Did you take your family out on your sailboat this summer for Independence Day, Memorial Day, or Labor Day? On those holidays, you probably saw more flags flying than usual. Sailboats flying flags evoke a different feeling than ones without. At least they do for me. Besides being patriotic, they add to a festive, nautical mood to the day.
Did you fly your favorite colors too? If you didn’t, was it because you don’t have a place to fly your colors from? Adding a flag halyard is an inexpensive, easy project you can do in under an hour.
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Find some empty airspace
There are a few different places where you can fly flags and club burgees on your sailboat. Flag etiquette dictates that you either fly them two-thirds of the way up the backstay, at the top of the mast, on a flag staff mounted on the stern, or on a halyard below the starboard spreader. There’s a lot more to the etiquette that I’ll get to in a minute. First, let’s look at the pros and cons of each of these places.
Flying a flag from your backstay can be a hassle. If you don’t have a flag halyard that runs from your transom up to your masthead then you have to either attach the flag only as high up the backstay as you can reach or if you’re a trailer sailor, you can attach it higher up the backstay before you raise the mast and then hope it doesn’t slide up or down. In either case, during a gybe, the flag can foul in the topping lift if you have one or the halyard can foul on the boom when it swings past. If you attach it high before raising the mast and you anchor out overnight, you won’t be able to lower your flag for the night (more etiquette).
Rigging a halyard to fly a flag from the top of your mast is even more complicated. To get the flag up above the masthead and the rigging, the halyard needs to hold what’s called a pig stick. It’s a flag staff that you attach to the halyard and it sticks above the masthead when the halyard is at full hoist. The halyard has to be very tight to get the pig stick to stand vertically, especially in anything more than light winds. The flag halyard running down your mast can be in the way of the sail halyards, lazy jacks, and other rigging you already have on the mast. And obviously, the flag can interfere with your windex, anchor light, or VHF antenna that you might already have up there.
A flag staff on the stern is easy to set up but space is tight on the sterns of most trailerable sailboats. The flag needs to fly clear (even when running downwind) of the backstay (especially adjustable backstay blocks), the traveler blocks, the tiller, the outboard, and whatever else you might have mounted on the stern. Think BBQ grill, swim step, VHF antenna, fishing rod holders, and so on. Even if you have room for a flag staff, the flag will barely be visible down that low.
On trailerable sailboats at least, rigging a flag halyard from the starboard spreader is easier, less expensive, and avoids all these problems. It does have two drawbacks, though. Your flag will be hidden by your mainsail from the port side of the boat and it can be hidden by a large genoa headsail from the starboard side of the boat. Larger flags (16″ x 24″ for example) can foul in the starboard lower shroud. Consider flying your larger flag from the backstay and smaller flags below the spreader.
Get your stuff together
What you need:
- Micro block to turn the halyard at the spreader. If you’re really stingy, you can omit this and run the halyard directly through the eye strap with very little added friction.
- Eye strap to attach the block to the spreader.
- Stainless steel crews or aluminum pop rivets to attach the eye strap to the spreader
- Shroud cleat to tie off the halyard. Again, if you’re a bona fide stingy sailor, you can omit this and tie off the halyard to the mast or a shroud turnbuckle.
- Small diameter accessory cord 2x as long as the distance from the middle of the spreader to the shroud cleat plus 1′-2′ for tying knots, more if you will be tying it to the mast or shroud turnbuckle. Inexpensive paracord works well for this.
- Flag clips to attach the flag to the halyard or backstay. Snap clips, rings, or mini carabiners will also work but you need to tie loops in the halyard to hold them.
- PVC pipe 18″ long with removable caps on each end makes a watertight container in which to store your flags rolled up so they don’t develop creases.
You might even have some of those items on hand already. Unless you’re athletic enough to climb your mast, the best time to make your flag halyard is when you plan to raise your mast soon.
Step by step
- With your mast down, place the eye strap on the underside of the starboard spreader at its midpoint and mark the mounting holes.
- Drill pilot holes for the mounting screws or pop rivets.
- Feed the eye strap through the micro block shackle and attach it to the spreader with screws or pop rivets. If you use screws, apply a corrosion inhibitor to prevent galvanic corrosion.
- Reave the accessory cord through the micro block and tie the ends so that they can’t accidentally fall out of the block and you can reach them after raising the mast.
- Raise the mast as normal.
- Attach the shroud cleat to the starboard upper shroud at a comfortable working height above the deck. Follow the instructions supplied with the particular cleat you bought. Tip: the cleat is also a convenient place to park your mainsail halyard for the night so it doesn’t ring the mast.
- If your shroud cleat has an eye (like the one at the link above), reave the halyard through the eye. This ensures that it can’t fly out of reach and it helps to secure the halyard during trailering. Otherwise, skip to the next step.
- Tie the ends of the accessory cord together into a continuous loop with a double fisherman’s knot. Make the loop a foot or so extra long so that you can tie the halyard off to the cleat and hold the flag up.
A few words about flag quality
There are a lot of cheap flags on the market. When it comes to flag quality, the saying “You get what you pay for” generally applies. The inexpensive flags are usually printed in dull colors on polyester fabric with minimal seams. They’re okay for novelty flags that you won’t fly often, don’t want to invest much in, and won’t be disappointed with when they fade and fall apart. But for your US (or other national) flag, spend the extra bucks and get a quality flag that will look good and hold together for a long time. This is one purchase where it doesn’t pay to be stingy.
When shopping for a flag, look for:
- UV resistant fabric
- Individually cut and sewn colors, preferably with double row stitching
- Embroidered stars or other symbols
- Reinforced heading (leading) and fly (trailing) edges
- Brass grommets
- Get the right size for your boat (see the link below)
- Don’t buy a pirate flag. Every renegade wannabe has one these days, it seems. They’re not impressive anymore and in my opinion, they never were.
Out on the water
To use your new halyard:
- Unhook the loop ends of the flag clips like a safety pin, hook them through the grommets in your flag like in the picture above, and close the loops again.
- Depress the spring ends of the flag clips like a fishing bobber, place the exposed hooks over one side of the halyard, and release the springs. Space the clips the same distance apart on the halyard as the distance between the grommets in the flag. You can attach the clips anywhere along the length of the halyard loop.
- Pull down on the opposite side of the halyard loop to raise the flag until it reaches the micro block.
- Tie the slack in the loop to the shroud cleat with a slip knot.
- Go sailing but don’t run into anything while you’re watching your new flag!
Flying flags on any kind of vessel brings responsibilities with it, particularly if you’ll be flying a national flag. There’s a long history behind the etiquette and most sailors take it seriously so take a few minutes to educate yourself and follow the rules to show respect for the flag and what it stands for. A good online primer is provided by the United States Power Squadrons.
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