We had always understood that the Q flag should be flown whenever you are in territorial waters without clearing with Customs
and Immigration. After clearing, the Q flag is replaced with the appropriate courtesy flag.
However, we noticed that the Q flag is often flown above the courtesy flag, prior to clearing. This seemed quite respectful and appropriate to us, so we began doing the same. After clearing, the Q flag is removed, leaving only the courtesy flag.
Many boats in the Caribbean
did not fly the flags at all, or seemed to ignore protocol. We found many French who never bothered to change the flags after arriving at a new island. As well, we found many American boats who flew only the Stars & Stripes, or flew them inappropriately higher than the courtesy flag.
We saw no "enforcement" of proper etiquette by any officials from Canada
through to Trinidad, save in Bermuda
; where the officials strongly insisted that the Q flags be taken down as soon as clearing was completed.
Although I had considered not having all my courtesy flags, I would have felt quite self-conscious without flying the appropriate flags. I also enjoyed entering port with our club burgee, the Seven Seas Cruising Association flag, and the Canadian Power & Sail Squadron flag. Although I am sure few noticed, it made us feel festive.
The most economical Canadian flags are quite large, so our little boat always had a honking big stern flag. The first flag finally ripped down to the maple leaf, causing someone to ask us if we were "separatists"; while the second one stayed together but faded to a pretty pink colour, causing another cruiser to ask if that was to signify if we were gay
. Oh well, at least people were friendly.