Flying the Flag -January 16, 2003
According to Chapmans, a flag this big would be appropriately located on something more the size of a tanker
A month ago, just before we left Florida, we dropped a few bucks on a brand-new Bahamian courtesy flag. We feared we wouldn't be allowed in the country with the tattered specimen we had been flying there last spring.
In the years before radio, flags on ships had a very important function: they were the primary means of communicating at sea. Generations of English school children were brought up on the legend of Lord Nelson at the Battle of Trafalgar signalling his fleet, "England expects every man will do his duty". But for a few signal flags (and the skills of a consummate naval tactician), the Napoleonic forces might have prevailed and a good part of the world's populace would now be speaking French instead of English.
With the advent of radio communication, flags on ships have been reduced mostly to a symbolic role, but their diminished status is hardly apparent for all the multi-hued scraps of cloth you see flapping in the breeze in most anchorages. Some yachting purists are unsettled by all this colourful chaos. The nautical scene is rife with traditions, and there are few maritime mysteries more revered and more arcane than proper flag etiquette.
Most of the standard boating texts devote several pages (if not chapters) to which flags to fly, when and where. With the national ensign, foreign courtesy flag, club burgee, power squadron pennant, owner's flag, and the burgees of various other cruising associations all competing for hoisting space, conflict is inevitable. In his seminal cruising tome, the late Eric Hiscock warned of dire consequences: "... as the foremast, mizzen, and crosstrees are regarded as being inferior positions to the mainmast, and the port crosstree inferior to the starboard one, obviously one of the burgees must be flown in a degraded position. The owner thus has the invidious task of deciding which of his clubs is the senior ..." Whew! And we thought such trivial matters as when to give way to an oncoming container ship were the only important decisions we had to worry about.
The crew of "Little Gidding" admit to not losing a lot of sleep over which flag to raise at the expense of another. It helps that we usually have only two flags on display and there's designated space for both. When we first bought the boat, the former owner had left a huge skull-and-crossbones flying from the rigging. We removed it on our first day of possession, and immediately endeared ourselves to our dock neighbours, who evidently were not pirate sympathizers. For a brief period, we had other burgees that signified an assortment of associations, but they beat themselves to early deaths against the shrouds, radar reflector and other protrusions. They were never replaced. It seemed like a doomed battle against wind and sun and we had other budget priorities.
Now we're reduced to the legal minimum: our national ensign flying off a stern staff, and a foreign courtesy flag hoisted on the starboard spreader. When we're awaiting clearance in a foreign port, we temporarily raise the yellow "Q" (for quarantine) flag. That's it.
Other boaters are more zealous about their memberships or have bigger budgets for bunting. It's not unusual to see some sailboats so festooned with coloured cloth that the raising of sails for locomotion seems hardly necessary. Decked out in this fashion, the need for tedious introductions is conveniently obviated - from a quarter mile away, the rest of the anchorage already knows where the boat is from, what organizations its owners belong to, which regattas they've attended and what their views are on a range of topics, including (for example) piracy, temperance, sexual orientation, team sports and the outcome of the Civil War. And for some, a singular national ensign won't suffice - it's supplemented by the flag of the owners' ancestral birthplace or, in the case of many Texans and Quebeckers, their state or provincial flag.
Although we're not filled with flag fervour to this same extent, we don't mind others decorating their boats as if it's laundry day. Generally, we're not overly concerned about whether all the intricacies of proper flag etiquette are followed. For example, very few boaters lower their ensign at sunset (we often do, but that's primarily because it's located next to our rail-mounted barbecue and we don't want to incinerate the flag while cooking dinner).
We do feel, however, that visiting boaters should be sensitive to the local situation when they leave their home waters. North Americans in particular seem prone to fly a national ensign all out of proportion to the flags flown by citizens of other countries. There's a sailboat anchored within sight of us now that has an ensign high up on its backstay the dimensions of a king-size bed sheet, and a Bahamian courtesy flag the size of a small handkerchief. In domestic waters, this passionate display of patriotism would be beyond reproach. In foreign waters, it may cause offence; at the very least it's, well, tacky. Sort of like being invited to a formal dinner party and arriving at the host's home wearing a Miami Dolphins ball cap and T shirt.
As Canadians, we're often puzzled by our compatriots' compulsion to fly the national flag at every possible opportunity and in every conceivable location when travelling abroad. They rarely do this at home, it's not part of the national psyche. There was no Canadian equivalent of Betsy Ross stitching together a flag while a war of independence raged. The Canadian flag was created a mere forty or so years ago in peacetime by an Act of Parliament. But let a typical Canadian out of the country and he or she will sprout maple leaves like there's no tomorrow. Strange, eh?
Our copy of Chapmans suggests that the appropriate size of a national ensign is one inch along the fly (the flag's horizontal dimension) for every foot of overall boat length. The foreign courtesy flag should be at least half that size. We don't feel it's necessary to get out a tape for precise measurement. It's a matter of common sense and courtesy. Celebrate what you hold dear, but do so without insulting your hosts.