The small fishing village of Gills Rock Wisconsin is a hidden gem located at the very tip of the Door County peninsula on the shores of Porte des Mortes (Death’s Door). The Door County Maritime Museum at Gills Rock traces the area’s commercial fishing tradition. It boasts the wooden fishing tug Hope and a replica net shed complete with fishing boxes, net reel and other traditional fishing supplies.
The museum also features a shipwreck and scuba diving exhibit, artifacts brought up from the bottom of Lake Michigan and information on the area’s dangerous passage known as Death’s Door. Visitors can use a Lyle gun to rescue stranded mariners, and browse an area devoted to marine engines – including those built at Kahlenberg Brothers of Two Rivers, Wis.
We sometimes get questions about the flying of the national ensign (U.S. flag) on our gaff-rigged flag pole at the Gills Rock museum. A gaff is a spar rising aft from a mast. There is concern that we are improperly flying the national ensign lower than another flag. As depicted in the photo alongside, the national ensign should be flown from the gaff and the club, organization burgee or other appropriate flag should be flown at the masthead. Our national ensign should be flown from the highest point of honor and, over time, that has become the peak of the gaff.
The gaff-rigged pole had its origins at sea. Because of all the sails carried by the rigging of these vessels, the flag of a nation could not be clearly viewed if it was placed at the top of the mast. The stern of the vessel was the position of command and the captain's quarters were located aft, so the stern was the appropriate place for the flags and allowed them to be visible. Early boats also had the nobleman's banner, king's banner, or English ensign staff fixed to the stern rail. As sails changed, long booms sweep across the stern rail every time the ship tacked, so the ensign staff had to be removed when the ship was underway. Since the captain and other officers were still aft, the nearest position from which they found it practical to fly the national ensign was the gaff. Over time, this became the place of honor to display the national flag. When the ship was moored, the ensign staff was set up again on the stern rail.
This was the practice in the eighteenth century, when the U.S. Navy was created. Now that warships are made of steel and the signal mast no longer carries a boom, our Navy and Coast Guard still fly the national ensign at the gaff peak when underway and at the ensign staff when not underway. There is no law specifying how a flag should fly on a gaff-rigged pole, instead it is based on long standing nautical tradition.
The usual argument given by those that think it is wrong to fly the national ensign from the gaff is that the national ensign is flying below a club burgee or other flag contrary to the Flag Code. Notice that even when the national ensign is flown from the stern of a ship, it is lower in height than other flags flying on the ship. When the ensign is flown from a gaff-rigged pole, a flag flown at the top of the mast is not considered above the ensign because it is not being flown directly above the ensign on the same halyard.
The national ensign should be flown from the highest point of honor, and over time, that has become the peak of the gaff. Flying the national ensign from the top of the mast while flying another flag at the gaff would be flying another flag in a position of superior honor. If we changed our flags, all the sailors would be calling to tell us we were flying the U.S. flag in the wrong place.
As an organization tasked with preserving and celebrating the rich maritime heritage of the Door Peninsula, we are very proud of our nautical gaff-rigged pole at Gills Rock. It harkens back to the days of sail when tall masts on the horizon were a common sight in Door County.