The Q flag. The symbol of a cruising dream, heading into foreign ports and adventures in new countries.
Q stands for quarantine. In this case, quarantine in that you’re a new arrival, not yet officially checked into the foreign country. In the boating world, it does not have anything to do with quarantining for illness.
I’ve seen a number of “arguments” online – each from apparently authoritative sources – with different interpretations as to exactly when and how the Q flag should be flown. The basics are the same but there are disagreements about some of the details.
Here’s my understanding, from going down the Pacific coast of Central America:
- As you enter the territorial waters of a country, hoist the Q flag on the starboard spreader to indicate that you have not yet checked in. Some say you should fly the courtesy flag above it; others say no other flags on the same halyard. US practice is to have no others.
- Theoretically, no one can go ashore until the boat is checked in with customs, immigration and other (usually health) authorities, who come to the boat. In practice, in many places the captain or the entire crew goes ashore to check in. Even within a country, the practice may change from one place to another. The bottom line, however, is that the first place you go ashore should be a Port of Entry and the first thing you should do is check in, following whatever the local custom is. Be sure to check cruising guides and Noonsite to learn the Ports of Entry and also the local practice!
- After all the formalities have been attended to and the boat and all crew are officially checked in, the Q flag is lowered and the courtesy flag of the country is flown on the starboard spreader. Nothing should be higher than the courtesy flag and any burgees should be on the port spreader. In many countries, locals will be very offended by ratty looking courtesy flags, so if you intend to be in a country for more than a couple months, you may want to look into higher quality flags or carry several spares.
- There is almost no guidance on what to do after clearing out of a country, while you are still in its territorial waters. We were told to fly the courtesy flag as long as we were in a country’s waters, then to change for the Q flag of the “new” country we were now in. When you return to your home country from a foreign country, you should fly the Q flag until you are fully checked in.
And yes, we just received our brand-spanking-new Q flag! Excitement is building as we’re starting to make plans . . . oops, I shouldn’t say plans. That’s a bad word for cruisers. We are hoping to head to the Bahamas in early March for several months.
If you sew, you can make your own Q flag pretty easily. However, I discovered that since I would only be making one flag, the supplies would cost far more than buying a Q flag. West Marine’s isn’t too outrageous, but I found one for a little less on Amazon (yes, the shipping is more than the flag, but the total is still less than others I found).
P.S. I’ve always thought that a Q flag is a great boat-warming present for would-be international cruisers, showing that you believe in their dreams!