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Courtesy Flags

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courtesy flag (or courtesy ensign) is flown by a ship in foreign waters as a token of respect by a visiting vessel. It is often a small (that is, smaller than the ship's own national ensign) national maritime flag of the host country, although there are countries where the national flag is correct. The flag is customarily flown at the foremasthead of multi-masted vessels, the starboard yardarm or crosstree of the mast of single-masted vessels, and from the jackstaff of vessels without masts.

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As a matter of courtesy, it is proper to fly the flag of a foreign nation on your vessel when you enter and operate on its waters. There are only a limited number of positions from which flags may be displayed, and consequently when a flag of another nation is flown, it usually must displace one of the flags commonly displayed in home waters.  The courtesy flag is not hoisted until customs clearance has been completed, the vessel has been granted pratique or clearance given an incoming ship by the health authority of a port, and the yellow "Q" for quarantine flag has been removed.

The following are general guidelines to follow regarding courtesy flags:

  • On a mastless powerboat, the courtesy flag of another nation replaces any flag that is normally flown at the bow of the boat.
  • When a motorboat has a mast with spreaders, the courtesy flag is flown at the starboard spreader.
  • On a two-masted motorboat, the courtesy flag displaces any flag normally flown at the forward starboard spreader.
  • On a sailboat, the courtesy flag is flown at the boat's starboard spreader, whether the United States Ensign is at the stern staff, or flown from the leech. If there is more than one mast, the courtesy flag is flown from the starboard spreader of the forward mast.

Although these points serve as protocol in most waters, keep in mind that customs observed in various foreign waters differ from one another; in case of doubt, inquire locally or observe other craft from your country. U.S. vessels while in international or foreign waters must fly the U.S. Ensign (50-star flag) at the stern or gaff or leech, rather than the USPS ensign or the U.S. Yacht Ensign (fouled anchor circled by stars). When the starboard spreader is used for the "courtesy ensign" of the foreign country, the USPS ensign or similar flag may be flown from the port spreader; if the vessel has multiple flag halyards on the starboard spreader, the USPS ensign is flown there, inboard from the courtesy ensign. The U.S. Ensign, club burgee, officer flag, and private signal are flown as in home waters. Don't fly a foreign courtesy ensign after you have returned to U.S. waters. Although this may show that you've "been there," it is not proper flag etiquette.

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