What is the correct arrangement of flags on the Yacht Club masthead?

A Reader writes:  “I’m so mad I want to quit our club!  Our Commodore insists on flying our country’s flag lower than the club burgee. It looks bad and it’s wrong, but he says the gaff is the “place of honor.”  He says he learned it at “the Academy.” What is the place of honor?  And what “Academy” is he talking about?”

The flag display at all maritime locations—naval installations, Coast Guard bases, ports, yacht clubs, and even the United States Naval Academy—all have one thing in common: a gaff extending upwards off the “back” of the flagpole at about a 45% angle.  The top of the gaff is the “place of honor.”

Here’s why: 

The maritime flag display represents a sailing ship “standing out to sea.”  In other words, when you see that display with the yardarm and the gaff, you’re looking at a sailing ship about to leave her berth.  The “ship” has been shrunken down to her essentials: a single mast.

Sailing ships always “wore” the National Ensign at the stern.  (Ships, like all proper ladies, don’t “fly” flags; they “wear” them.) The peak was too crowded with rigging for a good display, and the stern became the recognized “place of honor.”  The tradition is still followed today.  If you’ve been on a pleasure cruise, you may have noticed that the National ensign of the ship’s registry at the stern, while the flags of the cruise line were somewhere above the bridge.

The “place of honor at the gaff” is universal.  You can see it at places like the Royal Hamilton Yacht Club (Ontario, Canada) and the Royal Nassau Sailing Club (Bahamas).  Like all other maritime locations, they follow the rule of flying their National ensigns from the gaff.

So don’t run off and quit your yacht club because they’re “doing it wrong.”  In fact, they’re doing it right.  You just need to understand why!

About P/C Joseph A Tringali

Tringali is the author of "Harbor of Refuge", a novel of love and loss; "I Was That Baby", his personal story of growing up adopted and finding his birth family at 56 years old; "A Quiet Family Murder", a novel detailing the many strategic decisions faced by trial lawyers when a case that begins as a “simple” murder prosecution escalates into a matter of statewide political intrigue; and "Yachting Customs & Courtesies", the quintessential guide for yacht clubs and boaters who wish to keep traditions alive.

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