Over the centuries an ensign or national flag has always been synonymous with identifying the nationality of a vessel. But what happens if you do not fly a flag at sea? Well simply put your boat becomes stateless in the eyes of the law.
Being identified as a stateless vessel is a big deal when it comes to any rights you had over boarding on the high seas. It gives ANY nation the right to board and inspect your vessel. Not only may you be boarded and inspected but depending on how the country doing the intercepting interprets the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Seas. Your vessel and the search will fall under the laws and jurisdiction of the foreign state without the foreign state.
Choosing Not to Fly a Flag At Sea Is An Invitation to Be Interceped and Boarded
You can see that by not flying a flag at sea you are essentially inviting being intercepted. Much like driving down the highway with a broken taillight. At the point, you as the skipper realize you are about to be intercepted you still have the ability to rectify the situation. The easiest course of action is to prominently display your flag, shout out, or hail the vessel intercepting which country your vessel is flagged or registered in.
By state, we mean ‘country’ of registration (at times country may be the incorrect definition but that is beyond the scope of this article), and to clear up any confusion it is not your US state. All discussions with the intercepting vessel related to the state are the vessel’s flag state and not the country of citizenship of her passengers and crew. At this point in the hierarchy of discussions, whoever will be intercepting you is solely concerned with establishing the flag state of your vessel.
Normally simply unrolling your flag should be enough and most naval ships around the world will leave you alone.
We had this happen to us early one morning sailing down the coast of Guadaloupe. A fast French customs rib roared up to us with eight officers dressed in fairly serious, we mean business gear. We saw them looking and pointing at the back of the boat and remembered that we were not flying our flag as it was fairly wind-battered. And we were trying to save what little life it had left, while we waited for a new one to be shipped to us in the Caribbean.
As soon as our flag was out they gave us a friendly wave. Shouted to enjoy our day, and roared off to the next boat. We were lucky but being intercepted much like a traffic stop can go from a mild inconvenience to a major issue.
You May Still Have To Prove the Right To Fly The Flag At Sea
Once you do fly your flag, you may still be boarded by the coast guard if they still are uncertain of your flag or doubt your right to fly the flag. A foreign navy does have the right to board your boat to inspect your vessel registration papers. After seeing your papers they may even go as far as contacting your flag state to verify your rights to fly the flag. Once contact is made they may then request permission to search your vessel if you have not already permitted them to do so.
It should also be pointed out that permission is not always required to search your vessel. It depends on multiple factors from your flag state to your geographic location at the time of intercept to treaties and a whole host more considerations that keep Maritime Attorneys in a heated debate at cocktail parties.
A Foreign Country Has Every Right To Board And Inspect Your Boat at Anchor
What is certain is if you are anchorage or port in a foreign country you fall under that nation’s laws. And that country has the right to board and search your boat under their own regulations. They most likely will not require a warrant or require any cause to climb aboard and conduct a search. Even as a US-flagged vessel you will fall under and must abide by their laws.
My advice is to save yourself a lot of hassle when cruising make sure you fly a flag at sea. If that is not practical make sure to fly a flag whenever you see any official-looking vessel. Flying a flag at sea can save you hours of frustration that could have been avoided.