Flag Etiquette

Gaff-Rigged Flag Poles

"What is the proper way to fly flags on a gaff-rigged pole?" That is probably the most frequently asked question received by the USPS Flag & Etiquette Committee. Gaff-rigged poles are used by navies, boaters and yacht clubs around the world. Onshore, the "yacht club style flagpole" with a gaff represents the mast of a ship. A gaff-rigged pole may, or may not, have a yardarm or crosstree. A gaff-rigged pole with a yardarm is illustrated on the right flying a yacht club burgee and an officer flag. (Gaff-rigged pole flying USPS flags)

Many people are confused about the proper way to fly the national ensign from a gaff-rigged pole. As depicted in the drawing on the right, the national ensign should be flown from the gaff and the club or organization burgee should be flown at the masthead.

The gaff-rigged pole had its origins at sea. Because of all the sail carried by the rigging of these vessels, the flag of a nation could not be clearly viewed if it was placed at the top of the mast. The stern of the vessel was the position of command and the captain's quarters were located aft. Early boats also had the nobleman's banner, king's banner, or English ensign staff fixed to the stern rail. As sails changed, long booms sweep across the stern rail every time the ship tacked, so the ensign staff had to be removed when the ship was under way. Since the captain and other officers were still aft, the nearest position from which they found it practical to fly the ensign was the gaff. Over time, this became the place of honor to display the national flag. When the ship was moored, the ensign staff was set up again on the stern rail.

This was the practice in the eighteenth century, when the U.S. Navy was created. Now that warships are made of steel and the signal mast no longer carries a boom, our navy still flies the ensign at the gaff peak when under way and at the ensign staff when not underway. There is no law specifying how a flag should fly on a gaff-rigged pole, instead it is based on long standing nautical tradition.

The usual argument given by those that think it is wrong to fly the national ensign from the gaff is that the national ensign is flying below a club burgee or other flag contrary to the Flag Code. Notice that even when the national ensign is flown from the stern of a ship, it is lower in height than other flags flying on the ship. When the ensign is flown from a gaff-rigged pole, a flag flown at the top of the mast is not considered above the ensign because it is not being flown directly above the ensign on the same halyard.

The ensign should be flown from the highest point of honor, and over time, that has become the peak of the gaff. Flying the national ensign from the top of the mast while flying another flag at the gaff would be flying another flag in a position of superior honor since the peak of the gaff is the highest point of honor.

The Palm Coast Yacht Club near St. Augustine, Florida had a continuing battle with a local veterans group which insisted the club was showing disrespect for the flag by flying it at the gaff of the club's flagstaff, a point physically lower than the club's burgee which is flown at the masthead. The matter was settled only after the club obtained a letter from the Secretary of the Navy confirming the fact that in the world of yacht clubs the highest physical point of a flagpole is not necessarily the place of honor.

There are several sources that document the proper use of a gaff-rigged pole. The first source is the USPS booklet How to Fly Flags, Nautical Flag Display. This booklet was written in consultation with the U.S. Coast Guard, Coast Guard Auxiliary, New York Yacht Club and other yachting authorities. The booklet can be obtained from the USPS Ship's Store and other marine retailers. Section 2, Displaying Flags Ashore, states the following:

Information Supplied by Gloria Collins (Wife of PC Harry Collins 1984)