When mariners started crossing the oceans, flags were an important communications tool between ships when at sea and even ashore. Lives depended on correct interpretation of their meaning, especially on fighting ships. Today, proper use of flags is not just a way to identify vessels and boating organizations, but to give important instructions, make announcements, warn of approaching storms, and mostly to honor and keep alive the naval traditions and seamanship spirit of those sailors that preceded us.
Flags have different shapes and colors depending on their function. A pennant is a flag that is larger at the hoist than at the fly and can be triangular, tapering or swallow-tailed. A burgee is the pennant that identifies a recreational boating organization.
While the United States Flag Code, USC Title 4, Chapter 1, provides general guidelines for the display of the U.S. flag, nautical flag display is based on long-standing traditions that date back over 300 years.
A Yacht Club building (or clubhouse) is traditionally considered to be a vessel and not part of land. It is meant to have a proper flagpole that mimics the mast of a large sailing ship. In addition, many of the masts in early Yacht Clubs were real masts repurposed from a large gaff-rigged sailing vessel.
The difference between a conventional land flagpole and a yacht club flagpole is the yardarm and a gaff pole which mimic the aft mast of a ship. At sea, the gaff was used to raise the mizzen sail and is the aft-most point on the vessel. Since the national flag is meant to be flown from the aft most point of a ship, it was flown either from a pole on the stern or hoisted on the gaff. Some ships also attached their national flag to the leech of their mizzen sail.
The traditions of the nautical flagpole are not commonly known among the public and often generate controversy because no flag is ever meant to flown in a position of greater honor than our national ensign. People see the club burgee flying higher than the national ensign. What they do not know is that in the naval world, the highest point of the mast is not the place of greatest honor. The place of honor is the aft most fly, hence the national ensign is flown from the gaff.
The orientation of a clubhouse flagpole is also important, as it should be positioned as the mast of a ship standing out to sea (gaff pointing inland). A clubhouse flagpole also flies the burgees of the Yacht Club officers, to recognize their rank and their presence at the club or vessel.
Members may fly our Club’s burgee on their vessels from two locations while underway and at anchor. The more common is from a halyard under the lowermost starboard spreader. The more traditional is from a pig stick from the aft-most mast. Flying a pig stick indicates the yacht is in excellent trim because having the gear and skills to fly a pig stick denote a significant amount of knowledge and experience. The burgee should not be flown while racing. Powerboats which do not have mast may fly the burgee off a short staff at the bow.
Another important flag for Members is the United States Yacht Ensign, the 13-star “Betsy Ross” flag with a fouled anchor in the union. While in US waters, the yacht ensign should be flown on recreational boats instead of the National ensign. In foreign waters, the 50-star national flag should be flown.
The ceremony of hoisting the flags at 8.00 am and dousing at sunset is call “making colors”. When shorthanded, the national ensign should be hoisted first, followed by the club burgee and the officers flags if they are present at the club (on deck). All officers’ flags are hoisted on the same starboard halyard, highest rank on top. Colors are hoisted smartly but lowered ceremoniously. Many yacht clubs salute the lowering of the colors with a cannon shot. Flags such as Race Committee flags, Gale warning flags, and special purpose flags can also be flown at a yacht club flagpole.
It is a nautical tradition to exchange burgees when visiting other yacht clubs or entering into reciprocity agreements. Members traveling to other clubs may purchase burgees in advance from our ship store. When exchanging burgees with another club, please record the exchange with a picture which can be included in our newsletter. In these cases, it is important that any picture displays the Shore Acres Yacht Club burgee positioned in the right way, with the blue stars pointing up as it flies on our flag pole!