The nautical term of dressing ship, to dress ship, or dressing overall can be confusing. This ritual is often reserved for military vessels. It can also apply to recreational vessels such as yachts. Even cruise ships may dress ship. It’s a process of decorating a ship for a celebration. You would dress a ship for an anniversary, for instance. The process involves using International Maritime Signal Flags. You have to string them along dressing lines from stemhead to masthead. If there is more than one mast, then each will be included.

When is it Appropriate to Dress Ship?

A ship at sea would never be seen dressed in Maritime signal flags. Instead, vessels only dress when anchoring or near harbor. Masthead flags can be used if the ship is underway. If your ship is not underway, it can be overall dress. This is the version that includes streaming the dressing line from stem head to masthead. They can also be strung from a masthead to masthead if more than one is present. From there they terminate at the taffrail. The flags will go from waterline to waterline, bow to stern. The flag officer should know how to place the lines on the vessel.

The ship should be dressed in the morning at 0800 hours. Flags should remain up until the evening. This applies for when the ship is at anchor only. This will also change if it is the maiden voyage of the vessel, or the final voyage. Different protocol will dictate how those events are to be handled in relation to dressing ship.

Flag Terminology

Ensign: The Ensign is the national flag for the ship on which it flies. This will be the largest flag on a ship. In port it will be flown at the stern of the ship. There are also Naval ensigns and civil ensigns. Large versions of Naval ensigns may also be called battle ensigns. For American vessels, the US flag is the standard ensign on ships.

The Naval rank of Ensign actually comes from this term and not the other way around. An Ensign was traditionally in charge of the Ensign flag.

Burgee: This is a flag from a recreational boating organization. For instance, if you are in a yacht club like the Royal Yachting Association, you will have a club burgee. There’s no standard shape for a club burgee, although many are pennants. This is a kind of private signal. A private signal is a custom designed flag that any boat owner could fly.

Pennant: These are long, narrow flags that don’t necessarily end in a point, making them a triangle. There are many pennants depending on what they’re used for. For instance, there is a Senior Officer Present Afloat pennant. A Gin pennant is used to invite officers from other ships to have a drink. A Masthead pennant indicates the commission of the captain of the ship.

Jack: These flags are flown by military vessels, usually. It is flown from a short flagstaff called a jackstaff at the front of the vessel. The United States Jack is a field of blue bearing 50 white stars in 9 rows. It’s used by the US Navy and the US Coast Guard.

Signal Flags: International Maritime signal flags are used to communicate between ships. The flags represent the international code of signals. Flags can be used to represent individual letters to spell words. Other flags have specific meanings. In yacht racing, for instance, an ‘S’ flag means the course has been shortened. A vessel may raise an ‘A’ flag to indicate that they have a diver underwater. A ‘G’ flag means the ship is in need of a pilot. These multicolored flags are what make up the bulk of the flags used in ship dressing.

Masthead Flags

Not every flag of the International Maritime Signal Flags are going to be used. Flags flown include the ensign and the burgee. Officer flags and national flags would not be used. The ensign would be used at the mastheads plus the burgee next to the ensign at the main masthead. Broad pennants can be flown by flag officers on the main masthead.

If the ship is dressed for a festival the flag officer would use the appropriate foreign ensign. The burgee would not be used for a foreign festival. Those are only flown from the main Masthead for local and yacht club regattas.

Dressing Overall

In addition to having the masthead flags flown, dressing overall has some variations. The dressing lines include the flags of international code. Ensigns, private flags, and racing flags are not to be used on the dressing lines. Only International Code of Signals flags are going to be on the dressing lines. This is true for military celebrations or regattas. The rules at a regatta may be less strict, however.

Rectangular Flags should fit between triangular flags and pennants. This should extend as far down the lines as possible. Eventually there will not be enough pendants or triangular flakes to finish, however. There are twice as many letter flags as numeral pennants. A good idea is to follow a sequence of two flags, one pennant, two flags, one pennant. The plan is to achieve what is known as rainbow fashion. That means the flag colors should be alternated to give high contrast. The color pattern must be appealing.

There is no regulation order for how the flags should be arranged to dress overall. That said, there is a standard that gives ideal contrast. Flags can be arranged according to this pattern starting from forward: AB2, UJ1, KE3, GH6, IV5, FL4, DM7, PO Third Repeater, RN First Repeater, ST Zero, CX9, WQ8, ZY Second Repeater.