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A Chief Mate (C/M) or Chief Officer, usually also synonymous with the First Mate or First Officer (except on passenger liners, which often carry both), is a licensed member and head of the deck department of a merchant ship. The chief mate is customarily a watchstander and is in charge of the ship's cargo and deck crew.

The chief mate is responsible to the captain for the safety and security of the ship. Responsibilities include the crew's welfare and training in areas such as safety, firefighting, search and rescue. The Chief Mate is second in command on merchant ships that do not carry a Staff Captain.

Cargo Officer

As cargo officer, a chief mate oversees the loading, stowage, securing and unloading of cargoes. Moreover the chief mate is accountable for the care of cargo during the voyage. This includes a general responsibility for the ship's stability and special care for cargoes that are dangerous, hazardous or harmful.

A ship is balanced precariously under the best of conditions upon the water and is subject to a number of forces, such as wind, swells, and storms which could capsize it. The cargo officer uses tools like ballast and load balancing to optimize the ship's performance for the type of environment expected to be encountered.


A chief mate is almost always a watchstander. In port and at sea, the chief mate is responsible to the captain for keeping the ship, crew, and cargo safe for eight hours each day. Traditionally, the chief mate stands a "4-8" watch: from 4am until 8am and 4pm until 8pm. On watch, the mate must enforce all applicable regulations, such as safety of life at sea and pollution regulations. In port, the watch focuses on duties such as cargo operations, fire and security watches, monitoring communications and the anchor or mooring lines.

The Chief Mate is generally responsible for the stability of the ship.

IMO regulations require the officer be fluent in English. This is required for a number of reasons, such as ability to use charts and nautical publications, to understand weather and safety messages, communicate with other ships and coast stations, and to be able to work with a multi-lingual crew.

Sea watch

At sea, the mate on watch has three fundamental duties: navigate the ship, safely avoid traffic, and respond to any emergencies that may arise. Mates generally stand watch with able seamen who act as helmsman and lookout. The helmsman executes turns and the lookout reports dangers such as approaching ships. These roles are often combined to a single helmsman/lookout and, under some circumstances, can eliminated completely. The ability to smartly handle a ship is key to safe watchstanding. A ship's draught, trim, speed and under-keel clearance all affect its turning radius and stopping distance. Other factors include the effects of wind and current, squat, shallow water and similar effects. Shiphandling is key when the need arises to rescue a man overboard, to anchor, or to moor the ship.

The officer must also be able to transmit and receive signals by Morse light and to use the International Code of Signals.


The conditions for navigating a ship can often be challenging.
Celestial, terrestrial, electronic, and coastal navigation techniques are used to fix a ship's position on a navigational chart. The officer directs the helmsman to keep to track, accounting for effects of winds, tides, currents and estimated speed. The officer uses supplemental information from nautical publications, such as Sailing Directions, tide tables, Notices to Mariners, and radio navigational warnings to keep the ship clear of danger in transit.

Safety demands the mate be able to quickly solve steering control problems and to calibrate the system for optimum performance. Since magnetic and gyrocompasses show the course to steer, the officer must be able to determine and correct for compass errors.

Weather's profound effect on ships requires the officer be able to interpret and apply meteorological information from all available sources. This requires expertise in weather systems, reporting procedures and recording systems.

Traffic management

The International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea are a cornerstone of safe watchkeeping. Safety requires that one live these rules and follows the principles of safe watchkeeping. Maximizing bridge teamwork, including the practice of Bridge Resource Management, is an emerging focus in watchkeeping

The main purpose for Radar and Automatic Radar Plotting Aids (ARPA) on a ship's bridge is to move safely among other vessels. These instruments help to accurately judge information about prominent objects in the vicinity, such as:

  • range, bearing, course and speed
  • time and distance of closest point of approach
  • course and speed changes

These factors help the officer apply the COLREGS to safely maneuver in the vicinity of obstructions and other ships.

Unfortunately, radar has a number of limitations, and ARPA inherits those limitations and adds a number of its own. Factors such as rain, high seas, and dense clouds can prevent radar from detecting other vessels. Further, dense traffic and course and speed changes can confuse ARPA units. Finally, human errors such as inaccurate speed inputs and confusion between true and relative vectors add to the limitations of the radar/ARPA suite.

Under the best conditions, the radar operator must be able to optimize system settings and detect divergences between an ARPA system and actual conditions. Information obtained from radar and ARPA must be treated with scrutiny: over reliance on these systems has sunk ships. The officer must understand system performance, limitations and accuracy, tracking capabilities and limitations, and processing delays, and the use of operational warnings and system tests.


Emergencies can happen at any time. The officer must be equipped to safeguard passengers and crew. The officer must be able to take initial action after a collision or a grounding. Responsibilities include performing damage assessment and control, understanding the procedures for rescuing persons from the sea, assisting ships in distress, and responding to any emergency which may arise in port.

The Chief Mate is in charge of the firefighting and damage control teams. He is scene leader and reports via radio to the Captain who is in command and coordinates the larger response from the bridge.

The officer must understand distress signals and know the IMO Merchant Ship Search and Rescue Manual.

Controlling ship operations

The officer has special responsibilities to keep the ship, the people on board, and the environment safe. This includes keeping the ship seaworthy during fire and loss of stability, providing aid and maintaining safety during man overboard, abandoning ship, and medical emergencies.

Understanding ship's stability, trim, stress, and the basics of ship's construction is a key to keeping a ship seaworthy. The mate must know what to do in cases of flooding and loss of buoyancy. Fire is also a constant concern. Knowing the classes and chemistry of fire, fire-fighting appliances, and systems prepares the officer to act fast in case of fire.

An officer must be expert in the use of survival craft and rescue boat. Expertise includes the vessels' launching appliances and arrangements, and their equipment including radio life-saving appliances, satellite EPIRB, SART, immersion suits and thermal protective aids. It's important to be expert in the techniques for survival at sea techniques in case it's necessary to abandon ship.

Officers are trained to perform medical tasks, and follow instructions given by radio or obtained from guides. This training includes what to do in case of common shipboard accidents and illnesses.


United Kingdom

It is usual for a chief/first officer to hold a Master's "Ticket" (certificate) so that he can take over from the master if necessary. In the same way, a second officer usually holds a First Officer's Ticket.

United States

A chief mate must have a number of qualifications, including a license.
To become a chief mate (unlimited) in the United States, one must first accumulate at least 365 days of service while holding a second mate's license. Then, the candidate must attend approximately 13 weeks of classes and pass a series of examinations given by the United States Coast Guard. Similarly, one must have worked as a third mate for 365 days to have become a second mate. There are many special cases in license upgrades at the individual level, as licensing regulations change from time to time. A sizable portion of mates still working received their licenses before current laws went into effect.

There are two methods to attain an unlimited third mate's license in the United States: to attend a specialized training institution, or to accumulate "sea time" and take a series of training classes and examintations.

Training institutions that can lead to a third mate's license include the U.S.marker Merchant Marine Academymarker (deck curriculum), the U.S. Coast Guard Academy and U.S.marker Naval Academymarker with qualification as an underway officer in charge of a navigational watch, any of the state maritime colleges, the Great Lakes Maritime Academy, or a three-year apprentice mate training program approved by the Commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard.

A seaman may start the process of attaining a license after three years of service in the deck department on ocean steam or motor vessels, at least six months of which as able seaman, boatswain, or quartermaster. Then the seaman takes required training courses, and completes on-board assessments. Finally, the mariner can apply to the United States Coast Guard for a Third Mate's license.

A master of 1,600 ton vessels can, under certain circumstances, begin the application process for an unlimited third mate's license.

If approved the applicant must then successfully pass a comprehensive license examination before being issued the license. Hawsepiper is an informal maritime industry term used to refer to an officer who began his or her career as an unlicensed merchant seaman and did not attend a traditional maritime college/academy to earn the officer license.

A ship’s hawse pipe is the pipe passing through the bow section of a ship that the anchor chain passes through. Hawsepiper refers to climbing up the hawse pipe, a nautical metaphor for climbing up the ship's rank structure. Hawsepiper is considered a positive term when said respectfully. Many hawsepipers are proud of their background and use the term to describe themselves.

Several merchant seamen's unions offer their membership the required training to for career advancement. Similarly, some employers offer financial assistance to pay for the training for their employees. Otherwise, the mariner is responsible for the cost of the required training.

Since the requirements of STCW '95 have been enacted, there have been complaints that the hawsepiper progression path has been made too difficult because of the cost in time and money to meet formal classroom training requirements. These critics assert that the newer requirements will eventually lead to a shortage of qualified mariners, especially in places like the United States.

Notable First Mates and Chief Mates

See also


  1. The actual title used will vary by ship's employment, by type of ship, by nationality, and by trade. Informally, the Chief Mate will often simply be called "The Mate." The term "Chief Mate" is not usually used in the Commonwealth, although Chief Officer and First Mate are.
  2. Turpin and McEwin, 1980:1-21.
  3. U.S. Code of Federal Regulations, Title 46, Part 10, Subpart 407


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