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A boatswain ( ; formerly also ), bo's'n, bos'n, or bosun is an unlicensed member of the deck department of a merchant ship. The boatswain supervises the other unlicensed members of the ship's deck department, and typically is not a watchstander, except on vessels with small crews. Other duties vary depending on the type of ship, her crewing, and other factors.


The word boatswain has been in the English language since approximately 1450. It is derived from late Old English batswegen, from bat (boat) concatenated with Old Norse sveinn (swain), meaning a young man, a follower, retainer or servant. The phonetic spelling bosun has been observed since 1868. Interestingly, this spelling was used in Shakespeare's The Tempest written in 1611, and as Bos'n in later editions.

Job description

The boatswain works in a ship's deck department as the foreman of the unlicensed deck crew. Sometimes, the boatswain is also a third or fourth mate. A bosun must be highly skilled in all matters of marlinespike seamanship required for working on deck of a seagoing vessel. The bosun is distinguished from other able seamen by the supervisory roles: planning, scheduling, and assigning work.

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.

Working conditions

Merchant mariners spend extended periods at sea. Most deep-sea mariners are hired for one or more voyages that last for several months; there is no job security after that. The length of time between voyages varies depending on job availability and personal preference.

At sea, a watchstanding boatswain will usually stand watch for 4 hours and are off for 8 hours, 7 days a week.

People at sea work in all weather conditions. Although merchant mariners try to avoidsevere 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.

Origins in the Royal Navy

The rank of Boatswain was until recently the oldest rank in the Royal Navy, and its origins can be traced back to the year 1040. The Royal Navy's last official Boatswain, Commander E W Andrew OBE, retired in 1990.

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.

In the Royal Navy the task of disciplining the crew fell to the quartermasters and quartermaster's mates, typically using either a rattan boatswain's cane on the boys or 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 giving lashes.

Notable boatswains

A number of boatswains and naval boatswains mates have achieved fame. Reuben James and William Wiley are famous for their heroism in the Barbary Wars and namesakes of the ships USS Reuben James and USS Wiley . Medal of Honor recipients Francis P. Hammerberg and George Robert Cholister were U.S. Navy Boatswain's Mates, as was Navy Cross recipient Stephen Bass.The Boatswain in William Shakespere's The Tempest is a central character in several scenes.

In addition, Nathaniel Blair of the USS Fieldnut is one of the more well known boatswains of the modern era.Victoria Cross recipients John Sheppard , John Sullivan , Henry Curtis, and John Harrison were Royal Navy Boatswain's Mates.

Lord Byron had a Newfoundland dog named Boatswain. Byron wrote the famous poem Epitaph to a Dog and had a monument made for him at Newstead Abbeymarker.

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. Pete Tomaszewski from "Sea Patrol", better known as "Buffer" (a slang name for a boatswain in Australia), is a Royal Australian Navy Petty Officer Bosun.Other notable boatswains include the Arizona based experimental rock duo Rich Ayers and Troy Epps, commonly referred to as "The Boatswains."

See also


This article incorporates text from public-domain sources, including the Naval Historical Center and/or other U.S. Government websites. For specific sources of text, see notes.
  1. Chisholm, 1911, Boatswain.
  2. Oregon University System, 2004
  3. Bureau of Labor Statistics 2007, p.1.
  4. See quote from "The Complete Annotated Gilbert & Sullivan" at [1].
  5. See quote from S.W. Gilbert in "The story of the H.M.S. Pinafore" at [2].


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