Dipping the Ensign
Many thanks to ‘jungle cat.de’ for this account. One of his earlier ships, above, painted by him – the “WEYBANK” in Thailand
It is a tradition at sea that when a merchant navy vessel crosses path with a warship, the merchant ship shall dip its national ensign (flag) as a mark of courtesy/respect.
Warships never dip their ensigns, except in answer to such a salute by a merchant vessel.
Generally, when a merchant vessel leaves port for the open sea, its national ensign, flown usually from the flag staff at the stern of the vessel, called the jackstaff or jack for short, is taken down and only raised again when entering the next port of call. There are a number of reasons why this is so, one of them being that when underway the combination of wind and saltwater causes the ensign to slowly disintegrate. One would often see such ensigns hanging in tatters from ships’ jacks where their crews couldn’t be bothered to lower them at sea.
A flag salute from a merchant vessel consists of dipping its ensign, by lowering it by a half of the length of the jackstaff. This dip should be maintained until the warship responds by first dipping its own ensign and then raising it again to the truck (full mast position) wherefater the merchant vessel responds by raising his own ensign back to the truck.
In the US Navy the jackstaff ensign is never flown while a ship is underway, the exception being in response to a dip from another ship.
The following incident occured aboard a German freighter as we were cruising majestically along through the Caribbean Sea on a beautiful sunny early afternoon. The officers aboard our ship were German but most of our deckhand crew were Spanish.
The early afternoons were Siesta time for most of the off-watch crew. I was in the wheelhouse “shooting the breeze” with the 2.Offz. who had the watch when we saw a ship popping up on the horizon. We switched on the radar to get an idea of its course and observed it through binoculars. As it got a bit closer we were able to see that it was a warship. Tracking it with the radar we reckoned that it was on a course at a tangent which would eventually bring her to pass crossing astern of us. She was moving fast so the 2.Offz. grabbed our national German ensign (folded up) from the flag locker and called one of our Spanish bridge wing lookouts over. He stuck the folded-up ensign in the Spaniards hand and told him, in his best Spanglish to run aft and hoist it on the jack, thereafter to wait for a hand signal from him to dip it and for another when to raise it again. “Si, Senor” answered Manuel, who then galloped off down the companionways to the main deck and all the way to the poop deck.
I have named him Manuel here because he bore a remarkable likeness to Manuel, the Spanish waiter in the “Fawlty Towers” TV episodes. We watched from the bridge wing as Manuel clipped on the ensign to the jack’s halyards, raised it and then struck the colours. The flag billowed out in a blaze of black, gold and red. “Scheisse!” said the 2nd. and started shouting at Manuel in the distance – “Zieh’s ‘runter!, Zieh’s ‘runter!! (abbreviated German for “pull it down”).Instead of the German flag flying proudly it was that of Belgium (which has the same colours as that of Germany). Manuel obviously couldn’t hear or understand so he outstetched his arms with his palms up in the air as in “what the hell do you want now?” The 2nd mate also changed over to hand signals which however were misinterpreted by Manuel as “get down”, which he promptly did by crouching down low at his haunches – like a Chinese rickshaw coolie waiting for a fare. The 2nd. mate blew a fuse “Komm zurueck Du Idiot” he shouted while simultaneously making relevant hand signals. Poor Manuel got the message and galloped all the way back up to the bridge wing. On his arrival he was rewarded by getting another flag jammed into his hand together with an order to get his ass moving and exchange the ensigns “Muy Pronto” (along with some unprintable German expletives).
The other Spanish lookout and I exchanged grins. I then heard a single “Whooop” sounding, the kind you hear in movies featuring US warships. I looked across at the warship which was now really getting close and then saw the “Stars and Stripes” being struck from her jackstaff.
Down came the Belgian flag. Manuel, fumbling in panic, hooked on the German ensign and then hauled her up to the truck. By now the warship, which was a big modern US destroyer, was just about to cross astern of us. She was so close that we could almost hear the camera shutters of half of her crew who had gathered on her port side to watch the event.
Manuel, after having raised the ensign, immediately noticed his mistake – he had clipped the flag on upside down to the halyards and so he immediately started lowering it again. It was at this moment when the destroyer passed us astern, dipping her own ensign and then raising it again followed by three long “Whoop” blasts from her klaxon – the “as you were, carry on” signal.
The destroyer’s bridge command officers had undoubtedly viewed the whole pantomine unfurl (pun) through their binoculars from start to finish. What they thought of it is anybody’s guess – an episode from a German version of “McHale’s Navy” perhaps?