Breaking the rules of yachting etiquette

Published on July 30th, 2019

by Craig Leweck, Scuttlebutt
While I did not find it in the Racing Rules of Sailing, there seems to be a general consensus that I have been guilty of perhaps an even greater infringement. You see, when we race our Alerion 28, we display an ensign off a stern staff, and I never knew that was against yachting etiquette.

I knew how the flag display was only from 0800 until sunset, and that its length should be one inch for every one foot of boat length. I knew I had the option of ether the usual 50-star national flag or a special flag called the yacht ensign that, in place of the 50 stars standing for the states, depicts a fouled anchor on a field of 13 stars.

However, I did not know that whenever a US boat is taken into international or foreign waters, the 50-star U.S. ensign is the proper flag to fly and the yacht ensign cannot be displayed.

I also did not know we had New York Yacht Club to thank for the second flag. It turns out that prior to the enactment of income tax laws in the early twentieth century, the US federal government obtained most of its operating funds from the collection of tariffs and customs duties levied on foreign goods entering American harbors.

All vessels were subject to inspection, including private yachts, and as the popularity of yachting increased, the burden of customs inspections became tiresome and unnecessary.

In 1847, NYYC Commodore Stevens proposed to the Secretary of the Treasury that private yachts not engaged in trade or commerce be exempt from inspection. The Secretary, fully aware of the manpower required to inspect each and every yacht entering a port, agreed to propose legislation that would allow the Treasury Department to license yachts and let such yachts carry a signal of the form, size and colors prescribed by the Secretary of the Navy.

At the Secretary of the Navy’s request, the New York Yacht Club recommended in January 1849, “The American Ensign with the addition of a foul anchor in the union be adopted….” Thus, the American yacht ensign was created, and it is still used today.

But most of all, I did not know how any ensign should not be displayed while the boat is racing. I did not find a definitive reason for this, other than perhaps to differentiate racers from daysailors. Regardless, I hold myself to a higher standard (when possible) and will seek to do better. Onward!

MORE: To get further into the weeds, John Standley offers this document, Yachting Flag Lore.

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