Maritime flags

From Academic Kids

Flags are particularly important at sea, where they can mean the difference between life and death, and consequently where the rules and regulations for the flying of flags are strictly enforced. Flags (and pennants) are flown for signalling and for identification.



Ensigns are national maritime flags flown by ships, at the stern, from a gaff, or from the yard-arm. In some countries (e.g., the United Kingdom or Australia) there are distinct naval and merchant ensigns, while in other countries (e.g., the United States or France) the merchant and naval ensigns are identical to the national flag flown on land.

Ensigns are usually required to be flown when entering and leaving harbour, when sailing through foreign waters, and when the ship is signalled to do so by a warship. Warships usually fly their ensigns between the morning colours ceremony and sunset, when underway, and at all times when engaged in battle.


The position of honour on a ship is the quarterdeck at the stern of the ship, and thus ensigns are traditionally flown either from an ensign staff at the ship's stern, or from a gaff rigged over the stern. Nowadays when a ship is at sea the ensign is often shifted to the starboard yardarm. It should be noted that the usual rule that no flag should be flown higher than the national flag does not apply on board a ship: a flag flown at the stern is always in a superior position to a flag flown elsewhere on the ship, even if the latter is higher up.

Nautical etiquette requires that merchant vessels dip their ensigns in salute to passing warships, which acknowledge the salute by dipping their ensigns in return. Contrary to popular belief the United States Navy does dip the Stars and Stripes in acknowledgement of salutes rendered to it. Merchant vessels also traditionally fly the ensign of the nation in whose territorial waters they are sailing at the masthead or yard-arm. The flying of a ship's ensign upside-down is a mark of distress. The flying of two ensigns of two different countries, one above the other, on the same staff is a sign that the vessel concerned has been captured or has surrendered during wartime. The ensign flying in the inferior, or lower, position is that of the country the ship has been captured from: conversely, the ensign flying in the superior, or upper position, is that of the country that has captured the ship.


Jacks are additional national flags flown by warships (and certain other vessels) at the head of the ship. These are usually flown only when not underway and when the ship is dressed on special occasions. In the Royal Navy the Union Jack at sea serves both as a naval jack and as the rank flag of an Admiral of the Fleet. It is illegal for a merchant ship or yacht to fly the Union Jack: a civilian jack (sometimes known as the pilot jack as it was formerly used to request a pilot) exists, and consists of the Union Jack with a white border. The St George's Cross flown from the jack staff is known as the Dunkirk jack, and is customarily flown by ships and boats which took part in the Dunkirk rescue operation in 1940. The flying of the St George's Cross elsewhere on a civilian ship is illegal, as it is the rank flag of a four-star admiral.

Other flags

Rank flags

  • In the Royal Navy, admirals fly rectangular rank flags: an Admiral of the Fleet flies a Union Jack, while an admiral flies the St George's Cross. The flags of vice-admirals and rear-admirals have one and two additional red balls respectively. Commodores fly a Broad Pennant which is a short swallow-tailed pennant based on the St George's Cross, with a red ball at the canton (upper quarter next to the staff).
  • In the United States Navy as well as in some other countries, admirals fly rectangular blue flags with white stars according to rank.


  • A warship also flies from its masthead a masthead or commissioning pennant (or pendant), that is, a long narrow pennant which indicates the commission of the captain of the ship (and thus of the ship itself).
  • In the Royal Navy, the commissioning pennant is a small St George's Cross with a long tapering plain white fly. In the United States Navy, it is red above white, with seven white stars in the blue hoist. The commissioning pennant may be displaced by various rank flags, namely the personal flags of members of the Royal family, the President of the United States, or the flags or pennants of admirals or commodores.
  • The Senior Officer Present Afloat Pennant is green on the hoist and fly with a white field between.
  • The Church Pennant has the St George's Cross in the hoist and a fly which is horizontally divided red-white-blue. It is said that it is a combination of the English and Dutch flags that was invented during the Anglo-Dutch wars to signify a truce during church services.
  • The Gin Pennant means that the wardroom is inviting officers from ships in company to drinks. The origins of the Gin Pennant are uncertain, but it seems to have been used since the 1940s and probably earlier. Originally it was a small green triangular pennant measuring approximately 18 inches by 9 inches (460 by 230 mm), defaced with a white wine glass. Its colour, size and position when hoisted were all significant as the aim was for the pennant to be as inconspicuous as possible, thereby having fewer ships sight it and subsequently accept the invitation for drinks.

Yacht club burgee

Yachts belonging to yacht clubs fly their yacht club's triangular burgee from the masthead. This is compulsory if the yacht is flying a special ensign that members of the club have been granted permission to fly.

Unit citations

Warship of various navies may be awarded a unit citation, for which a burgee (tapering flag with swallow-tail fly) is flown when in port.

  • Ships of the United States Navy:
    • Presidential Unit Citation - yellow with blue stripe on top and red stripe at the bottom.
    • Navy Meritorious Unit Citation - green with four yellow stripes divided by two blue and one red stripes at the centre.
    • Navy Unit Citation - symmetrical colouring from the centre: green, red, yellow, blue.
  • Ships of the Royal Australian Navy may have:
    • Unit Citation for Gallantry - burgee with narrow white band surrounding green field surmounted by a silver star.
    • Meritorious Unit Citation - design as above with yellow field.

Signal flags

There is a system of International maritime signal flags for each numeral and letter of the alphabet. Each flag or pennant has an additional meaning when flown individually.

See also


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