Ensign Etiquette

Ensign etiquette derives from UK flag etiquette.  It is a combination of law or ‘what you must do’ and maritime tradition i.e. expectations of behaviour within the sea-faring community.  On a vessel the most senior position for a flag is reserved for the Ensign – this is as close to the stern of the vessel as possible.  It is the largest flag and it indicates the vessel’s nationality.

In British maritime law, an ensign is to be flown to designate a British vessel, either military or civilian. The ‘red duster’ or Red Ensign has been in use for British civil and merchant shipping since 1707.  It is a red flag with the Union Flag in the upper left area (next to the staff) known as a canton.

ensign etiquette

Prior to conventions being adopted a variety of different coloured ensigns with varying designs existed for England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland, as well as the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand and many other dependencies. In the U.K. a White Ensign is flown by Royal Naval ships.

ensign etiquette

A Blue Ensign is flown from various other military boats, affiliated clubs or official boats.  Additionally, permission is given for some ensigns to be ‘defaced’ with emblems on the right-hand side of the Ensign, this area is known as the ‘fly’.

ensign etiquette

Maritime heritage prevents the use of the Union Flag (primarily a land flag) as an ensign on civilian craft – only military craft may do so and there are detailed rules and conventions about when this might be.  In the 17th Century Charles, I ordered the Union Flag to be restricted to His Majesty’s ships “upon pain of Our high displeasure”.  This was because merchant mariners used to display it nefariously to avoid paying harbour duties by passing themselves off as Royal vessels.

A UK registered vessel should wear the national maritime flag, the Red Ensign unless entitled to wear a special ensign.  Wearing anything other than an authorised ensign is a violation of British and International Law. A UK flagged vessel must wear her ensign as required by the Merchant Shipping Act, this includes when entering or leaving a foreign port and on-demand. It is recommended that the Ensign is worn at all times in daylight, especially when near to or in sight of land or another vessel.  In port, it is a tradition that the Ensign is taken down at sunset and raised at 0800 hours the next morning.  These originally naval traditions are still accompanied by the respective ceremony of ‘sunset’ and ‘colours’.

A courtesy flag (or courtesy ensign) is flown by a visiting ship in foreign waters as a token of respect.  A courtesy flag is often a small (i.e. smaller than the ship’s own national ensign) national maritime flag of the host country.  Most countries use their national flag at sea and it is therefore not uncommon to see a foreign visitor flying a Union Jack as a courtesy flag when visiting UK waters.  This is wrong; the correct flag is always a Red Ensign.  There is no legal requirement to fly an alternative courtesy flag; it is a courtesy that acknowledges that the vessel will respect the laws and sovereignty of that country.  However, if one is not flown or it is tatty or faded, it may cause grave offence and in some countries can lead to a fine.  A courtesy flag is customarily worn at the foremasthead of multi-masted vessels, the dockside yardarm or crosstree of the mast of single-masted vessels, while the house flag would be outboard.  It may be flown from the jackstaff of vessels without masts.


1. “British Ensign”. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 31 December 2016. Web 05 January 2017.
2. “Maritime Flag”. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 3 January 2017. Web 05 January 2017.
3. “Flag Etiquette”. Royal Yachting Association website www.rya.org. Web 05 January 2017.

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