Types of Sailors

Types of Sailors | Life of Sailing

Last Updated by

Daniel Wade

June 15, 2022

Sailing titles are used to denote the different types of sailors and their duties.

In this article, we'll cover the different types of sailors, their duties, and the origins of these titles. We'll also go over situations in which you're likely to find these different types of sailors. We’ll also explain the concept of rank aboard ships, along with why it’s important.

The most well known types of sailors are the captain, officers, engineers, navigators, deckhands, able and ordinary seamen, and cadets. Other titles, such as the bosun and the helmsman, are also common.

This article is based on historical records and navy training manuals, along with commonly-accepted modern sailing terminology.


Table of contents

Shipboard Titles Explained

The title assigned to a sailor generally reflects that sailor's duty aboard a ship. In many cases, the same titles apply in the navy as they do on commercial and recreational vessels. The majority of commonly-used sailor titles date back to the sailing days of the British Royal Navy.

Terms such as coxswain date back even further to the era of old english, which is a form of the language that would be completely unrecognizable today. More modern marine titles, such as oiler and engineer, date from the 19th and 20th century and the dawn of the steam era. These types of sailors are generally not present on recreational sailing vessels, but they are found on tall ships with diesel auxiliaries.

Common Types of Sailors

Here is our list of the most common types of sailors, their duties, and general command ranking aboard a typical ship. When it comes to authority, the same general principles apply on both civilian and military vessels.

1. Captain

The captain, also known as the master, shipmaster or ship captain, is the commander of the ship and its highest-ranking individual. The captain may not own the ship, but it's 'his' ship while he's aboard.

It's the captain's job to direct the ship and manage all of its operations. On a sailboat, the captain is responsible for complying with regulations and navigating, along with steering and trimming the sails if the crew is small.

2. First Mate

The first mate, or chief officer, is second in command below the captain. The first mate is often charged with commanding the vessel when the captain is sleeping, ill, or otherwise absent.

3. Second Mate

The second mate, or second officer, is third in line for command of the vessel should the captain and first mate be absent. The second mate sometimes also serves as the boatswain or deck officer.

4. Third Mate

The third mate is the fourth highest-ranking officer aboard a ship. This officer is often tasked with overseeing and upkeeping the ship's emergency systems, such as lifeboats and firefighting equipment.

Sometimes, the third mate also works as a morale officer or deck officer. This sailor is generally tasked with all of the extra 'important' duties that the other officers can't do.

5. Navigator

The navigator is responsible for plotting the course of the boat. Navigators are well versed in the use of charts, GI'S navigation systems, and other tools. Navigators understand how to read the various labels on charts, such as depth and channel location.

Navigators are also responsible for relaying information to the captain, who ultimately decides the course and speed of the boat.

6. Pilot

A pilot is similar to a navigator, but a pilot doesn't usually stay aboard the boat. Pilots are navigators who are highly familiar with challenging waters, such as busy harbors or shallow shipping channels. Pilots are also known as harbor pilots.

In some cases, a vessel will take a navigating pilot aboard before traversing hazardous waters. Once through the area in question, the pilot usually disembarks and makes additional trips to other vessels.

7. Engineer

Engineers have multiple titles aboard ships, and they also serve multiple duties. The primary duty of ship's engineers is to operate and maintain the engine and its systems. The Chief Engineer is in charge of the operation.

Chief Engineers often have several other engineers working under them. Many larger sailing vessels have at least one engineer on board, as these vessels almost always have inboard propulsion and auxiliary engines.

On some vessels, engineers don’t just focus on the engines. They can be tasked with operating, maintaining, and repairing everything from anchor windlasses to electrical systems in the galley. Whenever machines are involved, there’s a good chance that an engineer will be responsible for it.

8. Boatswain

The term 'boatswain' is derived from old english, and it refers to the person responsible for managing the vessel's deck, hull, and crew. Alternative terms for the boatswain include petty officer, deck officer, and bosun.

The boatswain will often have people working under them known as boatswain's (or bosun's) mates. The responsibilities of the boatswain mirror that of a shop foreman or general manager.

9. Helmsman

The captain isn't always responsible for steering the boat. This is especially true on larger vessels with a crew of 20 or more. In the case of larger boats, the helmsman is responsible for steering and keeping the vessel on course. The helmsman takes direct orders from the captain usually in the form of (direction) then (compass degrees).

Keeping the vessel on course is actually quite challenging, as boats never track completely straight courses. The helmsman must be delicate and skilled, as they're often tasked with making constant and minute side-to-side course corrections.

10. Coxswain

This term has fallen out of favor in many parts of the world, though it's still used in the sport of rowing. On ships, the coxswain is generally tasked with the command of small auxiliary boats, such as a launch, lifeboat, or a barge. The United States Coast Guard uses the term to describe the commander of any small boat.

11. Officer

There are numerous kinds of officers aboard ships of all sizes. e The term 'officer' is used broadly to denote a sailor of high rank. The term applies across the scale from junior officers all the way up to commanding officers (captains).

Officers achieve their ranks either through training, experience, or merit-based promotion. On most ships, officers receive higher pay, better amenities, and authority in exchange for additional authority. Officers are often held directly responsible for the people or equipment they're tasked with managing.

12. Signalman

The signalman is responsible for just that--signalling. The signalman communicates with other ships using maritime flags or lights. The signalman must have an in-depth understanding of signal flags, morse code, and other forms of marine communication. On smaller vessels, the signalman sometimes doubles up as the communication officer, and uses radios and other systems.

13. Deckhand

Deckhands are general-purpose sailors who perform a wide range of tasks. These sailors do everything from hoisting sails to preparing meals, depending on the size and type of boat. A deckhand is usually the lowest-ranking and least experienced member of the crew, though the tasks they perform are essential. Deckhands are entry-level sailors who often have numerous opportunities for promotion as they gain experience.

14. Able Seaman

An able seaman is typically a rank up from ordinary seaman. In other words, it’s the first promotion or level-up that a sailor receives. Generally speaking, an able seaman is an entry-level crew member with about two years of experience aboard ships. These sailors perform numerous general tasks aboard ships, though they enjoy more authority than the lowest-ranking seamen.

An able seaman and an ordinary seaman perform many of the same tasks. These include cleaning, painting, rigging, and general maintenance. However, an able seaman may escape some of the more tedious and arduous tasks aboard a ship.

15. Ordinary Seaman

An ordinary seaman is another entry-level position on a boat, and they perform basic tasks. Ordinary seaman responsibilities include cleaning, painting, repairing machinery, polishing brass, moving heavy objects, and other miscellaneous tasks as needed.

Like deckhands, ordinary seamen start at the bottom but have opportunities for advancement. Sometimes, the term 'deckhand' is used interchangeably with ordinary seamen.

16. Cadet

The term 'cadet' is primarily used by the Navy and the Coast Guard, though some sailing organizations also use the term. A cadet is a trainee or inexperienced sailor who comes aboard and participates (usually in a limited capacity) in shipboard duties. Cadets are the lowest-ranking sailors aboard a ship.

Cadets of various navies were once commonly sent into actual combat, though this practice has disappeared in the West for obvious reasons. Cadets are usually a year or two younger than the minimum crew age, though sometimes they're adults who are extremely novice and lack hands-on experience. Cadets graduate and become official crew members after a certain period of time.

Why do Sailors have Different Ranks?

Sailors aboard private vessels, commercial vessels, and warships have ranks. The rank of a sailor determines his or her position in the hierarchy of command. The reason why ships are strict with command structure is because of the complex and hazardous nature of moving a large object through the water.

Picture a ship approaching dangerously close to a shoal. Which situation is better: two people arguing about whether to turn to port or starboard or one person immediately ordering starboard and the helmsman executing the order immediately? While the system may seem rigid and unfair, it evolved over a thousand years based on real-world experiences at sea.

With a rigid command structure, decisions can be made and implemented reliably and at a moment’s notice. This is especially important on the water, where conditions can change rapidly and become hazardous. Rank is also based on experience, as many shipboard skills can only be learned through years of real-world learning. In other words, it can’t be taught in a classroom.

Additionally, command structures dictate who is responsible for the many upkeep tasks onboard a ship, along with who is liable for error, damage, or injury. Due to the scale of the problems that ships can cause, someone needs to be ultimately responsible for everything that happens.

Types of Sailors
Daniel Wade

Daniel Wade

I've personally had thousands of questions about sailing and sailboats over the years. As I learn and experience sailing, and the community, I share the answers that work and make sense to me, here on Life of Sailing.

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