As deck crew foremen, the boatswain plans the day's work and assigns tasks to the deck crew. As work is completed, the boatswain checks on completed work for compliance with approved operating procedures.
Outside the supervisory role, the boatswain regularly inspects the vessel and performs a variety of routine, skilled, and semi-skilled duties to maintain all areas of the ship not maintained by the engineering department. These duties can include cleaning, painting, and maintaining the vessel's hull, superstructure and deck equipment as well as executing a formal preventive maintenance program.
A boatswain's skills may include cargo rigging, winch operations, deck maintenance, working aloft, and other duties required during deck operations. This master mariner is well versed in the care and handling of lines. A boatswain will have knowledge of and ability to use knots, hitches, bends, whipping, and splices as needed to perform tasks such as mooring a vessel. Competencies extend to the safe operation of a windlass. Duties may require operating the basic functions of a windlass, including letting go and heaving up an anchor. Moreover, a boatswain may be called upon to lead firefighting efforts or other emergency procedures encountered in the inherently dangerous environment of a ship. Effective boatswains are able to integrate their seafarer skills into supervising and communicating with members of deck crew with often diverse backgrounds.
Originally, on board sailing ships the boatswain was in charge of a ship's anchors, cordage, colours, deck crew and the ship's boats. The boatswain would also be in charge of the rigging while the ship was in dock. The boatswain's technical tasks have been modernised with the advent of steam engines and subsequent mechanisation.
At sea, a watchstanding boatswain will usually stand watch for 4 hours and are off for 8 hours, 7 days a week.
People in water transportation occupations work in all weather conditions. Although merchant mariners try to avoid severe storms while at sea, working in damp and cold conditions often is inevitable. While it is uncommon nowadays for vessels to suffer disasters such as fire, explosion, or a sinking, workers face the possibility that they may have to abandon their craft on short notice if it collides with other vessels or runs aground. They also risk injury or death from falling overboard and hazards associated with working with machinery, heavy loads, and dangerous cargo. However, modern safety management procedures, advanced emergency communications, and effective international rescue systems place modern mariners in a much safer position.
Most newer vessels are air conditioned, soundproofed from noisy machinery, and equipped with comfortable living quarters. For some mariners, these amenities have helped ease the sometimes difficult circumstances of long periods away from home. Also, modern communications, especially email, link modern mariners to their families. Nevertheless, some mariners dislike the long periods away from home and the confinement aboard ship and consequently leave the occupation.
In the United States, the rate of unionization for these workers is about 36 percent, much higher than the average for all occupations. Consequently, merchant marine officers and seamen, both veterans and beginners, are hired for voyages through union hiring halls or directly by shipping companies. Hiring halls rank the candidates by the length of time the person has been out of work and fill open slots accordingly. Hiring halls typically are found in major seaports.
Boatswains employed on Great Lakes ships work 60 days and have 30 days off, but do not work in the winter when the lakes are frozen. Workers on rivers, on canals, and in harbors are more likely to have year-round work. Some work 8-hour or 12-hour shifts and go home every day. Others work steadily for a week or a month and then have an extended period off. When working, they usually are on duty for 6 or 12 hours and off for 6 or 12 hours. Those on smaller vessels are normally assigned to one vessel and have steady employment.
In 1040 when five English ports began furnishing warships to King Edward the Confessor in exchange for certain privileges, they also furnished crews whose officers were the Master, Boatswain, Carpenter and Cook. Later these officers were "warranted" by the British Admiralty. They maintained and sailed the ships and were the standing officers of the navy. Soldiers commanded by Captains would be on board the ships to do the fighting but they had nothing to do with running the ships. The word "soldiering" came about as a seaman's term of contempt for the soldiers and anyone else who avoided shipboard duties.
The warranted officers were often the permanent members of the ships' companies. They stayed with the ships in port between voyages as caretakers supervising repairs and refitting. Other crewmen and soldiers might change with each voyage. Early in the Fourteenth Century the Purser joined the warrant officers. He was originally "the clerk of burser." During the following centuries the Gunner, Surgeon, Chaplain, Master-at-arms, Schoolmaster and others signed on.
In the Royal Navy the task of disciplining the crew fell to the quartermasters and quartermaster's mates. This was done using either a rattan boatswain's cane on the boys or with a rope's end on the adult sailors. Punishment could lawfully be inflicted on an officer's instruction or at his own will, or more formally on deck on captain's or court martial's orders. Birching or use of the cat o' nine tails would have been typical in the latter case. In a large crew he could delegate this to the boatswain's mates, who might alternate after each dozen lashes.
There are also a handful of fictional boatswains and boatswain's mates. The father of main character Zack Mayo in An Officer and A Gentleman was a Boatswain's Mate. Also, the character Bill Bobstay in Gilbert and Sullivan's musical comedy H.M.S. Pinafore is alternatively referred to as a "bos'un and a "Boatswain's Mate. Another boatswain from literature is Smee from Peter Pan.