How to Fly a Flag Above a Masthead

One of the hallmarks of sailing artwork is a flag or streamer flown above the masthead. You often see them in vintage photographs, paintings of tall ships, and modern digital art.

Typical clipart of a sailboat with a flag flying above the masthead

But you seldom see them in reality anymore. Why is that? Maybe it’s a dying tradition. Maybe its a practical result of all the gadgetry we mount on our mastheads today. Whatever the reason, I suspect that more skippers would fly them if they knew how easy it is to do.

Flying a flag above the masthead is especially fun for holidays and other special events. I flew a 5′ red streamer on Summer Dance for our Independence Day celebration this year. My family also decorated our sailboat for a lighted boat parade with red, white, and blue pennants hung around the deck and flashing LED lights up the backstay and down the forestay,  We had a great time and the spectators enjoyed the show.

Streamer flying from a bamboo pig stick attached to the spinnaker halyard

You don’t need any permanent hardware to fly a flag above the masthead unless you want to fly the flag often. You can rig one for special occasions in just a few minutes with common materials and without lowering your mast.

The traditional way to fly a flag high is with what is called a pig stick. It’s basically a flag staff that you attach to a halyard and raise so that the flag flies above all obstructions at the top of the mast. The biggest challenge to making it work is so that the flag will swivel around the pig stick and not wrap around it, your windex, VHF antenna, anchor light, or anything else up there. It’s not difficult, though.

To make a pig stick:

  1. Find a lightweight wood, plastic, or fiberglass rod about 3′ long. The diameter is not critical but the rod should be strong enough to withstand bending in the wind. I’ve found that a bamboo garden stake works very well. They sometimes have a slight bend at one end that can actually make one stand straighter above the masthead than a perfectly straight rod since the masthead can be a little in the way.
  2. Cut a straight section from a wire coat hanger that is a little longer than the height of the flag that you want to fly.
  3. Bend the wire into a swivel like shown below. Form an eye at the top end that is slightly larger in diameter than the threads of a small tapping screw. Make another eye at the bottom end that is slightly larger in diameter than the pig stick.
  4. Bend two more eyes with which to attach the flag using split rings. The eyes should be the same distance apart as the grommets of the flag that you intend to fly.
  5. Slide the swivel onto the pig stick, place a washer between the swivel and the top of the pig stick, and secure the swivel with the tapping screw. Don’t tighten the screw completely. Leave the swivel loose so that it rotates freely around the pig stick.
  6. Attach the flag to the swivel with split rings or equivalent clips.
Swivel made from a coat hanger

To hoist the pig stick:

  1. Select a halyard that you won’t be using while flying the flag. I use my spinnaker halyard. You could use the mainsail halyard but you won’t be able to raise the mainsail completely since the pig stick would be attached above it.
  2. Tie a light line such as parachute cord to the halyard shackle to act as a downhaul. You’ll use this line to lower the pig stick and retrieve the end of the halyard after you raise it to the masthead. If you decide to use your mainsail halyard, you can skip this step because you can pull the mainsail down to retrieve the pig stick.
  3. Attach the pig stick to the halyard in two places 6″ to 12″ apart above the shackle as shown below. I use zip ties and place one above and one below the joints in the bottom of the bamboo stake. This prevents the bamboo from sliding through the zip ties. Attach it in two places so that they will hold the pig stick vertically and securely.
  4. Hoist the pig stick up to the masthead so that it passes it on one side and the flag flies clear above. You might need to experiment a little to find the best place.
  5. Cleat the halyard and pull tension on the downhaul until the pig stick is as vertical and stationary as possible.
Pig stick affixed to the halyard with nylon wire ties. The downhaul is attached to the halyard shackle at right.

That’s all there is to it.

The next time you’re celebrating or you want to dress up your sailboat, consider hoisting a pig stick to fly your nation’s flag, club burgee, or a streamer. For tips on flying flags from your spreaders, see Make a Flag Halyard to Fly Your Favorite Colors. For a good source of flags and streamers of various sizes, shapes, and colors, contact Pamela at The Flag Chick.


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2 Comments Add yours

  1. Graham says:

    Great practical post. I am going to try this as I prefer to fly my burgee from the mast where it is clearly visible. I have the materials so maybe a project for this afternoon.
    I really enjoy reading your small boat projects.

  2. Steven Wallace says:

    Thanks, love the tips.

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