Written by Scott Price, Coast Guard Historian.
Throughout history, from the Revenue Cutter Service to the U.S. Coast Guard, July 4 is celebrated and honored through a proud maritime custom common to national holidays and special events – “dressing ship.” Following regulations of 1843:
“Upon the anniversary of the Declaration of Independence of the United States, the colors shall be hoisted at sunrise, and all the vessels of the Revenue Marine shall, when in port, be dressed, and so continue until the colors are hauled down at sunset, if the state of the weather and other circumstances will allow it. At sunrise, at meridian, and at sunset, a salute of twenty-one guns shall be fired at meridian from every vessel of the Revenue Marine in commission.”
Over the years, the regulations were refined but their spirit of commemorating and celebrating the day when the United States declared its independence from Great Britain always remained paramount. While some occasions simply call for dressing the ship with a national ensign at each masthead, other more celebrated occasions like Independence Day call for a ship to be fully dressed. According to the regulations published in 1916 for the newly created U.S. Coast Guard, full dress included:
“A line of signal flags, rainbow fashion, extending from the water line to the jib-boom end (or from the jackstaff at the height of the ridge rope, if without a jib boom), thence to the highest masthead on the fore, thence to the highest masthead on the main, thence to the highest masthead on the mizzen, thence to the peak, to the boom end or flagstaff at the height of the ridge rope aft, and to the water line aft. In vessels of other rigs the disposition of the decorations shall conform as nearly as possible to the foregoing.”
So, when you come across an old photograph of a cutter or see one docked with all of its flags flying from each masthead with signal flags fluttering in the breeze from stem-to-stern, remember what the ship represents and honor its patriotic spirit as well as the memory of those cutter crews who through the past 220 years have spent their Independence Day far from home.
If you come across a ship in full dress while you are out enjoying this holiday, snap a photo and email it to us at email@example.com. We’ll put together an album and share it on our Facebook page next week .