It is believed that the tradition of a Sail Past began at the Royal Yacht Squadron at Cowes in England nearly 200 years ago.
The actual “review of the fleet” is steeped in more than 600 years of Royal Navy tradition and history. It was introduced in yacht clubs as a continuation of the naval habit of having Admirals or Royalty review the fleet on special occasions.
Protocol demanded that a flagship be anchored with the Admiral on the quarterdeck to receive and return the salute. Vessels sailed past, dipping their colours in salute, and with their captain also saluting with the ship’s company standing at attention.
Royal Melbourne Yacht Squadron tradition is similar, except that the “salute” is received by the Commodore and delivered by each passing boat by dipping it’s Australian flag.
The Sail Past is a formal event which officially opens the season. Traditionally, all members should participate in the Sail Past, on their own or on another member’s vessel. In some more formal clubs, good manners require that a member unable to participate send regrets to the Commodore.
What you need to do
In the sail past the national flag is dipped by holding the flag to the staff by hand and releasing when the boat is two boat lengths past the official vessel. An alternative method is to hold the staff horizontal and drop to vertical then raise.
All the crew on the saluting boat stand in line facing the Commodore who they give a rousing three cheers. The Commodore then acknowledges the salute by hand.
The official vessel
The boat from which the Commodore receives the sail past is the official vessel and will fly the commodore’s burgee and the national flag. It will also be “dressed” with code flags and is the only boat able to be dressed that way.
The Australian flag
Recreational vessels normally fly the Australian National Flag however the Australian Red Ensign may be flown if the vessel is a registered ship. These flags should not be flown when racing to signify the yacht is subject to international sailing rules.
The National flag should be flown from the number one position which is a staff at the transom, or it can be flown two thirds up the back stay if necessary. The appropriate size is around 1 inch for each foot of boat length so if using imperial boat length which we seem to do and a metric flag, a 35ft boat would carry a 900mm flag. Whatever the size it is extremely important the flag does not touch the water.
The burgee should be flown at the mast head or if that is not possible, from the starboard lower spreaders. When a flag officer is on board the flag officer’s burgee is flown. As with the national flag, the burgee Is not flown when racing.
I have gathered this information from conversations with Bert Ferris, Australian Government websites, other yacht clubs, and various online information. I would welcome additional information others may have or possible alternative protocols which should be considered.