The Offshore Voyaging Reference Site

Q&A: Which Ensign?

Question: I liked the beautiful twilight photo of your boat in Hare Bay, Newfoundland in this month’s Cruising World, and I showed it to a friend who’s been reading a manual on marine flag etiquette. He asked me what flag you’re flying on the backstay…and if the boat is an American registered boat from the US east coast, why the flag looks like a British naval ensign instead of an American flag.

I suggested maybe the boat is registered in Bermuda and so the flag on the backstay is a Bermuda ensign. He bet me a beer…could you help us by explaining the flag?

Answer: Looks like you win a beer! We are from Bermuda, one of the last of the British Crown Colonies, and the flag is a ‘defaced red ensign’. A plain red ensign is flown by British merchant navy ships. The ensign we fly is the flag of Bermuda, which is a red ensign defaced with the Bermuda coat of arms on the fly.

I wish I could tell you that the flag was hauled down immediately after the photo was taken, but to be honest Phyllis and are not really very good at the whole flag etiquette thing. The exception is that we are always careful to fly the flag of a country we are visiting (courtesy flag) at the starboard spreader, figuring that it is the least we can do as guests in the country.

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Earl de Blonville FRGS

If it is the Bermudian merchant marine red ensign you fly, it is not ‘defaced’, but a standard marine ensign. Properly, it should be flown from an ensign jack, ideally overhanging the stern, and not from a topping lift or outer lazy jack or similar if your vessel is bermudan rigged. A gaff rigged vessel is different, but that’s not relevant here.

‘Defaced’ refers to an ensign authorised by royal warrant for use by a Royal yacht club, meaning the red Merchant Marine ensign has the yacht club’s symbol placed in the blank red field. In the case of Royal Naval yacht clubs, the club symbol is placed in the white field. But this is rare.

A good example of a proper ‘defaced’ ensign is my old club (the second-oldest Royal yacht club in the UK) – the Royal Dart Yacht Club, based in Kingswear, opposite Dartmouth Town and just downstream from Britannia Royal Naval College. The red field is defaced with a gold crown and a jagged arrow motif sewn on. Oddly, the arrow, or dart, is pointed at the crown, not away from it, and looks slightly menacing, even anti-royal. No doubt there is some intriguing reason for this, now lost in the mists of time.

Hope this helps.



Why Bermuda? Tax Evasion?

Marc Dacey

John, if you’ve ever dealt with potential bureaucratic stickiness concerning a boat registered in one country while you yourself carry one, two or more passports, that would make an interesting topic.

I have dual Canadian and British citizenship, but the boat’s Canadian-registered. This has potential VAT and “linger more than 180 days” implications, but only if I start using the British passport…which if I get it renewed would be an EU passport.

I assume you may have some similar situation. A surprising number of cruisers do, in my experience.

George L

it is not the passport that matters here but the country of residence.