Yacht Club Flag Etiquette—Time To Get Over Ourselves


Over the years I have belonged to several “prestigious” yacht clubs and I still belong to a couple. Nothing particularly meritorious in this. When you grow up around an old and established yacht club junior sailing program and then race a bunch, both inshore and offshore, these memberships come your way as long as you have put in the required miles and have the required experience.

And, although I’m not really much of a joiner, and, as the years go by, tend to prefer small gatherings around meals more than the larger cocktail parties that clubs seem to thrive on, I do still value my membership in the two clubs remaining.

But, having said that, there is an aspect of these clubs that is really starting to annoy me. And, as regular readers know, I’m not one to suffer in silence, so here goes. The subject of today’s rant is burgee etiquette.

You see, both clubs would prefer members to fly the burgee at the top of the mast on one of those totally impractical devices that are generally referred to as “pig sticks”. And the senior (in age) of the two clubs is…well…just plain rabid about this.

To the point that one of the first interactions a friend of mine had with another member after joining was being read off publicly on VHF radio for having the nerve to fly the revered bunting at the port spreader, as has become common practice among less snooty clubs.

Luckily, said friend is a far nicer person than I am, and so quietly complied rather than telling the officious jerk to shove his pig stick you know where, as I would have.

I mean really, in this age of paraphernalia covered mastheads, flying the burgee at the top of the mast on a stick that must be run up on a halyard is about as practical as mandating that every member should, upon election, re-rig his or her boat with a gaff.

On our own boat the mast is crowded with:

  • an obscenely expensive wind sensor;
  • a Hawk wind indicator;
  • a horrendously expensive LED array tri/anchor light;
  • a VHF antenna;
  • and last, but probably most important, a lightning rod.

Pray tell, how the hell am I supposed to fly a burgee in amongst all of that stuff, much of which is not only expensive but fragile and just waiting to get broken by an errant pig stick. And even if I could, I value my sleep too much to haul something up there that is inevitably going to tap against the mast all night.

Yes, I know, there are ways to get around all this. In fact, in a moment of uncharacteristic conformism I even spent a silly amount of money building a sort of sheppard’s crook device to get the burgee away from the other stuff—you can see it in the opening photo.

But this spring, when I was putting the mast back together, I looked at said device that takes a 15 minute epic struggle in a bosun’s chair to take off prior to unstepping and the same to reinstall after stepping (it will get in the way of the crane) and rebelled.

Screw it, if I can’t fly the burgee at the port spreader, like any sane sailor of the 21st century, then I won’t fly it at all.

Now all of that may seem like much ado about nothing from a curmudgeonly old bastard, but actually, I think there’s a larger point here: Both clubs are constantly bemoaning the difficulty of attracting younger members. There might be a clue to the root of that problem in the flag thing.

The next time you see a cruising boat with people under 40 on it, take a look at the port spreader. In many (maybe most) cases you will see not just one but several club burgees there and maybe a couple of state or province flags as well. Kind of like social media. Flag-Facebook if you like.

And really, isn’t that what yacht clubs are really about? A way to meet and spend time with nice people that share our interests?

Wait, let’s think a little more. Is this burgee thing the only place where our clubs project an out of touch from the last century vibe?

Want young members? Might be time to think about a lot of stuff: Do we really need to wear pink pants, blazers and club ties? Time to look at the dress code too, I would suggest.

And as for those captain’s hats that the flag officers of some clubs are wont to sport…wait John, don’t go there—one thing at a time.

Let’s at least make a start at becoming more approachable and relevant by getting rid of the burgee at the top of the mast rule and just be grateful and welcoming when qualified—both clubs have qualification criteria that I would not dream of diluting—sailors want to join us and show our flag, no matter where they fly it.

By the way, the Commodore of the junior (in age) of the two clubs I’m still a member of said pretty much the same thing as the last paragraph in a recent letter to the membership—good on him, I say.

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Meet the Author


John was born and brought up in Bermuda and started sailing as a child, racing locally and offshore before turning to cruising. He has sailed over 100,000 miles, most of it on his McCurdy & Rhodes 56, Morgan's Cloud, including eight ocean races to Bermuda, culminating in winning his class twice in the Newport Bermuda Race. He has skippered a series of voyages in the North Atlantic, the majority of which have been to the high latitudes. John has been helping others go voyaging by sharing his experience for twenty years, first in yachting magazines and, for the last 12 years, as co-editor/publisher of AAC.

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28 comments … add one
  • Westbrook Aug 11, 2015, 11:37 am

    Those of us who sail Freedoms don’t even have a spreader. Not having a good place to fly a burgee, I instead fly the battle flag of the nuclear carrier Harry S Truman (CVN 75). Sending photo via email.

  • Terje M Aug 11, 2015, 12:10 pm

    Yes – I am a member of couple yacht clubs and a couple of sailing associations. Flying their burgee and where to fly it, is something else.
    Burgee etiquette brings you quickly into flag etiquette. A mind field in some part of the world.

    From my yacht master theory, I remember that courtesy flag, and the Q flag must be flown on the starboard side under the speeders. The port side is for your bungee and other private flags. This keeps it simple. I would not keep flags anywhere else – except for the ensign that got its teak pool at the stern.

    Keep your burgee flag under port spreader – period. I keep my RORC flag under the port spreader. Normally, I know the director of wind by heart. A quick look at the bungee quickly tells me direction and an indication of strength of the wind. To help me with the wind direction I only need one bungee.

    Your snob, you might be thinking. An RORC member over 50!

  • ChrisW Aug 11, 2015, 12:56 pm

    We have had several club burgees. We have a private signal. We have a house flag. We have found they make an annoying racket from either the pig stick whacking the mast or the halyard doing a rumba to the wind’s tempo. In forty years of cruising, one person has approached our boat (socially) because of a pennant in the wind.

    We found the best solution is to not fly any of them except the national ensign and a courtesy ensign — if required. One less thing to get down in a blow.

  • Dick Stevenson Aug 11, 2015, 1:13 pm

    Dear John,
    First of all, suffering in silence is vastly over-rated.
    I very much second all you said.
    Archaic and tradition bound practices have their place in the world, especially when their function is connecting us with our heritage through ritual, but when they undermine function (flags as communication devices) by not having members fly their flags and potentially do masthead damage, common sense should prevail.
    Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy

  • Eugene Carlson Aug 12, 2015, 5:07 am

    Call me whatever, but as a Yank, I’ve enjoyed belonging to two yacht clubs with a Royal prefix. I must say that the burgee of each one looked splendid flying from the masthead. Moreover, I always felt I was paying proper homage when I, a nonresident, sailed in and moored with the burgee flying in the proper spot. Especially when hardly any local members of “my” clubs followed tradition.

    I managed this with a pig stick fashioned from the tip of a carbon fiber fishing rod. It had a dedicated halyard, and was long enough, barely, to clear the antenna array. It was a bear to set this. It had to be done in little or no wind and typically took a half dozen tries before pig stick and burgee poked through the masthead gear and flapped, triumphantly, above it all.

    You’ll notice this is written in past tense. Last year, one of said handsome burgees, slightly frayed from months aloft, had a thread become tangled around an antenna. No amount of gentle pulling from various angles would dislodge it. After many tries, the attachment with the pigstick gave way and the burgee was left dangling from the antenna, no better than a piece of red rag. Shocking! Out came the bosun’s chair. Amazing how long it took to cut it away.

    I think now, that each burgee will look fine tucked beneath the port spreader. If you’re OK, I’m OK.

  • John Aug 12, 2015, 7:54 am

    Hi All,

    Well that’s interesting. I expected to get a lot more push back. Given that (so far) I have not, it really does seem as if this is an idea that’s time has come.

    Thanks to all for the input.

    Please keep it coming, the more we opinions we get, both for and against, the better.

  • Pete Worrell Aug 12, 2015, 8:00 am

    Morning John & Phyllis:
    You know we are not “joiners” either, but in this case, we have to respectfully disagree. Re-visit the book NOWHERE IS TOO FAR and tell us those adventurers and their stories aren’t inspiring? Observing proper burgee etiquette is simply a way of connecting us to a few of the powerful traditions of the past (and the achievements of past members). We do not care for officious rule enforcement…but it’s nice to see it done right. Anchor properly? Stow your lines properly? Sail off your mooring with a flourish? Then you’d probably enjoy investing in flying your burgee properly and not like some vehicle that looks agricultural .
    Now. Want to talk about supercilious Yachties? Let’s discuss those overfed overgrown adolescents with a drink in their hand firing off those @#$ cannons at sunset?! ?


    Pete & Kareen Worrell
    Portsmouth, NH USA

    • John Aug 12, 2015, 6:10 pm

      Hi Pete,

      I totally agree that if someone wishes to fly the burgee from the top of the mast they should be allowed to do so, and even applauded for their efforts.

      But, on the other hand, mandating that difficult and out of date position for the burgee in the written club rules, as some clubs still do, and worse still berating a new member for non-compliance is simply silly in my view.

      By the way, I’m totally with you on the cannons…might make me jump and spill my sundowner.

  • Ian Aug 12, 2015, 8:05 am

    What about an AAC burgee to join the collection?

  • Brian Aug 12, 2015, 10:42 am

    Crossed that bridge a decade ago. I just don’t fly anything unless I’m in foreign waters. Sailing to me is is about freedom. The prestigious yacht clubs are about status, snobbery, and exclusivity. The prime rib is great, but the social complications are mind numbing. A) the snobs are soul-sapping and B) if the vessel hasn’t marked you as Mr. Deep Pockets, the burgee surely will.

  • Marc Dacey Aug 12, 2015, 11:48 am

    What a coincidence…yesterday, I saw an Alberg 30 with a wooden mast hoisting a club pennant (long and skinny compared to our YC’s isosceles triangle-shaped spreader burger) on a pigstick. Of course, it looked great, because there was NOTHING (no VHF, not even a Windex or a light) up there. In such cases, it does create a festive effect, and you can even hoist it in moderate breezes. But for a modern vessel requiring trilights, anchor lights, weather equipment, wind indicator equipment and one or more antennas, dissapators, and maybe a strobe? Forget it.

  • Bill Balme Aug 12, 2015, 12:56 pm

    I organized a 2 week OCC rally this year in Southern New England and for the occasion I decided to rig a pig stick. I also bought myself a slightly bigger burgee – wanted to make a splash with the 18 attending boats!

    While I thought about making my own stick, I found a local guy that actually sold them – so I went for it – $75. The new burgee arrived shortly after – $38 and with the new halyard $65, I was ready to go – since fortunately there was already a suitable block in place at the top of the mast.

    I have to say, when rigged, she looked great! I do think that the effect of a good looking burgee at the top of the mast is great – really dresses the boat nicely!

    Being a nice long pig stick (to clear all the masthead paraphernalia), I found that I had to keep massive tension on the halyard to ensure it kept everything vertical. We now had a slapping halyard to tie back at night! However, the stick itself would tap tap away against the mast and since the mast comes right into our berth, it was, to say the least, rather annoying. Still we persevered…

    The windex was the first casualty. She got entangled and lost an arm. No big deal – the arm was never set right anyway. When we unstep this winter, we’ll put a new one up there ($47).

    The VHF was the next casualty and the last straw… I noticed the antenna off to a 45 degree angle one day – the following day it was altogether gone.

    So, having suffered through 2 weeks cruising with a splendid burgee atop the mast the Admiral called it! We brought the pig stick down and replaced the VHF antenna ($65).

    I think you’ll agree, $290 is enough of an effort made to justify flying the flag from it’s rightful spot – the spreader!

    (Anyone interested in a lightly used pig-stick, please let me know!)

    • John Aug 12, 2015, 6:14 pm

      Hi Bill,

      Yikes, what a story…well told too!

      But having said that, you are only a silver medal winner in the most-money-to-fly-burgee-competition. I claim the gold medal for what I spent on the damned shepherd’s crook in the picture.

      Maybe we could make someone a bundled offer: pig-stick and shepherd’s crook.

  • John Pedersen Aug 12, 2015, 4:02 pm

    I’m with Brian. Flags are almost as useless as neckties. I never fly one, unless I really have to – a Q flag, or the UK flag in foreign waters only, and even then, only if I’m persuaded to.

  • Dick Stevenson Aug 12, 2015, 5:01 pm

    Hi all,
    Just to be clear: from my perspective flags are just communication devices. As such they can convey the range of information that any communication is capable. Some communication is required: courtesy flags, quarantine flags and ensigns when in foreign waters. Flying burgees are (generally) just a social invitation and I have met some wonderful people and had some great opportunities with people who recognize a flown burgee and approached Alchemy.
    But like all communication, it can be encumbered with dis-agreeable meaning and trappings.
    My best, Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy

  • Chris Aug 12, 2015, 5:24 pm

    If a club of old men in silly suits wants to alienate young sailors and slowly die off, then that works for me. I wouldn’t dream of joining a club that would insist on a pig stick or a dress code.

    The problem to me is that they then tarnish all of sailing with this elitist image and drive new sailors away.

    I raced with the Royal Victoria Yacht Club in Canada for years and didn’t have to put up with any of that nonsense. They were a very down to earth and accepting group of people. Sounds like I just got lucky or maybe things are better in the colonies.

    • Marc Dacey Aug 14, 2015, 12:48 pm

      Perhaps it’s Freudian…the old men in silly suits who can’t “fly the burgee” anymore insist on “proper hoisting”?

  • Eugene Carlson Aug 13, 2015, 1:50 am

    John — You wanted more push back. Here you go.
    For the record: I am guilty of being old. I’m decidedly not guilty of being an old man in a silly suit who rues the invention of Fiberglas, thinks it’s been all downhill since the Gilded Age, and feels that no yacht without a club burgee displayed in the proper manner is worthy of hanging on a mooring anywhere near the Clubhouse. In my experience, such fussbudgets are more likely to be seen in a New Yorker cartoon then anyplace I sail.

    I have, until recently (see above), chosen to fly a club burgee from the masthead. I don’t do it out of some sense of entitlement. I don’t feel it marks me as an elitist with deep pockets. One look at me and my beloved but very utilitarian sloop will dispel that thought.

    I do it partly because it looks terrific. More important, I do it because, in a small way, it ties me to tradition. As a youngster, I had endless lessons in the proper way to do things on boats; rules on how to stay safe at sea. They were taught to me by my sailing mentors. I try to pass them on. And yes, something as innocuous as the proper way to display a flag is part of the mix. Without tradition, great and small, the sailing life would be shallow indeed.

    • John Aug 13, 2015, 7:11 am

      Hi Eugene,

      Well argued, and your comment brings up an interesting point: the role of tradition in seamanship.

      I guess my thoughts on that are a bit different: while I agree there is a lot to be learned from the past, I also believe that the best seaman are those that constantly evaluate the ways we have done things in the past in the light of new information, knowledge, and technology.

      In fact I would go so far as to say that paying too much homage to tradition is undesirable. For example we all used wire reel winches for halyards—one of the most dangerous pieces of sailing gear ever invented—for years after they no longer made sense (if they ever did) just because the traditionalist told us that was the right way to do things. Ditto boom roller reefing and CQR anchors.

  • Clive Arnold Aug 13, 2015, 7:53 am

    hello all. I agree a lot with Eugene. I belong to a “royal” club in Australia where there is no rule to fly the burgee from the masthead but I am one of the few who do so ( most choose the starboard spreader here) because I think it looks fantastic. It shares the masthead with tricolour, vhf antenna and TV antenna (sorry about that one) , doesn’t interfere with any of them, is a nuisance to hoist unless the wind is over the starboard bow a bit, (it’s on the port side), doesn’t rattle (much) at night because the halyard is led to the toe rail and in any case we are centre cockpit and sleep aft, and I subscribe to the view that it is up when the owner is on board, day or night.
    I love it.

  • Eugene Carlson Aug 13, 2015, 8:39 am

    Quick last words from me.
    John — Wire halyards weren’t traditional when I learned to sail, which just shows I’ve got some years on you. It was an “improvement” on tradition that eventually hit a dead end, thank the Lord. You’re right about boom roller reefing and CQRs. You could add in-mast reefing to that list.

    I certainly don’t feel like a slave to the past, burgee fetish notwithstanding. I’m glad I learned celestial but it’s been a long time since I’ve taken a sextant out of the box. Boy, do I love my chart plotter. I could go on.

    Let me say, BTW, how grateful I am for AAC. It’s the smartest, most informative forum I know on boating lore, old and new. A wonderful mix of common sense and new ideas. I’ve learned a ton. Thank you.

    Clive — I’ll bet your Royal burgee does look fantastic. It’s worth the effort, isn’t it. Maybe I should try again, with a slightly longer pig stick.

    • John Aug 14, 2015, 7:38 am

      Hi Eugene,

      Older than me? Wow you are old! 🙂

      Thanks for the kind comments on the site, makes it all worth while.

  • Colin Farrar Aug 13, 2015, 10:07 am

    I think a traditional daysailer looks smart with the burgee at the masthead. On our live-aboard cruising boat we (sometimes) fly our burgees at the port spreader: less windage aloft and no rattling halyards.

    In many places we don’t fly burgees. When visiting a country where the average annual income is roughly the price of a new tender, it feels inappropriate to display yacht club memberships.

    • John Aug 14, 2015, 7:39 am

      Hi Colin,

      A very good point on the keeping a low financial profile in many places.

  • John Aug 14, 2015, 7:46 am

    Hi All,

    Thanks for the great comments and civilized discussion.

    I guess the bottom line is that burgee position should be optional, and not mandated, at least if a club wants to make itself more approachable, particularly by younger people.

    On the other hand, I agree with those that say that a burgee at the mast in a pig-stick looks best, and if you can figure out how to do that, well then more power to you—I should have made that more clear in my post.

  • Eric Klem Aug 17, 2015, 2:16 pm

    I agree that people should be able to do whatever they feel is most appropriate. While I don’t have a ton of experience with the issue having never been asked to join a yacht club, I have had a few bad experiences with flags beyond silly stuff like annoying noises. One of my most memorable was having a long name pennant on a pigstick jam in the peak blocks of a 2000ft^2 main that really needed to come down in a building breeze. Climbing out on the peak halyards in a strong breeze to try to free them up is not an experience I will forget anytime soon. One time while racing in light airs, we were sailing alongside another boat who took down all of the flags that they were flying and proceeded to sail away from us. A good pigstick and short flag can do wonders for keeping birds off of your masthead though.

    I have no problem with people who fly flags and actually think that they look great. However, just like wood on deck, you won’t normally find them on our boat. For that matter, when I took down the Q flag after clearing US customs on Friday night, I also took down the American flag which won’t go up again until we are back in foreign waters (hopefully this doesn’t offend anyone).


  • Richard Dykiel Aug 23, 2015, 4:53 am

    to watch people complicate their lives for small returns is an endless wonder to me

  • Duncan Oct 19, 2015, 10:12 am

    I go sailing to get away from that kind of crap! Good on you John for calling it the way it is and to all the old brigade…wake up…it is 2015.

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