Sail Past & Blessing of the Fleet

The Sail Past tradition began at the first Yacht Club that was formed at Cowes in England more than 200 years ago. The membership at Cowes was primarily aristocratic and many were familiar with Naval practice and tradition. Cowes Yacht Club subsequently changed its name to the Royal Yacht Squadron and certain social graces were added to the traditional Naval practices.

The actual “Review of the Fleet”  is steeped in more than 600 years of Royal Navy tradition and history and was introduced in Yacht clubs as a continuation of that naval habit of having Navy Admirals (and/or Royalty) review the fleet on special occasions.


Protocol demanded that a flagship be anchored with the Admiral and staff on the Quarterdeck to receive and return the salute. Vessels sailed past dipping there colours in salute, and with their captain also saluting with the ship’s company standing to attention. The Vice-Admiral would lead the fleet passing in review and the final vessel in the line would carry the Rear Admiral.

Our Yacht Club tradition is almost identical, except that the salute is received by the Commodore and Naval representative instead of the Admiral and the salute is delivered by the passing boat, if under sail, by luffing its jib, or, if under power, by dipping its ensign.  All of the crew on the saluting boats stands at attention facing the Commodore and visiting Navy Flag Officer.  If there is insufficient wind, sailboats should have their engines on. Protocol dictates that until the sail past is completed, only the Flagship may be dressed (strung with bunting & flags). However, after the Sail Past, participating yachts are encouraged to dress their yacht on returning to the dock.

2021 Sail Past Schedule

2021 Sail Past Image Gallery

2020 Breaking of the Flag/Da$h 4 Ca$h Image Gallery

By precedent, Sail Past is a formal event that officially opens the boating season. The Navy and many Yacht Clubs also follow the Sail-past with a “Blessing of the Fleet” a long-standing European tradition, first practised in Portugal of seeking divine providence to those who laboured or ventured on the sea to assure good harvest, safe passage and safe return.

At IYC the Sail Past is accompanied by dressing the Clubhouse and Flagpole and a formal raising or lowering in a ceremonial Sunset of the National Flag, accompanied by a cannon salute. The ceremony is followed by a reception. Like most boating activities, Sail Past is somewhat weather dependent. We all hope for a bright sunny day, calm seas and just enough wind to propel the boats around the course in an orderly fashion. But mother nature does not always cooperate. In that case, a sailors ingenuity comes into play.

Several years ago in the UK, on a blustery, rainy and very cold first Sunday in June, that was fit for no man or sea-dog, rather than cancel the Sail Past in its entirety, the Commodore inventively mounted the workboat and steamed in and out of the ships, receiving and returning the salute from members standing on the sterns of their boats with flags in hand. After the ceremony, we all retired to the much drier conditions of the Clubhouse for a well-deserved libation compatible with the weather  “Splice the Mainbrace”.


Tradition dictates that all Club Members participate in the Sail Past, on their own or on another Members yacht. Good manners require that a Member unable to participate will send his/hers regrets to the Commodore.

The Sail Past ceremony dates back to the earliest beginnings of Naval traditions. One of the earliest references to Sail Past is in the “The Iliad”, that records: “After two years of preparation, the Greek Fleet, of more than a 1000 ships and an army of 100,000 men, assembled at the Port of Aulis, in Northeastern Greece, for a Sail Past of Troy”  It is believed that from this ceremony came the famous expression that “Helen of Troy had the face that launched a 1,000 ships”.

What to Wear:-

Yachting tradition requires all members to be in full regalia including jackets, ties, medals and crest, but the ICY, while encouraging this dress code by everyone, strongly recommends this dress only for Flag Officers. However, it is in good taste for Members and guests to partake the Sail Past in suitable nautical attire of blue and white clothes, and hopefully in a navy blazer or sweater, white or khaki pants, and a white shirt.

Skipper’s Meeting:-

The Sail Past is preceded by a “Skipper’s Meeting” where the skipper will be given instructions on the location of the flagship, the order of various fleets in the review, the interval between boats (usually two boat lengths), the VHF Channel to monitor for coordination and other relevant sailing directions. While it is always thought of as good sport to pass as close as one can to the flagship, it is definitely considered to be in bad taste to run into it. Keep a reasonable distance off at least two boat lengths for safety.

Sail Past is one of the most traditional events of the club and is an opportunity to see and experience the strength and vitality of the club in action, as well as an opportunity to pay respect to our current and past Commodores and to the centuries-old tradition that all of us are part of.


Sunset. The time of ‘sunset’ is determined by the setting of the sun as promulgated in the Nautical Almanac. … On special occasions, the ceremonial of ‘colours’ and ‘sunset’ may be conducted in the presence of a Naval Guard and band… The ceremony is similar to that of ‘colours’ although the ship’s bell does not feature in proceedings.

Five minutes before ‘sunset’ the preparative pennant is hoisted on the foremast to indicate ‘five minutes to sunset’. On observing this, a report to that effect is made to the Officer-of-the-Day (OOD) by duty watch personnel. At one minute before sunset, the preparative pennant is shaken to alert those involved in the ceremony to come to attention. At sunset, the preparative pennant is dipped and the report ‘Sunset Sir/Ma’am!’ is made to the OOD who responds with the order ‘Pipe the still!’ The ‘still’ is duly piped on a boatswain’s call and The Ceremonial Cannon is fired and the ANF and State flags are lowered. On completion of the ceremony the ‘carry on’ is piped and duty personnel dismissed.

Did you know that vexillology is the scientific study of the history, symbolism, and usage of flags or, by extension, any interest in flags in general?

On special occasions, the ceremonies of ‘colours’ and ‘sunset’ may be conducted in the presence of a naval guard and band. When this occurs, the guard is brought to attention and the ‘general salute’ made while morning colours are raised to the musical accompaniment of the first verse of the Australian Nation Anthem, Advance Australia Fair. The ANF and state flag are raised in time with this musical score.

When full ceremonial is accorded for the lowering of colours it is known as ‘Ceremonial Sunset’. Inshore establishments, and those ships fitted with flight decks, it is often preceded by a ‘Beat to Quarters, a practice that dates back centuries to the age of sail when a ship’s drums were beaten to summon men to quarters or action stations when the battle was imminent. Today the inclusion of Beat to Quarters honours the courage and sacrifice of the men and women of the Royal Australian Navy through more than a century of service during war and peace.

Following Beat, to Quarters the drummers retire to the band and the guard advances to commence the age-old Naval tradition of saluting the lowering of the Ensign at sunset each day. At five minutes to Sunset, the “Evening Hymn”, `The Day thou Gravest Lord is Ended´ is played. A volley of shots (Or Cannon is fired) by the guard during the rendering of this hymn which echoes a very old practice of saluting the knell of parting day.

Ceremonial Sunset on Naval vessels:-

Ceremonial Sunset is derived from amongst the oldest of Naval Ceremonies, dating back centuries to the age of sail. Originally, the ship’s drums beat on as a call for the Ship’s company to man their quarters, or action stations, when the battle was imminent.

When in port the Ceremonial Sunset routine is by:-

  1. Men are stationed along the ships guard rails and superstructures of ships.
  2. Men remain at attention during the ceremony and do not salute
  3. On the sounding of the Bosuns call:-

One whistle (face starboard)

Two whistles (face port) followed by

Another one whistle “Attention”,

Finale whistle all hands dismiss and “Carry on”.

Ceremonial Sunset reflects the worldwide Naval tradition of saluting the lowering of the Ensign.