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British Yacht Ensigns (Introduction)

Last modified: 2014-10-11 by rob raeside
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Use of the ensign

Some countries have given special privilege to yacht club members to fly a special ensign (as well as some countries have the naval reserve ensign privilege, for which I have the same question). Once one has received such a privilege (or right) - is he obliged to conduct it? I mean, if one is a member of one of the named clubs - is it legal for him to fly the "usual" civil ensign?
Željko Heimer, 29 January 2000

The answer is yes, as far as British practice is concerned.

A warrant for a special ensign is issued to a named person for a named boat; the two go together. If the owner lends or charters his boat to someone else, they may not fly the special ensign. If the person borrowing or chartering the boat is also a member of the same club, a temporary warrant to fly the special ensign may be issued, but only if the other member is British.

If the person named on the warrant is also a member of another yacht club, he ought not to fly the special ensign on the named boat if he is flying the burgee of the other club. The special ensign and the burgee should match. This has not been specified in the warrant regulations because it is appreciated that there might be circumstances in which it is not appropriate. One example given in explaining this was of an owner entitled to a special ensign who was also a member of a Belgian yacht club. Whenever he visited the Belgian club he flew the special ensign, but as a courtesy, flew the burgee of the Belgian club. He should more correctly have flown the undefaced Red Ensign, but special ensigns have prestige which owners are reluctant to relinquish, even temporarily.

British yacht club special ensigns can be the White Ensign (Royal Yacht Squadron), undefaced Blue Ensign (32 clubs), Blue Ensign defaced with the badge of the club (57) or Red Ensign defaced (14). There is also a defaced RAF Ensign for the RAF Sailing Association, but I don't know where that fits into the pecking order.

Royal Naval Reserve Blue Ensigns on merchant ships were similar. Named master for named ship. Originally when the master took command of another ship he had to re-apply for a new warrant, but this was changed so that he could carry over the warrant, but only if the ship was owned by the same shipping company. He had to inform the Admiralty of the change, and there had to be enough naval reservists in the crew of the new ship to qualify. I would be surprised if there are any merchant ships that still fly the Blue Ensign.
David Prothero, 9 February 2000

In 1922, according to Perrin (Page 139), there were 42 clubs entitled to fly the Blue Ensign "either plain or defaced", with 8 being "allowed to deface the Red Ensign with their particular badge". A total of 53 including the Royal Yacht Squadron.
Christopher Southworth, 5 November 2003

It all depends how you count them, and how you define a British yacht club. There are 104 clubs in the Navy List. If you add the RAF Sailing Association there are 105, but only 77 are in the United Kingdom. Of the 105 ensigns 27 are plain Blue, three Blue Ensigns have the same badge, as do two Red Ensigns, which makes 76 different ensigns. I don't agree with Perrin's figures. In 1922 I reckon there were 34 clubs with plain Blue Ensigns, 30 with defaced Blue Ensigns, and 8 with defaced Red Ensigns. The list of yacht clubs having a special ensign is on pages 244 - 247 of the Navy List at
David Prothero, 11 November 2003

I think that I have found out why my figures for yacht clubs with special ensigns in 1922 don't match Perrin's figures. Mine was a grand total; Perrin appears not to have included Dominion clubs. The first warrants were issued in 1829. In 1840 2 clubs had plain Blue Ensigns, 1 had a defaced Red Ensign, and 8 had various forms of White Ensign.

Approximate figures after that -
1850. 5 Blue, 8 defaced Blue, 2 defaced Red, 2 White.
1860. 8 Blue, 10 defaced Blue, 2 defaced Red, 1 White and thereafter.
1870. 9 Blue, 12 defaced Blue, 3 defaced Red.
1880. 13 Blue, 18 defaced Blue, 6 defaced Red.
1890. 17 Blue, 22 defaced Blue, 6 defaced Red.
1900. 22 Blue, 28 defaced Blue, 7 defaced Red.
1910. 33 Blue, 28 defaced Blue, 8 defaced Red.
1920. 33 Blue, 30 defaced Blue, 8 defaced Red.
1930. 37 Blue, 32 defaced Blue, 6 defaced Red.
1940. 32 Blue, 42 defaced Blue, 7 defaced Red.
1950. 32 Blue, 45 defaced Blue, 8 defaced Red.
1960. 33 Blue, 51 defaced Blue, 11 defaced Red.
1970. 34 Blue, 49 defaced Blue, 12 defaced Red.
1980. 31 Blue, 55 defaced Blue, 12 defaced Red.
1990. 31 Blue, 55 defaced Blue, 12 defaced Red, 1 defaced RAF.
2000. 30 Blue, 55 defaced Blue, 12 defaced Red, 1 defaced RAF.
David Prothero, 13 November 2003

British Yacht Club Special Ensigns have, in total, been granted to 108 clubs in the British Isles, and 49 clubs in other parts of the world. In the British Isles 30 clubs have had Blue ensigns, 53 defaced Blue Ensigns, including 3 defaced on the Union, 18 defaced Red Ensigns, including 4 defaced on the Union, 5 defaced White Ensigns, one a White Ensign, one a White Ensign with no overall cross, and one defaced a RAF Ensign. The number of different designs is 78. Three clubs have had the same defacement on the Union of their defaced Blue Ensign, and three other clubs have had the same defacement on the Union of their defaced Red Ensign. Although two clubs have had three different ensigns, and six clubs have had two different ensigns, in four cases one of the ensigns was Blue, in two cases the defacement of the Union of their Blue Ensign was the same, and in two other cases the defacement of the Union of their Red Ensign was the same.

Twenty overseas clubs have had Blue Ensigns, 29 defaced Blue Ensigns, 2 defaced Red Ensigns, and one a White Ensign. The number of different ensigns is 33. One club has had three different ensigns. Another club, two different ensigns, but one was Blue.
David Prothero, 4 August 2014

Conditions Governing the Issue of Yacht Permits to Members of Entitled Yacht Clubs in the United Kingdom and the Channel Islands

By Section 4 of the Merchant Shipping Act 1995, it is an offence to hoist on board any ship or boat belonging to any British subject certain colours, flags and pendants without a Permit from Her Majesty the Queen or from the Secretary of State for Defence. The maximum penalty is one thousand pounds for each offence. Among the prohibited flags are the Union Flag, the White Ensign, the Blue Ensign (plain or defaced) and the Red Ensign with any defacement. The prohibition applies to any ship or boat belonging to any British Subject wherever it may be, and so extends not only to tidal waters but equally to rivers, lakes and inland waters generally.

Yachts may not wear the special Ensigns prohibited above except:

  1. Under a Warrant issued to the yacht owner by the Secretary of State for Defence prior to April 1st 1985 and in accordance with the conditions stated hereon, or
  2. Under a Permit issued to a yacht owner by a Yacht Club from 1st April 1985 onwards and in accordance with the conditions set out below.


  1. Permit: The Yacht must be issued with a Permit by a Yacht Club pursuant to the granting of a Warrant to that Club by the Secretary of State for Defence.
  2. Registration and Measurement.
    a) Registration.
    The Yacht must be a ship registered under either:
    (i) Part I of the Register of British Ships or
    (ii) Part III of the Register of British Ships (Small Ships Register)
    b) Measurement.
    The Yacht must measure not less than:
    (i) 2 tons gross if registered under a(i) above
    (ii) 7 metres in length overall if registered under a(ii) above
  3. Membership of Designated Yacht Club.
    The Owner or Owners of the Yacht must have current membership of one of the Yacht Clubs in the United Kingdom or Channel Islands to which a Warrant has been issued and which is designated in the Navy List.
  4. Nationality.
    The Owner or Owners must be British Citizens.
  5. Use of Yacht.
    a) The Special Ensign may only be worn on a Yacht used exclusively for private and personal purposes of the Yachtsman to whom the the Permit is issued.
    b) The Yacht must not be used for any professional, business or commercial purpose. A Yacht whose name incorporates a name, product or trademark used for business or commercial purposes is not eligible for a permit.
    c) A Yacht which is never used for cruising, e.g. a Houseboat, is ineligible for a permit.
  6. Limited Companies.
    A Yacht which is the property of a Limited Company may be eligible for a permit provided the provisions of Condition 5 are complied with, and the user is a British Subject and a Member of a designated Yacht Club.
  7. Presence of Permit Holder.
    Except under the provisions of Condition 6, a Permit does not confer any authority while the Yacht is being sailed by anyone other than the Owner in person, thus a Special Ensign may not be worn unless the Owner or user (see condition 6) of the Yacht is on board, or in effective control of her when she is in Harbour or at anchor near the shore, and the Clubs Burgee, is flown at the main masthead, or other suitable position. The Permit must always be carried on board when a Special Ensign is worn.
  8. Separate Authorisation from Each Club.
    If the Owner or user belongs to more than one designated club, he must have on board the Permit authorising the particular Ensign, which is being worn.
    Note - A member of a privileged club who shares a Yacht with joint owners ineligible of belonging to that club because of restricted membership qualifications may exceptionally apply for a permit. All applications under this exception must be supported by written confirmation that the other owners are ineligible for membership of the Yacht Club concerned. A permit issued in these circumstances is valid only when the joint owner in whose name the Permit is issued is on board or in effective control of the Yacht when at anchor or in harbour near the shore.
  9. Charter or Loan of Yacht for which the Permit is Issued.
    It is expressly forbidden for the person borrowing or chartering the aforesaid Yacht to wear the privilege Ensign for which a Permit has been previously issued by the owner's club.
  10. Return of Permit.
    When a Yacht is sold, there is a change of ownership, or the owner ceases to be a member of the Club, the Permit must at once be surrendered to the Secretary of the Club who shall forthwith cancel it.
  11. Alterations to Permits.
    No alterations are to be made to Permits. If the name of the Yacht is changed, or alterations are made which affect the Register, the Permit is to be withdrawn by the Secretary of the Club. A new Permit may be issued provided the provisions of these conditions are otherwise satisfied.
  12. Permits Lost or Stolen.
    In the event of a Permit being lost or stolen, the member must forward to the Secretary of the Club a report on the circumstances of the loss and the steps taken to recover it. The Secretary of the Club may, at his discretion, issue a fresh permit.
  13. Tenders
    The special Ensign may be worn by any boat which belongs to the Yacht and which can be conveniently hoisted on board.
  14. Foreign Cruises.
    When cruising in Foreign waters a Yacht for which a permit to wear a Special Ensign has been issued should take care to avoid any action which might result in complications with a Foreign Power.
  15. A Permit for a Yacht to wear a Special Ensign becomes invalid if the provisions of the above Conditions are not met.
  16. Etiquette.
    Permit holders should comply with the custom, when in harbour, of hoisting the Ensign at 0800 (15 February to 31 October) otherwise at 0900 and lowering the Ensign at local Sunset (or 2100 local time if earlier).

David Prothero, 11 January 2006

Who assigns an ensign defacement to a yacht club?
Normally the yacht club applying for the special ensign supplies a picture, or at least a textual description, of what they would like on the ensign and burgee. This is then checked for suitability before the warrant is drawn up and sent up through the chain of command for approval. The design of the burgee usually already exists but as it forms part of a ship's colours it also needs a suitability check. I don't think it has ever happened that the club hasn't known what it wants, but if it did it would probably be passed to me, as advisor, to come up with something.
Graham Bartram, 23 May 2007

Historically the defacement has been the existing badge of the club, but on at least three occasions the badge used on the ensign had to be modified before the Admiralty would grant a special ensign. In 1950 the Cruising Association wanted a foul anchor, but had to settle for a clear anchor. Similarly the St Helier Yacht Club, after a four year struggle to have, at first a foul anchor, and then a naval crown, agreed, in 1952, to have a clear anchor with two crossed axes. In both cases the clubs did not include the clear anchor in the badge on their burgee. Also in 1950, the House of Lords Yacht Club were not allowed to have a portcullis surmounted by a coronet as this was considered to be too similar to the badge on the Customs Blue Ensign. On the ensign the badge is a clear anchor surmounted by a coronet but on the burgee it is a portcullis surmounted by a coronet.

A yacht club that applied for, and was granted, the title "Royal" would not automatically be granted a special ensign. The two things are entirely separate, and the club would have to make a separate application for the ensign.
David Prothero, 23 May 2007

Blue Ensign defaced with badge

When a United Kingdom blue ensign right is granted to a yacht club, how is it decided whether the ensign should be defaced or undefaced?
Bryan-Kinns Merrick, 15 November 2002

Originally it was, as far as I have been able to establish, the choice of the club. In 1927 it was decided that since a plain Blue Ensign was the ensign of the Royal Naval Reserve, no more would be authorised for yacht clubs. In fact three more were authorised, but only for Service clubs; Royal Naval Sailing Association in 1936, Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve YC in 1958 and Royal Marines Sailing Club in 1965.

There is an unwritten pecking-order based, it would seem, on heraldic principles, that a yacht club with a plain Blue Ensign ranks above a club with a defaced Blue Ensign, which in turn ranks above a club with a defaced Red Ensign; but this was not the view of the Admiralty. When the Royal Dee YC had its warrant withdrawn in 1928 because it had too few yachts, it offered to change from a defaced Blue to a defaced Red Ensign if this would enable it to retain a special ensign. The Admiralty replied that, "the standard required before a yacht club can be authorised to fly a special ensign is the same whether the ensign be the Blue Ensign, the defaced Blue Ensign, or the defaced Red Ensign."
David Prothero, 16 November 2002

On the website of a yacht club (I forgot which) I read that the ensign was undefaced if the club was already "Royal".
Bryan-Kinns Merrick, 15 November 2002

Yacht clubs do not have royal charters. It is simply a title which they are permitted to use, as a prefix to the name of the club. In the latter part of the 19th century some clubs that wanted a special ensign, would apply to the Home Office for the title 'royal', in the belief that possessing the title would improve their chances of being granted an ensign. It actually worked the other way round. Any requests for the 'royal' title received by the Home Office were passed to the Admiralty with the question, "Does this club have a special ensign, and if not, would one be granted if it applied?" If the Admiralty replied, "No", and "Would not", the club's request was almost certain to be refused.
David Prothero,  16 November 2002

[Blue Ensign defaced with badge] image located by Jose C Alegria

An example of a light blue British yacht ensign, from the RAF Sailing Association from

Use of crowns on yacht club ensigns

In many cases of which I am aware, it is entirely up to the club which form of "British" royal crown they use on their ensign. For example, the Royal Natal Yacht Club still uses their old fashioned late 19th century Edwardian crown and have used it since the their ensign was granted. There was no change made during the Tudor era. I'm not sure if Scottish clubs would fall under different rules.
Clay Moss, 11 August 2008

In correspondence between yacht clubs and the Home Office and the Admiralty on this matter, I have never seen any reference to the style of crown that might, or should, be used. Also, as far as I know, no instruction telling yacht clubs that they should change the style of crown used in their badge has ever been issued.

"Warrants to yachts authorise the use on an ensign of the distinguishing marks of the club but do not define them." From a 1927 Home Office minute.
[National Archives (PRO) HO 144/9413]
David Prothero, 12 August 2008

As far as I am aware (at least for the last 100 years or so), the type of crown to be used 'officially' is defined by Royal Warrant (or Order in Council), and civilian use generally follows any official change or type but is not obliged to do so? The Scottish Crown is used officially in Scotland where the St Edwards Crown would be used in England, Ireland or Wales, it naturally follows, therefore, that (whilst not obliged to do so) the Royal Forth Yacht Club would place the Scottish Crown on their ensign, and (for example) the Royal Corinthian would place the St Edwards.

It would, of course, be perfectly legal for a Yacht Club founded in say 1888 to continue to fly a burgee or ensign with the Imperial State Crown for the following 120 years, but perhaps unlikely. It may also be inferred that the authority issuing any such Warrant would assume (unless specifically stated to the contrary) use of the current pattern without actually saying so.
Christopher Southworth, 13 August 2008

Size of ensigns used on yachts

I have never come across any regulation regarding flag size. A Royal Yachting Association 1969 booklet on flags make no reference to the matter. The following is the response from the commodore of a yacht club in the United States:

As far as the size of the Ensign is concerned, US yachting publications have long stated (and consistently stated) a "rule of thumb" for yachts, which generally seems to work for most yachts in use today. The rule is that the Ensign should be "one inch of fly for every foot of overall yacht length." Thus, a 30-foot yacht flies a 20 inch by 30 inch ensign, and so on. If a yacht is between the standard commercial sizes of flag, then the next size is used; i.e., round up to the next sized flag. Thus, a 34-foot yacht should fly a 24" x 36" ensign. Generally speaking, this rule seems to work well. And it is very widely quoted here, so much so that it is almost a part of flag etiquette.

My only additions are as follows:
(1) It should kept in mind that this rule is one based on ensign length, and that given manufacturing conventions, American-made flags offer a greater number of flag sizes in the smaller ensigns than British-made ones:

USA flag size        British Standard
12 x 18" --------- 1/2 yd. flag (24" x 12")
16" x 24" ---------1/2 yd. flag (do.)
20 x 30" --------- 2/3ds yd. or 3/4 yd.flag
24 x 36" --------- 1 yard flag (36" x 18")
30 x 48" --------- Some British concerns will offer a 1 1/4 yd. flag; otherwise 1 1/2 or 1 yd
36 x 60" --------- 1 1/2 yd. or perhaps 2 yd. flag
48 x 72" --------- 2 yd. flag

In short, the British commercial standard of selling flags by yards leads to larger gaps in sizes than does the American offerings. The 1 1/4 yard ensign (never seen outside a chandlery, and only rarely there) is an attempt to bridge this gap.

(2) Like any rule of thumb, the result must be checked against reality. Does the proposed ensign interfere with any equipment on deck, drag too near the water, and does it look right?

(3) Also, sailing yachts that fly the ensign from a gaff, or elsewhere up in the rigging (see note) -- as opposed to from a staff at the stern -- probably need a larger sized ensign. There is also the case of yachts with bowsprits and overhangs that give an inflated overall length, which means that exceptions will be made.

The rule of thumb generally seems to work, and is a great place to start. The part about "round up to the next size" should probably be discounted because (a) it is my observation that British yachts are a bit more understated in size of ensign than are US yachts, and (b) if one wanted to discard the 36" x 18" ensign, and "trade up" to the next available commercial size, he will be looking at a 1 1/2 yard ensign (54" x 27"), which is a very large 'jump up' indeed."
David Prothero, 1 May 2010

Note: Sailing yachts do indeed sometimes fly their ensigns from the peak (of the gaff) or at the leech, and a larger size is more appropriate in those circumstances, however, it should also be borne in mind that they (at least in UK usage) must only do so whilst underway and that the ensigns should be returned to a staff at the stern whilst moored.
Christopher Southworth, 1 May 2010