Tea Party Winners: Debra E. Marvin's winner is: Kathleen, Jennifer Hudson Taylor's winner of her MacGregor Legacy series is Chris Granville and second winner is Britney Adams for the plaque and For Love or Country novel:, Angela K. Couch's winner is: , Carrie Fancett Pagels's winner per random.org is Beverly Duell-Moore for a copy of BCB and second winner for colonial goodies is: Carrie Moore Gould, Denise Weimer's winner: Janet Marie Dowell, Shannon McNear's winner is: Adriann Harris, Pegg Thomas's winner is: Susan C

Friday, April 13, 2012

The Crew of a Merchantman in Colonial Times!

While information on the crew of a military vessel such as a Royal Navy Frigate is easy to find, how about the crew manning a regular merchant ship? Ofttimes this information gets lost and muddled among so many different types of ships sailing under the flag of so many different countries.  But while there were differences, I hope to give a general account of the crew of a normal Merchantman.

The Ship Master - Or simply Master or Captain as he was addressed while at sea. His responsibilities included: Outfitting, supplying and manning the vessel before a voyage as well as compliance with all the paperwork, ordinances and regulations demanded by the port authority  Once at sail, his job was to get the vessel safely out of the harbor, but rarely, aside from Sunday services, which he officiated, did he have much contact with the crew. He navigated the ship, made all decisions and was in complete power over the voyage, including dolling out punishments.

First mate - Received orders from the captain and transmitted them to the crew. He was in charge of the setting and lowering of sails, all aspect of the rigging, and ship repairs. He was often hired directly by the owner of the vessel and could not be removed by the captain. He was responsible for keeping an accurate log book and commanded the larboard watch.

The Second mate - commander of the starboard watch and in the absence of the first mate or captain, he commanded the entire vessel. His duties included the maintenance and care of all the spare rigging, blocks, and sails as well as the tools used to work on the rigging. Unlike the captain or the first mate, the second mate actually got his hands dirty and worked alongside the crew.

The Third Mate - only found on large vessels and chosen by the captain from among the most senior able seaman. In some cases, they were designated as bosuns, which were petty officers who were in charge of the crew.

Idlers: - specialized workmen who did not do the work of seaman or stand watch. Idlers commonly included the carpenter, the sailmaker, and the cook. Larger vessels might have a cooper, steward, armorer and other tradesmen.  On smaller vessels, an idler could sign on as both an able bodied seaman and a carpenter, etc..   Cooks were never seamen and were usually older sailors with missing limbs unable to do normal seamen tasks. 

Able seamen - knowledge of steering, reefing, furling and also able to cut and fit new rigging. These were also the topmen who were expected to go to the end of the yards or above the tops. No man could "pass as an able seaman in a square-rigged vessel who could not make a long and short splice in a large rope, fit a block strap, pass seizings to lower rigging, and make the ordinary knots, in a fair, workmanlike manner.'

Ordinary seamen - not quite at the level of an able seaman, the ordinary seaman was expected to 'hand, reef, and steer under normal weather conditions'. They did not have to be a competent helmsman but should be acquainted with all the running and standing rigging of the ship

Green hands - young boys who were learning to be sailors and who were given all the unpleasant simple tasks on board such as sweep the decks, hold a log-reel, coil a rope, slush or scrub a mast, touch up a bit of tar, or help in the galley. But they also learned important skills. They stood watch and went aloft to adjust sails.

Within the Able and Ordinary Seamen existed these titles
Sheet anchor men - worked on the forecastle handling the anchors, jibs and foreyards.
After-gang - working the aft deck these men dealt primarily with the mainsail and spanker and worked on the lines and haliyards
Waisters - worked in the ship's waist.. the center deck below the top deck
Holders - Worked in the hold

Clear as the bilge in the hold?  It thought so!


  1. Fascinating!! Who knew that there were so many parts and jobs!! Thank you for sharing!

  2. Great info to save for research files, MaryLu! Thanks so much!

  3. And good setup for conflict, as the Captain's hands were tied if the First Mate (as chosen by the owner) if they didn't see eye-to-eye.
    thanks MaryLu!
    There's so much to understand about ships and their crews. I admire all the research you've done and it shows in your writing. I never pass up the opportunity to visit any 'tall ship' on my horizon.

  4. Thanks, Ladies!! These ships were like floating cities! So many different jobs and levels of responsibility and authority. And you know what happens when you get a large group of people and cram them into a small space! Lots of Drama! Not to mention the concern for outward problems such as storms or pirate attacks. Ah.. no wonder I love to write my stories set on these glorious tall ships. ;-)

  5. MaryLu, This post is all about why I love your books! Your research and detail really shines and makes the story spring to life time and again. Plus you have the wonderful ability to make every book fresh and unique even with the sea setting, etc. Something about ships is so romantic and dramatic like you've said. A never ending palette of inspiration. Glorious!!

  6. You're so sweet, Laura, Thank you. :-)

  7. Thank you for this post. I have been working on a book set on a colonial ship for a very long time now, and I have also found it very difficult to track down information on merchant ships. What sources have you found to be the most helpful?


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