The Long Blue Line: Coast Guard’s Anchorage Flag and early port security

The earliest reference to use of the flag dates back to 1917 in the book Flags of the World. The book states “Coast Guard cutters patrolling the anchorage grounds of the large harbors of the United States fly at their jackstaff a flag of white upon which is imposed a blue anchor.”

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Special Agent Keith J. Bassolino

United States Coast Guard Reserve

The Coast Guard is known for having two official flags: the U.S. flag and the Coast Guard ensign. But as a maritime service, there are several flags that have flown over Coast Guard cutters and stations over the past 230 years. Many flags of the past are well known, such as the U.S. Lighthouse Service pennant or the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service ensign. Other flags are more obscure such as the simple but misunderstood Coast Guard Anchorage Flag.

The Anchorage Flag was in use almost 100 years ago, but its history has disappeared over time. The flag shows a simple blue fouled anchor on a white field. Although the flag is still produced by a few companies, most mariners and Coast Guard members have never seen it in use. The earliest reference to use of the flag dates back to 1917 in the book Flags of the World. The book states “Coast Guard cutters patrolling the anchorage grounds of the large harbors of the United States fly at their jackstaff a flag of white upon which is imposed a blue anchor.”

The Coast Guard Anchorage Flag once commonly used in anchorages and port security assignments, but little known in recent times. (Illustration from Flags of the World, 1917)
The Coast Guard Anchorage Flag once commonly used in anchorages and port security assignments, but little known in recent times. (Illustration from Flags of the World, 1917)

Congress approved rules regulating anchorages on March 4, 1915, under the Rivers & Harbors Act. This act established the anchorage patrol mission stating:

That the Secretary of War is hereby authorized, empowered, and directed to define and establish anchorage grounds and to adopt suitable rules and regulations in relation thereto; and such rules and regulations shall be enforced by the Revenue-Cutter Service (now Coast Guard) under the direction of the Secretary of the Treasury.

The act did not establish new anchorages, but transferred authority from the Department of Commerce to the War Department. The Secretary of War maintained regulations governing the anchorages, but the Coast Guard enforced them. No specific ports or anchorages were named in the report, only those “localities in which anchorage limits have been established.”

A selection of flags associated with the Coast Guard and related federal agencies with Anchorage Flag located in the middle. (Illustration from Flags of the World, 1917)
A selection of flags associated with the Coast Guard and related federal agencies with Anchorage Flag located in the middle. (Illustration from Flags of the World, 1917)

During World War I, anchorage and port operations were a vital mission of the Coast Guard, especially port security. The Coast Guard oversaw harbor security, safe loading of ships, and regulating local shipping. Since the United States had not yet entered the war, cutters were also assigned to enforce neutrality laws at these ports. On June 15, 1917, under authority of Congress’s Espionage Act, authority for anchorages was officially transferred from the War Department to the Treasury Department. For the duration of World War I, the Coast Guard enforced port security regulations under Treasury.

Although official anchorages existed throughout the country, only the larger ones were regularly patrolled by cutters. In 1916, these ports included New York, Chicago, Maine’s Kennebec River, and Sault Ste. Marie. By 1920, Coast Guard officers were designated as captains of the ports (and anchorages) for New York Harbor; the Hampton Roads harbors of Norfolk and Newport News; Delaware River between Philadelphia and New Castle, Delaware; Sault Ste. Marie; and Chicago.

Coast Guard patrol boat Patrol with Anchorage Flag flying at the masthead. (Photo: “U.S. Coast Guard Small Cutters and Patrol Boats 1915-2012,” comp. J.T. Flynn, 2014)
Coast Guard patrol boat Patrol with Anchorage Flag flying at the masthead. (Photo: “U.S. Coast Guard Small Cutters and Patrol Boats 1915-2012,” comp. J.T. Flynn, 2014)

Treasury Department annual reports reflected the importance of the anchorage patrol mission, stating “The matters connected with the enforcement of the rules and regulations governing the anchorage and movements of vessels are exceedingly important and exacting, requiring the assignment to the duty especially in the larger ports, of persons of exceptional ability and judgement, and with experience in the regulation of shipping.” Over time, more and more harbors were added such as San Francisco and Galveston. Harbors were also removed such as in 1922 when the captain of the port of Philadelphia Harbor (and thus Coast Guard supervision over anchorage grounds) was disestablished.

The Coast Guard’s Annual Report for 1923 describes specifically what Coast Guard assets had to do in anchorage grounds: “facilitate and effect the proper anchorage of vessels, to see that the anchorage regulations and navigation laws are observed, and to impact and secure information concerning maritime conditions and activities.” The 1926 Annual Report mandated that Coast Guard assets use a systematic plan to relieve congestion, ensure order, and protect life and property. That same year, boats patrolling the anchorages added a guide mission to enforcing rules and regulations with harbor tugs and launches that flew the Anchorage Flag directed to “giving information and advice as to local port conditions and facilities….and extending their helpful services to marine commerce in every way practicable.”

The first official mention of the Service’s Anchorage Flag appeared in the Coast Guard’s General Order Number 85 posted on July 27, 1921:

ART. 3104(5) The Coast Guard anchorage flag shall be a white field with a blue foul anchor in the center, with the crown toward the upper corner of the hoist; it shall measure 3 feet 6 inches in the hoist and 5 feet in length.

ART 3086(2) Vessels when performing duty in connection with the enforcement of the rules and regulations governing the anchorage and movements of vessels shall display the national ensign at the flagstaff aft, the Coast Guard ensign and pennant at the pennant staff, and the Coast Guard anchorage flag at the jack staff.

The 1923 Coast Guard Annual Report expands on this general order stating that “the reason for flying the flag was that shipping may readily locate and identify the anchorage patrol vessels, such craft carry a distinguishing flag of a white field with a blue foul anchor.”

From official documents, it is evident that the Anchorage Flag was used at least from 1917 until the early 1930s. Service boats and harbor tugs would fly it from the jack staff on the bow in larger anchorages and on cutters that patrolled smaller anchorages. The Coast Guard ensign still conveyed authority, but the Anchorage Flag signaled to other ships the mission of the Coast Guard patrol vessels. Later, when the Coast Guard assumed the duty of providing anchorage information in addition to overseeing regulations, the flag would identify Coast Guard boats to merchant ships.

In the early 1930s, the Coast Guard discontinued regular patrols of anchorages merging that mission into harbor patrol duties, and the flag fell out of favor. However, no final date of its use has been identified.

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