Making Courtesy Flags

Susie Harris offered to share her blog post on flag making.  Seamless Sailor has posted before on flags here.  Susie’s post adds some additional details and tips that I thought warranted this second post on flags.

Aboard Temptress of Down she is undertaking several sewing projects.  She is a self-described “craft junkie with a sailing habit”.  Sounds like the perfect Seamless Sailor to me!  Thanks, Susie, for providing insight on making courtesy flags.



Minima YC Burgee – handmade by moi

…Vexillology is the study of flags and we’ve been studying them hard aboard Temptress for some weeks as every country expects visiting boats be they super tankers or the tiniest of yachts, to fly a courtesy flag whilst in their waters out of respect for that country. The flag is usually but not always a small version of the national flag, where the definition of small by etiquette depends on the size of the vessel and height of mast it is to be flown from, though more often it depends on what is available in the previous port! Visiting boats to the UK for instance fly a small Red Ensign and not the Union flag. Flying the wrong flag may be considered a serious insult to the country you’re trying to enter so it pays to do your research well before hand if you want to be in the the good books of port officials.

Before we left the UK I looked at purchasing flags for the countries we would probably visit – Morocco, Cape Verdes, Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Chile and a fair few more. At several pounds sterling apiece the quantity of flags required could suddenly become a major budget item especially if we spent any time cruising the Caribbean or Pacific.

Materials and templates for Grenada’s courtesy flag

I decided a DIY approach would be more affordable and after all we’d have plenty of time on long passages and making flags might be fun. It seemed ripstop nylon was the cheapest non-fraying material available in lots of colours, the sort that is suitable for an average weight spinnaker or a tent. And it has the advantage of being light and packing down small. So after a bit of internet shopping Temptress’ flag kit was born with half a metre each of navy and sky blue, green, gold (orange) and yellow ripstop plus larger quantities of royal blue, red and white as one day I may even make a house flag for the boat with our mermaid logo and we needed a new Minima YC Burgee (this latter was finally created in Lanzarote). In addition to the ripstop I added a few metres of white inch and a half binding tape to make the hoist-end (the bit the string goes through) and sorted out a few duffle coat toggles from my button tin though mostly a bowline in the top of the string is sufficient.

The first flag Temptress requires is for the Cape Verdes as Jo kindly purchased a Moroccan one as a present for the boat in Baiona and the Canaries are part of Spain which we already had on board. Now the CV’s flag is very straightforward – a navy rectangle with a white stripe superimposed by a red one about a third of the way up from the lower edge. Before it could be cut out however I needed to learn about sizes and proportions of a flag. Flag making is an ancient art a bit like heraldry so the terms are archaic but fun. From the internet I gleaned the following:

  • The height of a flag is called the hoist and the length the fly.
  • The shape of a flag is defined by the proportion of one to the other – usually the fly is two times the hoist to give a neat rectangle but may be less eg 1.5 times.
  • Use the height of the mast to calculate how tall the ideal hoist should be for your boat and you have a good idea how big to make the courtesy flag (roughly half an inch per foot of mast height)

If I was to follow the rules for sizing courtesy flags for Temptress’ mast would be larger than 35cm x 70cm – that is a lot of material, I’d soon get through my stash. So how to make the process economical without making such a small flag it becomes fiddly?

  • Cheat a bit – firstly simplify the detail as it won’t be seen flying at some twenty feet above the average head on the pontoon.
  • Secondly scale things down (checking the bought flags we already owned most seem to be around 30 cm or 12 inches high) and change the proportions too if you can – I’ve used 1.5 x the hoist for the fly of both the courtesy flags I’ve made so far and they look perfectly ok –  this way you use less material.
  • You are probably only going to be in a country for a week or two meaning the flag doesn’t have to last through endless sun or several gales so construction doesn’t have to be bullet proof.
  • Use fabric paints to create any vital detail that is too fiddly for fabric (e.g., the Union flag on the UK ensign)
  • For UK territories, buy a UK ensign, paint the defacing charge or emblem onto white cloth then attach to the ensign!


Cape Verdes – simple blue rectangle with stripes

The Cape Verdes was easy using double-sided tape to “tack” the components together – dressmaking pins won’t go through more than a couple of layers of ripstop – then sew either using zig-zag or straight stitch. I hemmed the edge of this flag but probably won’t bother again as the ripstop really doesn’t fray but is very fiddly to keep folded over without lots of sticky tape which in turn gunges up the machine needle. Don’t forget a flag is double-sided – by placing the components correctly I could sew both sides on with one line of stitching. The stars that represent the islands of the CVs I drew on using t-shirt pens but they only really show up against the white strip not against the blue.

After the Cape Verdes with our change of cruising plan Grenada looks like the next flag we’ll need and it is probably the most complex flag after the UK ensign that any flag maker will encounter. After taking whole day to create a template for the triangles, cut the parts out and stitch it I realised quite why courtesy flags are so expensive.  The rectangular “ground” is made of two green and two yellow triangles all bordered in red. Then there is a red circle with a yellow star at the centre and a nutmeg in the green triangle at the hoist end plus a series of stars along the border top and bottom. All these components have a significance however only the circle and the nutmeg are prominent but I omitted the stars as they’ll hardly be seen when it is up the mast.


To make the flag I cut the four triangles with a 1 cm seam allowance and simply overlapped then zigzag stitched to join them into a rectangle, it won’t stand a gale but does it need to?  For more on different types of seam that would be stronger see here. It’s been a while since I tackled mitred corners but with some internet assistance I managed four passable ones and the doubled over border strengthens the whole. A couple of circles and “nutmegs” (made from freehand drawn cut outs in red and yellow, two sets one for each side)  zigzag stitched on both sides completed the days work. It may not be the neatest bit of sewing I’ve ever done but I’m extremely pleased with the result. The hoist was bound with cheap 1 inch tape enclosing a length of recycled boat string  (in a bid to reduce costs further). After this the flags of St Vincent and the Grenadines and St Lucia should be a doddle.

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