Can you really be fined for not flying your ensign properly? Yes but no but...

Is flying – or should I say wearing – an ensign still important and does flag etiquette really matter?

It’s a question James Anderton and his girlfriend Jelly were left pondering after they were ticked off and threatened with a fine for displaying a droopy ensign on the backstay.

Jelly reports on our forums (HERE) that they were on board their boat at a UK south coast marina when a ‘man from the MCA’ who was coding a small ferry came and told them to remove their ensign because it was being worn incorrectly at half mast.

I thought that story was so extraordinary (though it had a ring of truth about it) that I contacted the Maritime & Coastguard Agency to find out if there is for a penalty fine for the incorrect wearing of the ol’ red duster and if it has ever been enforced.

The news is interesting.

The enforcement chaps at the MCA first of all thought it was a joke. Then they were outraged and say that it is drummed into surveyors acting on their behalf never to make any threats of prosecution, fines or legal action “at any cost”.

They say they have “never, ever taken any action” in such a case, “nor would we, because it has nothing to do with safety.”

The only requirement under the 1995 Merchant Shipping Act is to carry a red ensign at the stern, but the law doesn’t say that it needs to be at the top of a jackstay or ensign staff, be crisply laundered, non-frayed, undroopy or anything else.

It sounds, they say, like the maverick action of “a martinet”.

However, what is true is that you can’t do exactly what you like with flags and the MCA admit there are cases when they would take an interest. If they were to do so, the penalties are hair-raising: forfeiture of the vessel and a fine up to £50,000.

If your boat is registered with Part 1 of the Register of British Ships, the full-blown legal registry, you are obliged to wear a defaced red ensign at the stern when entering or leaving port. You can’t, for example, replace it with a Scottish saltire or a Cornish flag.

“If someone had an illegal flag then we would be interested, and therein lies the rub,” says an MCA spokesman. “You have a duty to show a British flag.”

So is it OK to fly a saltire, the flag of St Pirian, the Welsh Dragon, the Red Hand of Ulster or anything else?

Yes, no problem, says the MCA. You can fly whatever you like anywhere else on board and they won’t care so long as you display the red ensign on the stern.