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Yacht Ensign (U.S.)

Last modified: 2004-12-22 by
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[U.S. Yacht Ensign] by Rick Wyatt, 4 March 1997



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Description

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 discussion on yacht ensigns got me thinking about the legal authority for the U.S. yacht ensign. When I went to look for the old citation on legal authority (Title 46 U.S. Code Section 109), I found that it was repealed by the Vessel Documentation Act of 1980. There's no explanation for the repeal in either the act itself or the Congressional committee reports on the law, suggesting that the provision was simply considered outmoded. The old Navy directives implementing the law have likewise gone off the books. I don't have a copy of the page of NTP-13(B) (Flags, Pennants, and Customs) that deals with the YE, but recall that it simply acknowledged its widespread use with or without the formerly required warrant and noted that flying it in lieu of the national ensign was customary.

What laws/regulations/rules govern this subject now? Where is it written which ensigns, jacks, and so on must be flown by private U.S. vessels?

Joe McMillan, 10 February 2000

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