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Yacht Ensign (U.S.)

Last modified: 2015-04-18 by rick wyatt
Keywords: united states | yacht | anchor |
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[U.S. Yacht Ensign] image by Rick Wyatt, 4 March 1997

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It has thirteen red/white stripes with a blue canton. In the canton is a circle of 13 white stars around a white fouled anchor. This flag was established by Congress in 1848 as a signal to be used by all licensed yachts. It is a variant of the U.S. Navy "small boat flag" which used 13 stars because of the relatively small size of the flag. The Navy used this 13 star flag until 1916, but the Yacht Ensign with the anchor continues in use today.
Nick Artimovich, 23 January 1997

The U.S. Yacht Ensign was designed in the 1840s IIRC to be used by yachts of American Registry so that they would not have to clear customs when pleasure sailing from port to port. At that time, a special registration was necessary to fly the flag (legally). Today, there is no such special registration and consequently no rules about flying it.
Dave Martucci, 27 April 1998

The term "yacht ensign" is not entirely correct. About a hundred fifty years ago Congress authorized the Secretary of the Treasury to promulgate a signal to be displayed by registered yachts entering or leaving port to show that they were not required to clear at the customs house. The design he published, so well illustrated for us, noticeably resembles the United States national flag, and people began to use it as a yacht ensign, although the law does not authorize this. The United States government resisted this trend, but eventually yielded to the extent of announcing that it would regard a vessel flying the yacht signal in the place of the ensign as being under the protection of the Stars and Stripes, even though technically that's not it. They have made repeated efforts to emphasize that the Stars and Stripes is our only national flag, and that the yacht signal should at least never be worn outside of U.S. waters.
John Ayer, 28 April 1998

From the New York Yacht Club

Prior to the enactment of income tax laws in the early twentieth century, the federal government obtained most of its operating funds from the collection of tariffs and customs duties levied on foreign goods entering American harbors. All vessels were subject to inspection, including private yachts. As the popularity of yachting increased, the burden of customs inspections became tiresome and unnecessary.

In 1847, Commodore Stevens proposed to the Secretary of the Treasury that private yachts not engaged in trade or commerce be exempt from inspection. The Secretary, fully aware of the manpower required to inspect each and every yacht entering a port, agreed to propose legislation that would allow the Treasury Department to license yachts and let such yachts carry a signal of the form, size and colors prescribed by the Secretary of the Navy.

At the Secretary of the Navy's request, the New York Yacht Club recommended in January 1849, "The American Ensign with the addition of a foul anchor in the union be adopted...." Thus, the American yacht ensign was created, and it is still used today.
Phil Nelson, 11 February 2000

Legal Authority

The U.S. yacht ensign is a variant of the national ensign in which the union consists of thirteen stars in a ring surrounding a fouled anchor set diagonally. It was authorized by Congress in 1848 on the recommendation of the commodore of the New York Yacht Club as a signal to be flown by yachts holding special licenses from the Secretary of the Treasury so that they could be exempted from having to enter with or clear customs every time they put out to or returned from sea. The design was prescribed by the Secretary of the Navy and introduced into use in 1849.

As indicated by the use of the term "signal" in the enabling legislation, it was never the intention that this flag would replace the standard national ensign as a means of identifying a yacht's nationality, nor did the law authorize it to be used in that fashion. When the secretary of the New York Yacht Club solicited members' ideas for a design in late 1848, he specifically described the flag as a "distinguishing flag to be worn at the masthead," not as an ensign that would have been worn at the stern or gaff. Eight years later, the authoritative Rogers' American Code of Marine Signals (1856), which was approved for official use by the Navy and Treasury departments, stated that "the Yacht Flag is only displayed above the telegraphic numbers of the Yacht Club vessels."

Nevertheless, probably because of its resemblance to the national ensign, the yacht ensign came to be flown in lieu of it as early as 1850. In 1916, Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels and Secretary of the Treasury William McAdoo both argued against the the practice of using the yacht flag in this fashion. On February 12 of that year, Daniels wrote to the House Commerce Committee that "in the opinion of the department [of the Navy], all American vessels should fly the American flag, and any other signals and any other flags should be in addition to the national ensign and not in lieu thereof...." McAdoo went further in a letter of February 10, not only stating that "the propriety of permitting this custom to continue--using the so-called yacht ensign as a substitute for the national ensign--may well be questioned," but providing draft legislation criminalizing the display of any flag but the national ensign from the points of hoist normally reserved for the ensign: the flagstaff at the stern or the peak of the gaff of the aftermost mast. Nevertheless, most yachtsmen continued to use the yacht flag in lieu of the national ensign. Some even believed that it was illegal to fly any ensign other than the yacht ensign on a yacht large enough to qualify for the Treasury license.

Eventually the Navy gave in. A 1939 opinion of the Navy Judge Advocate General, approved by the Secretary of the Navy, extended de facto recognition to the use of the yacht ensign as a substitute for the national ensign by allowing Navy ships to return salutes rendered by dipping the yacht ensign and by authorizing members of the Navy to salute the yacht ensign upon boarding or leaving a boat on which it was displayed.

The other perennial issue with the yacht ensign was enforcing the rules on its use. From its first adoption, its purpose was to indicate that a yacht was licensed by the Treasury Department, allowing it to enjoy the exemptions from customs procedures set forth in the law. Vessels below a certain size threshold, which was changed over the years, were not even eligible for such licenses (because they were not subject to the normal customs rules in the first place), yet the yacht ensign was used widely by boats of all size. Many yacht clubs even had (and have) club rules requiring the use of the yacht ensign rather than the national ensign, whether or not a given member held the Treasury license. The issue became moot in 1980 when the new Vessel Documentation Act (Public Law 96-594) did away with both the special yacht license and the accompanying requirement to display the yacht signal. The yacht ensign is now flown as a matter of custom as an alternative to the national ensign by recreational craft sailing in U.S. territorial waters, but should not be displayed in foreign waters. Most yacht ensigns are manufactured in proportions of 2:3 or 3:5, but the traditional dimensions, as shown above, were the same as those for the national ensign, 10:19.

Joe McMillan and James Liston, 9 September 2001