the stern and to starboard of the boat. The flagstaff can be tilted aft, to better present the ensign when there is little or no wind.• ketch or yawl rig, it must be installed at the head of the mizzenmast or on the luff of the mizzen. A small external halyard off the back solves this problem.• gaff rig, it should be flown at the peak.• schooner, it should be flown at the head of the main mast• for a motor vessel, it should be flown from the highest point.

Even in these days of cellphones and ultra-connectivity, flags remain a simple and easily understood means of communication.  Here, I have a diver down…

At anchor or in port:
• For all rigs, the ensign must be at the stern as described for a sloop. This implies a double system for rigs other than sloops. Sorry…• Sailing boats and motor boats may fly the national ensign on a flagstaff at the stern to starboard or in the center, never to port.• If the boat is to remain unattended for a relatively long period, it is preferable to stow the ensign away.

• From the day you enter and until you depart a port.• In port, between 8 am and sunset, but not later than 8 pm, and, at the least, on Sundays and public holidays• At anchor between 8 am and sunset, but not later than 8 pm• At sea, in territorial waters (a variable concept depending on the country) at the request of, or in view of, official boats (Coastguards, Customs, Naval vessels, etc.)   As rules may vary from one country to another, conform to local customs. To do this, one will observe the use by warships, by the biggest yacht in the port, the yacht club or the port captain or harbormaster’s office. It should be noted that the fact of leaving the ensign flying at night is to be considered as a lack of respect for the national colors.• Saluting is always done with the National Ensign. In principle, yachts should salute all warships. The warships can oblige the greeting with international code flags:A ship should be saluted under way or at anchor only if her colors are hoisted.Saluting is accomplished by slowly dipping the ensign until the deck and by slowly hoisting all the way up again:3 times for a warshipOnce for a fishing vessel or a yacht.

Before setting off for the Caribbean, it’s essential to have courtesy ensigns for every country you’ll be visiting.

The warship can respond by once dipping her ensign to mid-halyard.• If the national ensign is not being flown, no other ensign may be flown (except for a racing pennant)• In the absence of crew on board, no ensign should be flown.• Never put two national ensigns one above the other, it would be an insult to the lower. There is, however, one exception to this rule: when one returns home and wishes to honor the various countries which have been visited, by putting them in succession, on the same halyard.

The ensign floating freely is fully hoisted, then lowered slowly to mid-height. On our sailboats, the flagstaff is often too small for this to make sense, so the alternative is to use a halyard and backstay. The sign of mourning will then be the national ensign worn at the height of the backstay. This should be the only case of using the backstay.

The mourning is on the day of the announcement of the death, until sunset. No more. Mourning is carried out in the event of the death of the owner, an important member of the sailing club or the head of state or the head of the ruling family.

The use of the ensign for greetings remains applicable, but is less frequently used in practice. Purists will likely disagree.For the record, saluting is done with the ensign. The use requires that the colors be slowly lowered to 2/3 of the height, the flag being kept thus until the other has answered; It is then fully hoisted again. 



The ensign of the country visited must be hoisted on entering that country’s territorial waters, below the starboard spreader of the mainmast (sailboats); on a staff at the bow or aft to starboard for motor boats.Theoretically, it should be flown from sunrise to sunset, practically from 8 am to 8 pm, in ports and territorial waters (usually 12 miles)Pending completion of the entry formalities, the international code flag "Q" (yellow) is temporarily hoisted below the courtesy ensign.

Com un Drapeau ( : a (very) nice bunch of people who wrote this article for us and who have the knowledge to properly advise you about which flags you need to take when you set off blue water cruising. 


On sailing ships it may be hoisted below the spreaders to starboard if there is no courtesy ensign, if not to port, on motor vessels on a flagstaff at the bow on the port side, or on a port-side flagstaff.The owner's flag must only be flown if the owner is aboard.To indicate that the owner’s wife is on board, Americans sometimes hoist a particular ensign.Finally, it should be noted that the maritime etiquette requires that flags other than ensigns be hoisted furled, unfurling being effected only once the halyard has been tied off.Avoid placing a flag just below a radar reflector or, worse, an anchor ball: indeed, remember that this is a distress signal!


The burgee is in principle flown from the top of the mainmast, but with the invasion of this space by various antennas these days, an alternative is to hoist it under the port spreaders.The club’s flag should never be flown on board.


The flying of an ensign in the colors of the nationality of any foreign guests on board is a gesture of great hospitality, usually much appreciated.Whether there are one or more, they are to be flown from the port spreader or a flagstaff to port on motorboats.


• Racing Pennant:Can be worn on the backstay at 2 m above the deck (unless otherwise stated in the sailing instructions). This is the only flag that can be worn without the national ensign.

• P flag or Blue PeterFlown from the port spreaders, 2 hours before sailing.

• Letter Q or request of free pratiqueFor immigration, customs or port health, this is flown from the starboard spreaders when approaching a foreign port.Compulsory if this is the first visit to this country, it must remain hoisted until all the relevant authorities have granted clearance.


Known as le Grand Pavois in French, from the Italian word pavese, meaning shield, the act of dressing overall comes from the time when the shields and crests were placed along the deck, where today we have a “wall”, the bulwark.A ship should never be dressed overall when under way.It is a decoration of festivity, to be flown only in port and is composed exclusively of all the international code flags. But the national ensign still has to be flown from the stern too. Dressing overall is composed of the 40 code flags of the International Code of Signals, including the 26 alphabetical flags, 10 numeral pennants, 3 substitutes and the answering pennant. It must go from the bow to the stern passing by the top of the mast or by the highest points of the boat, and must be struck before getting under way.

There are many opportunities for dressing overall: on the occasion of the launch of a boat, during national holidays (including those of the countries visited), on the owner’s birthday, a maritime festival, and for Brits, on the Queen’s birthday... How to dress overall on festive daysThis is something which varies from country to country, and to obtain a harmonious distribution of colors and shapes, for some nationalities, there is a very precise order which is not alphabetical. The national ensign should always continue to be flown. The French believe their custom to be the most romantic.In the 17th century, an officer the King's Navy applied himself to obtain a harmonious distribution of colors and shapes.The French Admiralty accepted this way of doing it, and since the order is the following starting from the bowA, B, 2, U, J, 1, K, E, 3, G, H, 6, R, N, (S), S, T, Z, Y, (IIS)The three substitutes are designated by (IS), (IIS), (IIIS), the answering pennant is not officially used, nor, of course, the national ensign as part of the grand pavois.

A ship should be dressed overall only between 8 o'clock and sunset, and no later than 8 pm.  It is a way to celebrate something and finally ... to ‘’pavoiser’’. There is an optional, second formula:

It can be flown in this order:From the bow to the masthead:E, Q, 3, G, 8, Z, 4, W, 6, P, 1, I,From the mast to the stern:D, F, 2nd substitute, U, A, O, M, R, 2, J,

The custom in Nordic countries:1, A, B, 2, C, D, 3, E, F, 4, G, H, (II), Z, R, (Z), S, T, In the United States, it seems there is not actually an “official sequence”, but that a harmonious pattern should be achieved without the signal flags being arranged in any order that would convey a message.  Being as there are twice as many letter flags as numerical ones, generally two letters are placed and then a numeral. The British (obviously) have a strict sequence: AB2, UJ1, KE3, GH6, IV5, FL4, DM7, PO Third Substitute, RN First Substitute, ST Zero, CX9, WQ8, ZY Second Substitute.   To finish on this subject of flags, no more than one ensign should be flown from the same halyard (this is obviously not the case for flags of the international code of signals), because it would clearly be an insult for the ensign of one country to be placed below that of another. It would be regarded as a prize ensign, a sign of victory.

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