This week our favourite blogger, Jonty Pearce, is experimenting with different flags


At the end of last season I snapped our wooden flagstaff when using it as a handhold coming up the stern ladder from the dinghy. It is in a slightly awkward place, and I had already repaired it, so I accepted buying a new one. Stainless steel would have been my choice this time, but I was over-ruled as it did not pass the style council enforced by the Indoor dragon – wooden it had to be. I eventually sourced a cheap one, complete with a brand new Red Ensign.


Whilst searching auction sites before I made my choice I was amazed by the variety of ensigns and flags available. Apart from the Red Ensign, there were European Union ensigns, Union Jacks, pirate flags, Cornish flags, the Welsh Dragon, Cross of St George, Cross of St Patrick, and Saltires to name but a few. Now we all know that the proper and traditional Red Ensign is the correct one to fly unless the owner is privileged enough to enter into the black art of flying a White, Blue or defaced Red Ensign. The permissions for such an honour are myriad and, to the common sailor such as myself, intricate and confusing. I resolve my uncertainty by ensuring that I am always the give way vessel when encountering vessels flying special Ensigns – my port genoa sheet is quite stretched from the excess of time spent on port ‘give way’ tack. Imagine, then, my excitement when I discovered I could fly a Blue Ensign (replete with a white anchor in a red circle) on joining the Cruising Association. Watch out for Aurial sailing proudly past displaying her own Special Ensign, firmly on the starboard tack – I’m determined to equal the length of my genoa sheets. AlI I have to do is fill in the forms to apply for the warrant and write a big cheque.


Flag etiquette is a complex and important issue. Not only should you only fly an ensign to which you are entitled, but it has to be smart (my old tatty red duster could be considered an unraveling insult), as close to the stern as possible, and raised and lowered at the correct times – taken down at sunset and hoisted during the ‘morning ceremony’. If the Indoor Dragon was in charge of the latter it would be delayed till 11am.


And then we enter the world of courtesy flags, a token of respect to the country being visited. Smaller than the Ensign, single masted yachts should hoist them on the starboard spreader, and they should not be faded or tatty. Carol has just bought a replacement for our Welsh Dragon who has flown so long he is now called Arthur Dragon – as in ‘Alf a Dragon. He has quite lost his tail, and will be honoured on his retirement. Many sailors fly multiple burgees, though some frown on this habit. With a courtesy flag displayed on the starboard spreaders, the best place for a house or club burgee is on the port spreaders. In the case of those wishing to fly multiple burgees, the most important goes at the top, with lesser flags below.


There is a whole language to be studied when signal flags are considered. Individual signal flags not only spell a letter or number, but may have specific meanings – we all know that flag ‘A’ means a diving boat engaged in underwater activities. I’m always surprised by RIBs doing 20 knots displaying this flag – they must have very fast swimmers. Several flags together may form a code word whose meaning can be looked up in books or code sheets. At the extreme end of the spectrum is Nelson’s signal ‘England expects that every man will do his duty’, but you need a lot of masts and yard arms to display it. We have had fun with my signal flags spelling out words both in church when we presented a Sea Sunday service (complete with an inflated and rigged Tinker Tramp dinghy), and at our sailing club AGM where I challenge members to decipher the message spelt out above the high table. The meaning is not always complimentary to the commodore. There is even a correct order for signal flags when dressing the ship overall for regattas and special occasions. This predefined order can be looked up and is careful not to have any meaning (a bit boring really, but very pretty).


The Indoor Dragon has still not forgiven me for my deliberate misunderstanding when she asked me to hang out her smalls to dry as she went ashore for supplies when we visited St Mary’s harbour in the Isles of Scilly. She returned to see all her knickers looped together and hoisted up the mast – I got a scorching, and she still insists they stretched. I think I sent the wrong message…