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Neuse Sailing Association

Sailing Traditions

Nautical customs and traditions have grown and evolved over hundreds of years of pleasure boating. Like traditions in any sport or discipline, adherence is a matter of choice. But those who follow them show a certain knowledge and respect that add to the experience. The following is an overview of some of the more important yachting customs, traditions and courtesies that we try to follow in the Neuse Sailing Associatiion. The source for much of this information is the Houston Yacht Club website, For history and more detailed information, see Jospeh A. Tringali's Yachting Customs and Courtesies, Third Edition.

Traditional Ceremonies

Flag Protocol

Dressing Ship

Traditional Ceremonies

Commodore’s Ball – Each year in November the Commodore’s Ball gala dinner-dance is held to honor the outgoing commodore and introduce the new commodore. The officers, trustees and past commodores are recognized at this formal occasion. 

Naming Your Boat – When naming a boat, three criteria should be followed. The name should be:

  • Pleasing to the owner and his/her family
  • In good taste
  • Appropriate to the type of boat
  • Easily and clearly communicated

The importance of clear communication of a boat’s name is especially important in an emergency. This tends to eliminate names that are odd, lengthy or difficult to spell or pronounce. Boat names are not copyrighted, so you are free to select whatever name pleases you and meets the above criteria.

Boating Etiquette – Boating etiquette afloat basically consists of respect for others and common courtesy. But sometimes doing the right thing is not always obvious; thus rules have been developed to define correct behavior.

Know the Rules of the Road: The Navigation Rules are internationally recognized requirements for the safe passage of vessels. They are of the utmost importance for the safety of people and boats and they are mandatory. But it is surprising how many boats are operated in violation of these rules, either because of ignorance or willfulness. Classes presented by the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary and the U.S. Power Squadron are available at little or no cost, making it easy to learn these rules. Click here to view the USCG's Navigation Rules.

Courtesies Afloat: In addition to the mandatory Navigation Rules, there are many simple courtesies that have developed to make boating more enjoyable for everyone. Some of the more important ones are:

Respect for privacy and quiet: Whether docked, moored or anchored, don’t infringe on your neighbors need for privacy and quiet. This is especially important if you are having a party, need to run your generator, have a smoky barbecue or anything else that may offend your neighbors. 

Invitations to socialize: Be cautious when inviting a neighbor to socialize. A brief conversation will quickly determine whether they are open to this or prefer to be left alone.

Pass upwind of boats fishing: When your course takes your vessel close to boats that are fishing, be sure to pass upwind of them so as not to scare away the fish or become entangled in their lines.

Racing boats don’t have special privileges: There is no requirement that non-racing boats must keep clear of racing boats. However, it is courteous to do so provided that safety is not compromised. It is very discourteous for a racing boat to insist on the right of way just because they are racing. 

Anchoring: Anchored boats have precedence. Don’t expect them to move or be pleased that you are anchoring too close or over their anchor rode. If possible, anchor downwind; but in any case anchor in such a way that if the wind shifts there will be no chance of collision.

Excessive speed: Remember that you are responsible for your wake. This means don’t exceed speed limits or go too close to other boats.

Mutual aid: It is a long-standing tradition of the sea that you must assist other boats in trouble, provided it doesn’t compromise the safety of your boat.

Float plan: A float plan tells someone about your boating plans. They may be filed with the NSA Harbormaster or left with friends. If you are overdue, someone will know you are missing and can notify proper authorities. A float plan is especially important when you will be gone for an extended period or you plan to be in offshore waters. A float plan form is available here.

Guests on Your Boat: The skipper has a special responsibility for guests, especially guests that are not knowledgeable about things nautical. Guests should be informed in advance about what clothing is advisable, including clothing needed ashore after being out on the water. They should also be informed about food they are to bring or informed not to bring any. Upon arriving at the boat, guests should be instructed on safety equipment, operation of the head, where and how to store their gear and recycling requirements.

Flag Etiquette  Please see Flag Protocol.                             

Other Traditions

Commodore – The commodore of a yacht club is addressed in formal and also most informal situations as “Commodore.” The title “Commodore” is also used for all past commodores. This form of address for both current and past commodores is in recognition of the time and effort it takes to become commodore of a yacht club: “Once a commodore, always a commodore.” The word “commodore” comes from the Dutch word komadeur. It was adopted by the British Navy to denote the officer temporarily in command of a squadron or fleet. At one time, the United States Navy used the term to denote a one-star officer above the rank of captain but below the rank of rear admiral. But the Navy abolished that rank. Today, the word is used to designate the chief officer of a yacht club. The commodore commands the fleet but does not necessarily lead it because leading the fleet is only one part of the operation of a yacht club.

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Flag Protocol

Fly It Proudly

Yachts and yacht clubs are great users of flags. They are colorful, festive and informative. Every yacht owner should be familiar with the customs that apply to all the types of flags typically flown on a vessel. Unlike buildings and houses ashore, a vessel has a limited number of places from which to fly flags, and thus the yachtsman must be selective in the flags that he or she flies afloat. A yacht will ordinarily display three flags: one announcing her nationality, one announcing her owner’s club affiliation, and one announcing her owner’s status (private signal or club officer’s flag).

National Ensign (50-Star US flag)

The familiar 50 star “stars and stripes” flag is also known as the national ensign afloat. It is the most important flag on board and identifies her national character. A vessel’s character is determined by her registration, which may differ from that of her owner. This is especially important abroad and on the high seas. Most NSA members’ vessels are federally documented or state registered and thus should fly the national ensign.

A ship’s national ensign is immediately recognizable because it flies farthest aft (the place of honor), but not necessarily from the highest point in the rig. With the possible exception of battle flags, it should be the vessel’s largest flag.

Normally the national ensign is flown from a staff on the vessel’s stern. No other flag may be flown from this position. However, it is also permissible on a sailboat to fly it from the leech of the aft-most sail about two-thirds of the way up; or from the peak of the gaff on a gaff-rigged vessel. Sport fishing boats, which cannot fly the ensign from the stern when underway because of interference with fishing lines, fly the ensign from the aft end of the tuna tower on the centerline; and often leave it there when not underway. When not underway, the national ensign is only flown from the stern staff on all vessels.

Here are some tips for flying the American flag correctly:

Do: Choose the right size! The fly (length) should be one inch per foot of overall boat length, with the hoist two-thirds of the fly. Use closest ready-made size.

Do: Fly it during daylight hours ONLY! The American flag is properly flown ONLY from 0800 to sundown while in the harbor. Other flags (e.g. club burgee, officer’s flags, private signals, fish flags, etc.) may be flown at any time the vessel is in operation.

Don’t: Fly a flag that is too big! It doesn’t mean you are more patriotic, it only means you aren’t displaying the flag respectfully!

Don’t: Fly the American flag from the:

  • Top of the mast
  • Spreader flag halyard
  • Bow staff
  • Fishing outriggers

US Yacht Ensign


 American yachts may also fly a flag called the Yacht Ensign. This flag is similar to the U.S. Ensign except a circle of 13 stars surrounding an anchor replaces the 50 stars. It was established by Congress in 1848 to identify yachts that do not have to clear customs when entering ports; licensed yacht were required to fly it. The law has changed so that the yacht ensign is now an option for any American recreational vessel. The national ensign or yacht ensign may be flown by U.S.  yachts,   simultaneously. When a U.S. yacht sails in international waters, the 50-star flag must be flown.

Club Burgee

  Yacht and sailing clubs have flags to distinguish them, called burgees. Most yacht club burgees are pennant (three sided) shaped like the NSA burgee, but a few clubs use swallow-tailed flags, while a very few use rectangular flags. Flying the burgee is an important part of belonging to a yacht club and a vessel owned by a member of NSA should fly our burgee with pride.

The burgee is flown from the bow staff on a powerboat, while most sailboats fly the burgee from the starboard spreader. The traditional position at the top of the mast is no longer used because of interference with wind sensors and antennas. Normally a vessel displays only one burgee at a time. Exceptions are made for opening day and other special occasions when owners will string together all burgees of clubs to which they belong, with the NSA burgee at the top of the string for NSA functions.

Officers Flags

The yacht ensign’s circle of 13 stars surrounding an anchor forms the basis for the officer flags used by NSA and many other yacht clubs for the commodore, vice commodore and rear commodore, with the background being blue, red and white respectively. Other officers, such as fleet captain, secretary, treasurer, and past commodore, etc., have their own flags. On sailboats the officer flag is flown immediately below the burgee. On powerboats, the officer flag is flown from the mast, with the club burgee keeping its place flown at the bow staff. Officer flags are flown only when the officer is aboard.

Flags used by the NSA



Vice Commodore

Past Commodore



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Dressing Ship

The Yacht Ensign is hoisted at the stern staff and the Union Jack may be displayed at the bow staff. A rainbow of International Code flags are then arranged from the waterline forward to the waterline aft. Flags and pennants are bent on alternately. Since there are twice as many letter flags as numeral pennants, it is good practice to follow a sequence of two flags, one pennant, two flags, one pennant, etc. The sequence of flags can be any order but the following is recommended to give a harmonious color pattern.

Starting forward: AB2,UJ1, KE3, GH6, IV5, FL4, DM7, PO Third Repeater, RN First Repeater, ST Zero, CX9, WQ8, ZY Second Repeater. Click Here to go a website that will help you get it right.

Private Signals

One of the oldest traditions in yachting is that of the “Private Signal.” A private signal is a unique flag that communicates the presence of a specific individual or family on a boat. They are personal flags, or logos, similar to family crests. The tradition of the private pennant signal, or “house flag,” currently used dates back to the 18th and 19th century when the sailing ship lines were at their peak.

Part of the tradition is that the yacht club displays the private signals of their members. Traditionally, a private signal referred to the owner or his/her family; today some private signals refer to the boat.

The private signal is flown from the starboard spreader flag halyard on both power and sail boats. If a powerboat doesn't have such a halyard, the private signal may be flown at the top of an antenna on the starboard side. Boats without a mast may fly the private signal from the bow staff in place of the burgee.

Other Flags

Courtesy flags:  When a US vessel is in the waters of a foreign country, it Is expected that she will fly the host country’s national flag from the starboard spreader on a sailboat or from the starboard spreader of a powerboat with a mast, or the bow staff of a mast- less powerboat. This is especially important for boats going to Mexican or Caribbean ports. Note that the Bahamas, The British Virgin Islands, the Cayman Islands and the United Kingdom each have red ensign versions of their flag that are the correct flags to be used for this purpose.

Fish or Prize Flags:  Fishing boats often fly flags denoting their catch. Flags denoting marlin, wahoo, sailfish and other species are available from marine suppliers. They are flown from the port outrigger or spreader, and are flown upside down if the catch was released.

Source: Some information in this article was borrowed from the Houston Yacht Club website,  For history and more detailed information, see Yachting Customs and Courtesies by J.A. Tringali. 

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