Selecting Boating Flags

Flag on back of boat

This big U.S. flag looks fine on a shorter-than-recommended staff.

Yacht ensign flag

U.S. Yacht Ensign

By Tom Burden, Last updated: 10/14/2020

The Ensign

For most people’s boats, flag etiquette begins and ends with the problem of which ensign, or national flag, to fly and where to fly it. Sailors and all other boaters who are United States citizens may choose between two flags, the usual 50-star national flag known as the ensign, or a special flag called the yacht ensign that, in place of the 50 stars standing for the states, depicts a fouled anchor on a field of 13 stars.

The story of these two ensigns is an interesting one. In the early to mid-19th century, most yachts looked like fishing boats and other commercial vessels. Ports charged a local duty to visiting commercial craft, whose skippers often attempted to convince customs officials that they were pleasure sailors. The officials ignored those claims and collected fees from all entering boats, including yachts. Under pressure from yachtsmen, the American and British governments independently approved special national flags to be flown only from yachts. In the United States, the yacht ensign was designed by the officers of the New York Yacht Club in 1848. It remains a legal national flag for boats in US waters.

Everyday Flag Etiquette

All boats operating in inland waters can fly the U.S. “Old Glory” 50-star flag, or the U.S. Yacht Ensign, the 13-star “Betsy Ross” flag with the fouled anchor. Flags are flown, traditionally from 8:00 a.m. to sunset, from the stern staff (when under way or occupied), or onboard sailboats—on aftermost sail 2/3 length of the leach above the clew; onboard sportfisherman—on halyard just behind the tuna tower.

How large of a flag for my boat?

For aesthetically pleasing proportions, we recommend a flag that is 1" long for every 1' of boat length. The staff should be twice the length of the flag’s vertical edge. For example, a 33' boat should fly a 24" x 36" Yacht Ensign nautical flag on a 48" flag staff. A shorter staff may be used if there is insufficient space.

Courtesy Flags

British Virgin Island courtesy flag

British Virgin Islands courtesy flag

Yacht club burgee

Yacht club burgee (Santa Cruz Yacht Club).

Show respect when you travel to other nations (or other states) by flying their flags when you enter or operate your boat in their waters. Boats in international waters also fly the 50-star U.S. flag, and not the Yacht Ensign, in the traditional location.

Where to Fly your Courtesy Flag

  • Mastless boats: At the bow.
  • Boats with spreader: From the starboard spreader.
  • Multiple-masted boats: From the starboard spreader of the forward mast.


Yacht club burgees are flown from the masthead, the bow pulpit, or from under the starboard spreader (below any courtesy flags). 


Order the Courtesy Flags you need, sized to fit your boat. We stock Courtesy Flags for common cruising destinations in 12" x 18" and 24" x 36" sizes, and we can order 3' x 5', 4' x 6' and 5' x 8' flags shipped directly from our supplier.