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The Origin of the Burgee
By Julie Shea
Posted on 4/7/2021 1:27 PM
White burgee flying on boat, blue sky, with small mountain covered in trees, reflecting on the waterWalking down the dock at almost any marina, you could likely collect photos of different yacht club burgees in the same way you collect boat cards. AGLCA has six different color burgees itself (if you include the ones specific to our sponsors). As you stop to introduce yourself to another boater and ask them about their burgee, you might even find yourself wondering where this all began.
Burgee History

According to Merriam-Webster, a burgee (pronounced bur-jee) is (1) a swallow-tailed flag used especially by ships for signals or identification (2) the usually triangular identifying flag of a yacht club.

The word burgee likely comes from the French word bourgeois, which means shipowner.

Back in the days before VHF radio and cell phones, shipowners in the 1800s began creating personal burgees to identify their ships. Each vessel had its own design. Usually, the boat owner made more than one for each boat and one of the burgees remained on land, enabling the ship to be called ashore by someone on land hoisting their burgee when a ship or crew member was needed back at the dock. As these shipowners amassed additional vessels for their fleets, they began using uniform designs for all the boats in the fleet and burgees began to be identified with a specific business or group instead of a specific boat.

As you know, flags were (and still are) an important means of communication between vessels at sea ~ particularly during military action. Everyone onboard needed to know what the flags meant so they knew what other ships in their fleet were telling them ~ and know how to respond appropriately.

Pleasure Boating

Back in the early days of boat flags, most of the vessels on the water were commercial or military in nature. But boating solely for the fun of it was on the horizon. George Crowninshield, a wealthy merchant from Salem, Massachusetts, seems to get the credit for giving pleasure boating its start in the United States. New York Yacht Club’s (NYYC) website credits him with building a 22-ton Sloop in 1801 and sailing up and down the New England Coast.

Both NYYC and the National Archives note that George built the first luxury yacht in approximately 1816, christening her Cleopatra’s Barge. George and Cleopatra’s Barge headed for the Mediterranean often with the sole intention of having a good time.   

By 1847, pleasure boating was all the rage, giving the federal government a bit of headache. Income tax laws were about 50 years away and taxing foreign goods brought into American waters provided the bulk of the government's operating income. Officials went aboard and inspected each vessel ~ including private yachts. Obviously, on a private yacht, they were wasting time and effort looking for taxable goods coming into port. They needed to find a way of easily separating the private yachts from the merchant vessels.

You can probably guess what happened next.

Wikipedia notes: “A modification of the national flag and ensign but with a fouled anchor in a circle of thirteen stars in the canton, was created by an Act of Congress in August 1848 as a flag to be used by licensed U.S. yachts…the license allowed the yacht to proceed from port to port without the formality of clearing customs.”

The yachting burgee doesn’t appear to go back quite as far. The North German Regatta Club is credited with flying the first yachting burgee in 1875. The goal at that time was less about finding other members at the dock (as it is today) and more about helping themselves avoid customs inspections.
Oldest Yacht Clubs

The Royal Cork Yacht Club in Ireland is recognized as the oldest yacht club in the world, founded in 1720. You can check out the history of the club on their website, but they suspect King Charles II may have been instrumental in its beginning. The King had been exiled to the Netherlands in the early 1600s, where pleasure boating was becoming popular. As you can imagine, King Charles was quickly hooked on the idea of spending his free time on the water. When he returned to the throne, he brought his new love of sailing with him and soon his staff was enjoying the King’s favorite pastime as well.

According to the Royal Cork’s website, “Soon several of his courtiers followed his example and we feel pretty certain that one of them was Murrough O’Brien, the 6th Lord Inchiquin (Murrough of the Burnings) 1720, interest in the sport had progressed so much that his great-grandson, the 26-year-old William O’Brien, the 9th Lord Inchiquin, and five of his friends got together to formalise their activities and in so doing established ‘The Water Club of the Harbour of Cork’. This club is known today as the Royal Cork Yacht Club and it is the oldest yacht club in the world.”   
It is well established that NYYC was the first of its kind in the U.S. The story goes (from their website): “…NYYC was started on July 30, 1944 when John Cox Stevens invited eight friends to his yacht, Gimcrack, anchored in New York Harbor. They formed a syndicate to build a yacht with the intention of taking her to England and making some money competing in yachting regattas and match races.”

In Canada, The Royal Canadian Yacht Club (located in Toronto) has the honor of being the oldest, founded in 1852 “to serve both as a recreational yachting club and, in the British tradition, as an unofficial auxiliary of the Royal Navy in the defence of the waters of Lake Ontario.” In addition to sailing, they promoted excellence in sports like squash, tennis, and lawn bowling. They had a similar beginning to the others ~ a small group of boating enthusiasts who came together with a common goal.

History of the AGLCA Burgee

The AGLCA Burgee was designed by Charter Member, Ed Huff, a graphics designer and marine artist who cruised America's Great Loop in 1999-2000 with his wife, Carol. Ed has designed a number of burgees for other nautical groups. AGLCA's Burgee, with the stylized map of Eastern North America along with an outline highlighting the Great Loop route, is "the welcome mat for Loopers".

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