I’ve been a part of some conversations of late about flying flags on boats, not only fishing flags but also the correct application of national, courtesy and house flags. Over the years, I’ve seen all kinds of displays, some that follow a bit of historical, naval and yachting guidelines and some that have no semblance of order or protocol.
Early mariners used boating flags to signal other vessels regarding various tasks they may have been performing, as well as declare their homeland with an ensign, or national flag. Naval vessels use flags to convey messages, and commercial vessels fly their colors to display their country of registration.
In order to fly flags correctly, we need to understand the various types of boating and fishing flags, and where they should be displayed on the boat. There are national flags, signal flags, burgees and pennants. For our purposes, we’ll focus on sport fishing boats, which, over the years, have adapted the naval and yachting protocol of signal flags, such as the fish flags commonly found flying from outriggers in many areas.
Your national flag, or ensign, should be selected according to where the boat is registered. If you are a U.S. documented or registered vessel, fly the American flag; if you are foreign flagged, you would use the flag of your home country, and so on. Ensigns historically flew on the fantail of ships and yachts. Since a fantail flag would get in the way of fishing operations, we fly the national flag on the center of the boat up high from a tower, typically from the flagstaff that hangs down from the aft end of the tower floor or one that stands up on the top of the aft end of the hardtop.
Burgees are typically flags that signal your affiliation with either a yacht or fishing club. Club burgees are to be flown from the forward masthead, typically from the bow rail. However, many folks today think it’s cool to not have a bow rail, which is incredibly foolish for many reasons — but that’s another column. If you are one of those misled souls without a bow rail, your club burgee could be flown from the portside flagstaff under the house flag.
A house flag, or private signal, is an owner’s specifically designed flag that signifies the owner is on board and also typically flies from the port flagstaff, a throwback to the ship owner’s colors being flown from the port yardarm as ships passed port to port and signaled the company that owned the ship or that the owner was aboard.
A quarantine flag is used to declare your entrance into a foreign country and that you require customs and immigration officers to clear you into the country. The quarantine flag is a signal flag and should be flown from the port side, as protocol from naval and yachting history defines. Once cleared in and all customs and immigration paperwork is completed, the Q flag comes down, and the national courtesy flag of the visited country is deployed, signaling to authorities that you are compliant with clearing in and are approved to move about the country’s waters. Our travels through Europe and the Caribbean have all been similar in nature when dealing with customs and immigrations; some require more paperwork and fees than others, but they all require that the Q flag and the courtesy flag be flown.
Courtesy flags should always be flown in the historical place of honor: on the starboard-side yardarm or, in our case, a flagstaff on the starboard-side, either from the tower or, as typically seen on a hardtop boat, the starboard forward antenna. The courtesy flag should be flown higher than your national flag and should not be tattered or worn, as that is considered disrespectful. Once back in your home waters, it is unnecessary to maintain a courtesy flag of another country on your vessel. I can’t tell you how many boats return from the Bahamas in the spring and still fly the Bahamian courtesy flag in August up the East Coast.
Fish Flags on Boats
Fish flags are signal flags with a great deal of historical significance. Common sense and courtesy should factor into what should be applied when flying or not flying fish flags. Obviously, the flying of fish flags lets others know what was caught that day. It is also a way for charter boats to let potential clients know what was caught and that they too can go out and catch what is running, displaying the charter’s prowess compared to the other boats on the dock. At their simplest, fish flags are a form of marketing for charter skippers; at their worst, they are a means of bragging.
A couple years ago, I was watching boats come in from a day’s tournament fishing, and I noticed a great deal of mismanaged flags flying. It is always easy to spot the professional crews flying their flags and owner operators flying theirs. I made a comment about a certain boat not being able to see what was actually caught because the flags were jammed together with no rhyme or reason as to how they were placed on the rigger. My comment got back to the owner, and he took it personally instead of constructively, so I guess he still flies his flags incorrectly when, and if, he catches something.
When flying fish flags, take a cue from the pros: Place the flags on the rigger in order of species size. If you catch a blue marlin, a white marlin, a sailfish and a couple yellowfin tuna, you fly them in that order from top to bottom, with billfish taking precedence over tuna. We never fly a dorado flag, but some folks do to promote their charter fishing. Through habit, most folks fly their fish flags on the starboard rigger, but if you follow protocol with signal flags, they should be flown on the port rigger, so when you pass boats port to port, the other vessel can easily see what you have caught. Also, it is important to not stack the flags grommet to grommet. Space the flags apart on the rigger at a minimum of one flag apart from each other; this lets them be seen and identified more easily from a distance. Never run the flags all the way to the top of the rigger; keep them about three quarters up the rigger, as this also makes it easier to see them from a distance and up close.
Back when tagging billfish and tuna began, we would fly a species flag with a red triangle with a white “T” tag flag under it to signify that we tagged a blue or a white marlin. In the late 1970s and through the ’80s, when releasing became the more popular practice, crews started to fly the species flags upside down to signify a release and right side up to show that a fish was taken. They also began to use the small red release triangle pennants to indicate sailfish releases, so if you were in Palm Beach or Stuart, Florida, you knew the little red flags signified sailfish. In Ocean City, Maryland, and up the East Coast, a white marlin flag would be flown on top, and several red triangle pennants would be flown under that to signify how many were released.
Today, several crews have correctly begun to fly their species flags right side up to signify a fish released and swimming away healthy while turning the flags upside down to indicate they have harvested a fish. Most professional crews in the South Florida sailfish fleet have also gone back to flying the full-size species sailfish flag right side up to indicate their sailfish releases for the day.
In foreign countries, except the Bahamas where there are few local boats fishing, we never fly flags so as to not disrespect the local fleet. Flying flags is a great way to get a sense of what is going on at the fishing grounds but should not be used to put down local crews that may not have the tools or skills of a visiting boat.
Back in the late ’70s in Ocean City, Maryland, after a White Marlin Open, I finished taking my flags down and watched a gang of other deckhands approach a boat whose mate was over-served the night before and had not gotten up to remove his flags from the rigger. The gang, equipped with a hammer and roofing nails, promptly lowered the flags and secured them to the dock with enough nails to completely cover the flags. I knew of the tradition to not leave your flags up too long in the morning after your fishing day and made a note that I’d never want that to happen to my flags. I haven’t seen that in many years, but always take your flags down early the next morning lest you find them nailed to the dock.