Seafarer's professions and ranks

Seafarers hold a variety of professions and ranks, and each of these roles carries unique responsibilities which are integral to the successful operation of a seafaring vessel. A ship's bridge, filled with sophisticated equipment, requires skills differing from those used on the deck, which houses berthing and cargo gear, which requires skills different from those used in a ship's engine room, and so on.

The following is only a partial listing of professions and ranks. Ship operators have understandably employed a wide variety of positions, given the vast array of technologies, missions, and circumstances that ships have been subjected to over the years. A ship's crew can generally be divided into four main categories: the deck department, the engineering department, the steward's department, and other.

Modern ship's complement


The Captain or Master is the ship's highest responsible officer, acting on behalf of the ship's owner. Whether the captain is a member of the deck department or not is a matter of some controversy, and generally depends on the opinion of an individual captain.The captain has no watch in addition to officers.

Deck department

Chief Officer/Chief Mate

The Chief Officer (often called the Chief Mate in the United States) is the head of the deck department on a merchant vessel, second-in-command after the ship's Master. The Chief Mate's primary responsibilities are the vessel's cargo operations, its stability, and supervising the deck crew. The mate is responsible for the safety and security of the ship, as well as the welfare of the crew on board. Additional duties include maintenance of the ship's hull, cargo gears, accommodations, the life saving appliances and the firefighting appliances. The Chief Mate also trains the crew and cadets on various aspects like safety, firefighting, search and rescue, and various other contingencies.

On most vessels, the Chief Officer and First Officer (or First Mate) are synonymous, but passenger vessels often carry a separate First Officer who is junior to the Chief Officer.

Second Officer/Second Mate

The Second Officer (or Second Mate) of a merchant vessel is usually in charge of navigation and is the next licensed position above Third Officer and below Chief Officer. The second mate typically stands the 12-4 navigation watch. That is, the Second Mate will stand watch from 1200 to 1600 at noon and again from 0000 to 0400 in the nights. The Second Mate is typically the navigation officer aboard a ship. The navigation officer is responsible for maintaining the charts and navigational equipment on the bridge. The duties also usually entail developing the voyage plans under the direction of the ship's Master. In the United States system, it takes 360 days of sea service as a licensed Third Officer before one can become a Second Officer.

The other duties of this position often depend upon the type of ship worked aboard. On oil tankers, the second officer usually provides the Chief Mate with assistance in tank cleaning.

Third Officer/Third Mate

The Third Officer or Third Mate is the third officer of a merchant vessel. The most junior officer of the ship, the Third Mate is usually the safety officer (responsible for firefighting equipment, lifeboats, emergency systems) and is in charge of a (bridge or cargo) watch.

Deck Cadet

A Deck Cadet (or Apprentice) is a nautical school graduate, entitled to a seaman's book, but is not an officer-proper. The cadet must first carry out a one-year training on board ships, executing tasks of an officer-of-the-watch under the supervision of senior officers.


A Boatswain, often (at least since 1868) phonetically spelled and pronounced bosun, is in charge of the unlicensed deck crew and is sometimes also third or fourth mate.


Ship's carpenters, though once ubiquitous, are now rare. They are, however, frequently found aboard passenger liners. Ship's carpenters are sometimes referred to by the nickname, "Chips."

Able Seaman

In the modern merchant marine, an able seaman (AB) is a member of the deck department and must possess a merchant mariner's document. An AB will work in a ship's deck department as either a watchstander, a day worker, or a combination of these roles.

At sea an AB watchstander's duties include standing watch as helmsman and lookout. A helmsman is required to maintain a steady course, properly execute all rudder orders and communicate utilizing navigational terms relating to heading and steering. While the ship is not underway, a watchstander may be called upon to stand security-related watches, such as a gangway watch or anchor watch.

Ordinary Seaman

In the United States Merchant Marine, an Ordinary Seaman or OS is an entry-level position in a ship's deck department. An OS performs a variety of duties concerned with the operation and upkeep of deck department areas and equipment. Upkeep duties include scaling, buffing, and painting decks and superstructure; as well as sweeping and washing the deck. An OS may splice wire and rope; break out, rig, overhaul, and stow cargo-handling gear, stationary rigging, and running gear. Additionally, the OS secures cargo, as well as launches and recovers boats. The OS may rig and operate hydrographic and other specialty winches; handle and stow oceanographic explosives; and stage and stow beach support equipment. ,....

Engineering department

Chief Engineer

The Chief Engineer on a merchant vessel is the official title of someone qualified to oversee the engine department. The qualification for this position is colloquially called a "Chief's Ticket".

The Chief Engineer commonly referred to as "The Chief" or just "Chief" is responsible for all operations and maintenance that have to do with all engineering equipment throughout the ship.

Second Engineer/First Assistant Engineer

The Second Engineer or First Assistant Engineer is the officer responsible for supervising the daily maintenance and operation of the engine department. He or she reports directly to the Chief Engineer.

On a merchant vessel, depending on term usage, "The First" or "The Second" is the marine engineer second in command of the engine department after the ship's Chief Engineer. The person holding this position is typically the busiest engineer aboard the ship, due to the supervisory role this engineer plays and the operations duties performed. Operational duties include responsibility for the refrigeration systems, main engines (steam/gas turbine, diesel), and any other equipment not assigned to the Second Assistant Engineer/Third Engineer or the Third Assistant Engineer/Fourth Engineer(s). If the engine room requires round the clock attendance and other junior engineers can cover the three watch rotations, this officer is usually a "day worker" from 0630-1830.

Third Engineer/Second Assistant Engineer

The Third Engineer or Second Assistant Engineer is junior to the Second Engineer/First Assistant Engineer in the engine department and is usually in charge of boilers, fuel, auxiliary engines, condensate, and feed systems. This engineer is the third highest marine engineer in rank. Depending on usage, "The Second" or "The Third" is also typically in charge of fueling or bunkering, if the officer holds a valid Person In Charge (PIC) endorsement for fuel transfer operations.

The exact duties of this position will often depend upon the type of ship and arrangement of the engine department. On ships with steam propulsion plants The Second/Third is in charge of the boilers, combustion control, soot blowers, condensate and feed equipment, feed pumps, fuel, and condensers. On diesel and gas turbine propulsion plants, this engineer is in charge of auxiliary boilers, auxiliary engines, incinerator, air compressors, fuel, and fuel oil purifiers.

Fourth Engineer/Third Assistant Engineer

The Fourth Engineer or Third Assistant Engineer is junior to the Second Assistant Engineer/ Third Engineer in the engine department. The most junior marine engineer of the ship, he or she is usually responsible for electrical, sewage treatment, lube oil, bilge, and oily water separation systems. Depending on usage, this person is called "The Third" or "The Fourth" and usually stands a watch. Moreover, the Fourth Engineer may assist the third mate in maintaining proper operation of the lifeboats.

Engineering Cadet

An Engineering Cadet (or Apprentice) is a nautical school graduate, entitled to a seaman's book, but is not an officer-proper. The cadet must first carry out a one-year training on board ships, executing tasks of an officer-of-the-watch under the supervision of senior officers.

In the US fleet, a Cadet is a student completing an internship-like program aboard ships. They assist the licenced engineers in their duties in addition to completing a "sea project," a report which helps determine the grade they receive for their time aboard ship.

Qualified Member of the Engine Department

A Qualified Member of the Engineering Department (QMED) is a senior unlicensed crew member in the engine room of a ship.


A position frequently found aboard fuel tankers.


An Oiler is one of the most junior crew members in the engine room of a ship (senior only to a Wiper). An Oiler's role consists mainly of keeping machinery lubricated.


A Wiper is the most junior crew member in the engine room of a ship. Their role consists of wiping down machinery and generally keeping it clean.

Steward's department

Chief Steward

The Chief Steward is the senior unlicensed crew member working in the steward's department of a ship. Most United States Merchant Marine vessels do not carry a purser.

The chief steward directs, instructs, and assigns personnel performing such functions as preparing and serving meals; cleaning and maintaining officers' quarters and steward department areas; and receiving, issuing, and inventorying stores.

The chief steward also plans menus; compiles supply, overtime, and cost control records. The Steward may requisition or purchase stores and equipment. Additional duties may include baking bread, rolls, cakes, pies, and pastries.

A Chief Steward's duties may overlap with those of the Steward's Assistant, the Chief Cook, and other Steward's Department crewmembers.

Chief Cook

The Chief Cook is a senior unlicensed crew member working in the Steward's department of a ship.

The Chief Cook directs and participates in the preparation and serving of meals; determines timing and sequence of operations required to meet serving times; inspects galley and equipment for cleanliness and proper storage and preparation of food. The cook may plan or assist in planning meals and taking inventory of stores and equipment.

A chief cook's duties may overlap with those of the Steward's Assistant, the Chief Steward, and other Steward's Department crew members.

Chief cooks are sometimes referred to by the nickname, "Cookie."

Steward's Assistant

A Steward's Assistant or SA is an entry-level crew member in the Steward's department of a ship. This position can also be referred to as Galley Utilityman or Messman. The role of the SA consists mainly of cleaning and assisting with the preparation and serving of meals.

See also


External links

United States Coast Guard Merchant Mariner Licensing and Documentation web site

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