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Flying ensigns from gaffs

Last modified: 2017-11-28 by rob raeside
Keywords: gaff |
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Flying flags from a gaff

Florence, Alabama has just built a new marina with a signal mast including a gaff. This structure is treated as if it were the signal mast of a ship, and the national ensign (the Stars and Stripes, in this case) flies at the gaff peak, which is the position of honor. The masthead and yardarms are suitable for club flags and personal flags, or I suppose state and municipal flags.
John Ayer, 08 July 1999


It is undoubtedly common practice among yacht clubs to fly the national ensign at the gaff (the diagonal member that projects aft from the crosstree on a mast) with the club burgee at the peak of the mast. But the authority for it is not clear, at least to me. The only parallel I know of that has official sanction is that when United States Navy and United States Coast Guard ships display the ensign while under way, they fly it at the gaff. The commission pennant, command pennant, or flag officer's flag flies at the peak of the same mast. There are two problems with applying this precedent to marinas and yacht clubs, however: (1) the law gives the President authority to modify the flag display rules in the case of the armed forces, and Navy/Coast Guard regulations fall under that authority; and (2) marinas and yacht clubs, being landbound, can't get under way.

If one could show that the USN/USCG fly the ensign at the gaff on gaff-rigged masts at shore facilities, that would answer objection 2, but not objection 1. I've been to a number of US naval installations and don't know that I've ever seen a mast rigged with a gaff at one of them. The arrangement I see most often is a mast with crosstree, with the ensign displayed at the peak, the commanders personal flag, if any, at the starboard yardarm, and any award pennants at the port yardarm.
Joseph McMillan, 09 July 1999


I am not expert in this field, but have picked up enough scraps of information to explain this point, I think. Anyone who can improve it, please do.

The stern is the position of command in a boat; even a canoe is steered from the stern. As boats get bigger and acquire more steering gear, like sweeps or a rudder, this ennobling of the stern becomes more pronounced. In the sailing navies of which I have any knowledge, officers' quarters were aft, and in the U.S. Navy the enlisted men were forbidden to venture aft. A medieval nobleman took his banner aboard his ship, and often had it fixed to the stern rail while he remained aboard. As warfare was nationalized, the king's ensign replaced the nobleman's banner, and the English ensign staff was fixed to the stern rail.

Northern European ships seem to have been, in the early days, square-rigged: the masts carried horizontal yards from which were suspended rectangular sails. In Mediterranean waters lateen rigs were common: the mast carried a slanted yard from which hung a triangular sail:

[Flag gaff example 1 - lanteen rigs]

About five hundred years ago the lateen rig seems to have lost considerable ground to the square rig, I suppose because square sails could catch so much more wind. When Columbus had his little ships fitted up for a long voyage across the Atlantic he had the remaining lateen yards changed to square yards, as I recall. However, it seems something was lost: a lateen sail, exerting more pressure on one side of the mast, is useful in turning a ship. For this reason mariners decided to save the higher end of the lateen yard on the mizzen (aftermost) mast, making it the spar that we now call the gaff:

[Gaff example 2]

From this they hung a sail known in English as the spanker. It was rather narrow. When they wanted to exert more torque they extended the spanker with a triangular sail, called the driver. It was attached to the gaff peak, and extended at its base by a swinging boom:

[Gaff with driver]

This combination turned out to be so useful that the two sails were sewn together to form a single sail that was known indifferently by the names of both its parents, and the boom became a permanent part of the rigging. Now we get back to flags. The boom is so long that it sweeps across the stern rail every time the ship tacks, so the ensign staff had to be removed when the ship got under way. Where to put the ensign? The captain and other officers were still aft, and the nearest position from which they found it practical to fly the ensign turned out to be the gaff peak. When a ship was moored the ensign staff could be set up again, and was. This was the practice in the eighteenth century, when the U.S. Navy was created, and now that warships are of steel and the signal mast no longer carries a boom, our navy still flies the ensign at the gaff peak when under way, at the ensign staff when motionless. I understand that the British navy, which has an institutional memory going back to the late middle ages, has reverted to the earlier practice, and now flies its ensign at the ensign staff only.

When a yacht club has a flagpole on the landward side of its clubhouse, it flies its national flag (land flag, where the question arises) at the top and any others underneath it in order of rank. If it has a signal mast on the seaward side, it is treated as if it were a signal mast on a ship, and the ensign flies at the gaff peak if there is a gaff, otherwise at the masthead. The British navy, according to what I have read, flies the white ensign at its shore facilities, even though they never get under way.
John Ayer, 09 July 1999


To quote from the 1951 Admiralty Manual of Seamanship;

All H.M. ships in commission wear the White Ensign. It is worn at the ensign staff when in harbour; it is also worn at the ensign staff at sea whenever possible, but in bad weather, or when cleared for action, or during war, it is worn at the peak of the gaff on the mainmast, or on a suitable staff mounted in the after part of the ship.

I think that nothing has changed since then, except that the Navy now consists mainly of small ships, in which, when at sea, it is usually more practical to fly the ensign from a mast rather than the ensign staff, particularly since many operate helicopters over the stern.

The White Ensign is flown at the peak of all Royal Navy/Royal Marines shore establishments, commanded by a commissioned officer, regardless of distance from the sea. There used to be a Naval Air Station near Nottingham, almost as far from the sea as you can get in Britain, but it was called HMS.Gamecock and flew the White Ensign. I can't remember if a commissioning pennant is flown at the masthead of shore establishments; I think not. Ships go in and out of commission, depending upon their readiness for operational use, and fly a pennant only when in commission, but I think that shore stations were not "commissioned" as such. If an admiral is based at, or visits, a shore station, his flag is flown from the masthead.

Royal Navy medical establishments probably flew (I'm not sure if it is still the case) the Union Flag instead of the White Ensign because of the Geneva Convention. In wartime the Union Flag was moved from the peak to the masthead and a "Geneva Flag" (Red Cross Flag) was flown from the peak.

There used to be (perhaps still is) an unusual practice in connection with flying an ensign on a yacht with a Bermudan rig. This is the type which looks like a child's drawing of a yacht, with the mainsail a right-angled triangle, the hypotenuse rising from the outer end of a boom near deck level, to a point at the top of the mast; no yards or gaffs from which to fly a flag. In accordance with the principle that, if the ensign could not be flown from an ensign staff on the stern rail it should be worn in a position as near to that as possible, the recommended practice was to attach the ensign two thirds of the way up the leech (rear edge) of the after sail. Presumably it was necessary to incorporate a couple of clips into the edge of the sail and attach the ensign as the sail was raised. It didn't work very well as the ensign tended to curl behind the lee of the sail and not fly out.
David Prothero, 14 July 1999


Thanks to D. Prothero's clarification of the terminology of masts, I've read the US Navy regulations on display of the ensign more carefully. They may (with some skillful presentation) serve to help the marina in Florence, Alabama, overturn the mayor's objection to displaying the US flag at the gaff of its new flag-mast.

Navy Regulations, Article 1206. Morning and Evening Colors.
Para. 1.
The ceremonial hoisting and lowering of the national ensign at 0800 and sunset at a naval command ashore or aboard a ship of the Navy not under way shall be known as morning and evening colors, respectively, and shall be carried out as prescribed in this article.

Para 4. At morning colors, the ensign shall be started up at the beginning of the music and hoisted smartly to the peak or truck [i.e., masthead] . . .

Navy Regulations, Article 1259. Display of National Ensign, Union Jack and Distinctive Mark from Ships and Craft.
Para 3.
When not underway, the national ensign and the union jack shall be displayed from 0800 until sunset from the flagstaff and the jack staff, respectively.

As D. Prothero notes, the "peak" is the upper end of the gaff. Since Art. 1206 applies only to shore stations and ships not underway, and Art. 1259 makes clear that a ship not underway displays the ensign from the flagstaff, not the gaff, the reference to hoisting the ensign to the "peak" in Art. 1206 can refer only to shore stations. Therefore, it is permissible to fly the ensign at the gaff when ashore. QED. Just for good measure, it's worth noting that the same provision appears in paragraph 16-3 of the Marine Corps Drill Manual: "The ensign is flown from the peak or truck of the mast." Since the USMC has no ships of its own, this too can apply only to a facility ashore.
Joseph McMillan, 14 July 1999


In the (United States) Navy Technical Paper 13 Flags, Pennants and Customs Issued by the Naval Telecommunications Command Wash. D.C. One my find the following:

ANNEX F
MISCELLANEOUS CUSTOMS AND PRACTICES

...01.0F.0130
DISPLAY OF THE U.S. NATIONAL ENSIGN FROM VARIOUS TYPE MAST

Proper display of the national ensign from various type masts are listed below:

Pole Mast: At the peak unless at half mast when it shall be displayed three-fourths of the way to the peak. Pole Mast with a Crosstree or Crossarm: At the peak of the pole. When displayed with foreign national ensigns or flags, it shall be displayed from the outermost halyard of the right hand side of the Crosstree. When displayed at half-mast, it shall be displayed with the top of the ensign even wit h the Crosstree or Crossarm.

Pole Mast with a Crosstree or Crossarm and Gaff: This type of mast is known as "Yacht Club Mast". Displayed from the gaff*. When displayed with other foreign ensigns or flags, it shall be displayed the same as with a Pole Mast with a Crosstree or Crossarm.

James J. Ferrigan III, 15 July 1999

We intend to construct a flag mast at our yacht club. could you be so kind as to answer some questions please. what is the distance between the truck and the yardarm? what is the distance between the truck and the gaff? what is the distance between the gaff and the yardarm? how many halyards are on the yardarm? which way does the gaff point, towards the clubhouse or towards the water? does the club's burgee fly at the truck and the country's flag at the gaff? where do the visiting club's burgees fly? on what halyards do the signal flags fly for a race in progress?
Barry Turner, 20 November 1999


I contacted Mr. Peter Edwards, president of the Burgee Data Archives, in Canada, and he gave me the following answer:

A "full mast" includes mainmast (in two parts), topmast, gaff, and upper and lower yardarms.

However, the upper yardarm may be omitted.

Assuming the total height of the flag mast is 16 units, then upper portion will be 7 units, and the lower portion 10 units, and the overlap will be one unit.

In answer to your specific questions:

  1. distance truck to yardarm - 7 units
  2. distance truck to gaff - 8 units
  3. distance gaff to yardarm - 1.5 units (gaff below yardarm)
  4. four halyards on the yardarm (and two on the upper yardarm if there is one)
  5. assuming the mast is in front of the clubhouse, then the gaff will point towards the clubhouse. The clubhouse is considered a ship proceeding at sea (the front of the house considered the bow of a ship) and the ensign, on the gaff, will therefore be towards the stern
  6. the burgee is at the truck
  7. the ensign (usually the country's maritime flag) at the gaff
  8. visitor's burgee on starboard halyard (only one flag per halyard except for signal flags)
  9. signal flags: it's your decision, provided there are no other flags on the yardarm halyards.

Jose C. Alegria, 28 November, 1999


The position of honour is the starboard yardarm - so the left hand arm when facing the mast - and the Union Flag (as our national flag) should fly from it. My suggestion for the other two is that the club flag (or burgee if you are a boating club) should fly from the port yardarm and the sponsor's flag from the peak of the main mast. This is assuming, of course, that the flag mast doesn't have a gaff fitted, because in which case the position of honour is the peak of the gaff (although an ensign (in the case of Britain either a White or Red ensign defaced with a club badge if appropriate) is, I would suggest, the better national flag to fly.
Christopher Southworth, 1 June 2007


Different ships, different cap tallies it seems. Should you come to the Republic of South Africa, you will find that the place of honour is designated to be the truck of the mast on the rule that the national flag must always fly higher than any other on the same mast and thus at the truck - the highest point of the mast. This has something to do with the Naval practice of flying the jack (also in our case the national flag) at the truck of the mast of a training establishment while the Naval ensign is then flown from the starboard outer halyard on the yard. If there is a gaff rigged, the Naval ensign, and thus also a Club ensign or burgee, would then be flown from the peak of the gaff ,and the flag of any commodore or flag officer present (and thus also the Club Commodore's pennant) from the starboard outer.
Andries Burgers, 1 June 2007


In the US, the Navy flag directive says the national flag goes at the truck of a mast with a crosstree and no gaff, and at the gaff of a mast equipped with one. This is also the practice prescribed by the New York Yacht Club Yacht Routine (binding only on the NYYC, but also used by many other clubs) and Chapman's Piloting (a boating manual).

However, just as Andries describes for the Republic of South Africa, the public sense that flying the Stars and Stripes at other than the highest point is disrespectful leads many yacht clubs and private individuals to fly the Stars and Stripes at the truck regardless of the mast configuration.

Of course, since we in the US don't use our jack as a national flag (or even fly it ashore at all), the situation is not exactly parallel to that in the UK or South Africa.
Joe McMillan, 2 June 2007


In the UK most (but not all) of the flag poles equipped with yards are located at yacht clubs or similar, and thus fly the appropriate ensign rather than the Union Flag itself. The protocol not withstanding (which is almost certainly based on the practices pf the Victorian sailing navy), if Garry's club (of whatever sort) is going to fly the Union Flag to do so at the truck of the mast would certainly look more appropriate to most observers (even if strictly incorrect).

Wherever else a club flies its Union Flag however, let it not be from the port yardarm which would be something of an insult (even if unintended).
Christopher Southworth, 2 June 2007


Flying multiple flags from gaffs

Flags, Pennants & Customs reads:

Section 01.0F.0130

DISPLAY OF THE US ENSIGN FROM VARIOUS TYPE MASTS

Proper display of the national ensign from various type masts are listed below:

...

Pole Mast with a Gaff: Displayed from the peak of the Gaff. While displayed with other foreign ensigns or flags, at the same level and to the right. Displayed at half-mast, it shall be half way between the top and bottom of the gaff.


James Ferrigan, 31 October 2000


[Multiple flag gaff example] image by Jose C. Alegria

In the example, where the club is in Canada, and the visiting country is USA. So, we have Club´s burgee at the peak, local National ensign at the right, visiting country´s ensign at the left, and signal flags (if necessary) from the gaff, at a lower height than the national ensigns.
Jose C. Alegria, 31 October 2000

Naval flagpoles or flag masts have multiple trucks (pulleys) at each point of hoist to allow the hoisting and lowering of different sets of flags simultaneously. US Navy regulations provide in several bases for flying more than one flag at the same point of hoist simultaneously.

[By the way, the current edition of the instruction cited by James Ferrigan is NTP 13(B), but the provisions on where to fly the ensign have not changed from 13(A).]

This is also accomplished by using the (at least) two halyards and trucks with which each point of hoist on a naval flagpole/flag mast is equipped. The two flags fly side by side at the same point of hoist but on separate halyards.

It's not a very attractive arrangement, that's true, but in practice it is seldom used anyway. Few US Navy shore stations have flagpoles with gaffs, and fewer still the gaff without crosstrees. The most common design--in fact the only one I've ever seen in visiting a fairly substantial number of naval facilities--is the pole with crosstrees and no gaff.
Joe McMillan, 1 November 2000; 2 November 2000

Flying two flags from the gaff is after all just a solution for the rare event when two national ensigns have to be flown. In most stations where this would be common, there would be two or three conventional flagpoles with nil gaff and nil crosstrees.
Andrew Yong, 03 November 2000

The question of where to fly the ensign on a gaff-rigged flagpole ashore seems to be an immortal cause celebre between yachtsmen and those concerned for the honor of the flag. The usual issue is less whether the ensign can be flown at the gaff as whether another flag (club burgee) can be at the masthead (truck, or top of the pole) when the ensign is at the gaff. Opponents of the practice cite the Flag Code, which provides that no flag should be flown "above" the US flag, except the church pennant during worship services aboard warships.

The basic problem is that the Flag Code was originally intended to be a codification of the best existing practices for flag display, but that its compilers evidently included no mariners or yachtsmen. So the code does not address the conventions for display from a gaff-rigged pole (or for display afloat, for that matter) and therefore does not note that the gaff in such an arrangement is in fact the most honorable point of hoist. So you end up with marinas and yacht clubs being coerced into putting the ensign at the masthead and some other flag at the gaff--which is, of course, an insult to the national flag that any sailor would immediately recognize--or leaving the gaff permanently bare. I saw the latter arrangement at Washington's Capital Yacht Club this very morning; they have installed a separate pole for their burgee.

If I were advising a yacht club that was about to install a mast, I'd tell them to get the kind with crosstrees but no gaff. It is still nautical, but the right place to put the ensign on that arrangement is at the truck and so everyone is happy.

Anyway, the US Navy's flag directive, Naval Telecommunications Publication (NTP) 13(B) _does_ address this matter, and does stipulate that on a gaff-rigged flag mast ashore the ensign is flown at the gaff. Unfortunately, those who object to the practice will also point out that military usage is explicitly not covered by the Flag Code, but civilian usage is, and so argue that one cannot rely on naval practice for support.

For what it's worth, the New York Yacht Club, which has historically held quasi-official status as the arbiter of these questions, flies the ensign at the gaff at its club at Newport, Rhode Island. And is regularly flayed for showing disrespect to the national colors.
Joseph McMillan, 22 August 2001

While at the Coast Guard building today, I stopped at the historian's office and was allowed to go through the files on Coast Guard flags. One of the items in there was a copy of a letter from the Coast Guard congressional affairs staff to Representative Andy Ireland dated 12 December 1986. A Veterans of Foreign Wars post in Ireland's district had written to complain that a marina in the area was violating the Flag Code by flying the Florida state flag at the top of its flagpole and the US flag at the gaff--i.e..., that the state flag was flying above the national flag. After noting that the Coast Guard had nothing to do with interpreting or enforcing the Flag Code, here is what the Coast Guard had to say:

"Following the naval tradition, accepted civilian nautical practice appears to be that when a marina or yacht club has a flag pole with a gaff, the national ensign is flown from the gaff and other flags, such as the yacht club burgee, club officer's flag, or a state flag, are flown from the peak."

[As David Prothero once pointed out, use of "peak" for the top of the pole is a solecism; the peak is actually the upper end of the gaff. The correct nautical term for the top of the pole would be truck or masthead.]

After citing Chapman's Piloting the letter goes on to say:

"The manner in which the Hirsh Marina is flying their flag is in good taste. It is in consonance with accepted naval traditions and does not bring discredit on our country or our national ensign."
Joe McMillan, 23 August 2001

This flag arrangement (illustrated above) has never been used by the Royal Canadian Yacht Club. The Canadian Flag (Ensign) has always been at the gaff peak, except prior to 1965 when the club's Special Ensign (Blue Ensign defaced with a crown) was flown. The club never flies more than one flag per halyard except signal flags.
   The club's Burgee is always flown on a pig-stick at the truck, except when the club is hosting royalty, the governor general. or a provincial lieutenant governor, in which case the Burgee is replaced with their Standard.
   "It is important to note that the following flags [including these Standards] take precedence over the National Flag . . ."
https://www.canada.ca/en/canadian-heritage/services/flag-canada-etiquette/position-honour.html
   Although the truck is the second senior position it is physically higher than the gaff peak.
Peter Edwards, 9 September 2017


 
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