The term boatswain has been derived from the Old English batswegen or batsuen meaning boat’s swain or husband. In the Saxon times, the command of the vessel lay in the hands of the boatswain.
During the Middle English period, a boatswain was the officer responsible for making sure that the masts, yards, sails and everything were in place. His position was second only to the master. According to Britannica.com, boatswain used to be an expert seaman. He used to have a pipe or whistle to issue signals to the crew.
The terms boatswain and bosun are often used interchangeably.
Boatswain (or Bosun) in Modern Shipping
Nowadays things have changed quite a bit. To become an ordinary seaman, a trainee needs to gain experience first. After becoming an experienced ordinary seaman, he is promoted to the status of an AB (able-bodied seaman). When he proves his skill and the company hiring him believes he has the appropriate experience, he is promoted to a Bosun. A bosun is required to have extensive knowledge in dealing with knots, hitches bends, whipping, and splices for anchoring the vessel, among other things and should be well versed in seamanship practices.
A boatswain also known as a Petty officer or a qualified member of the deck department is the seniormost crewman of the deck. He is responsible for the ship’s hull and all its components, including its rigging, anchors, cables, sails, deck maintenance, and small boat operations. The boatswain is designated the warrant officer in the Navy.
The Ship’s Boatswain jobs are very crucial. He is entrusted with the supervision of cargo handling. He also inspects and maintains rigging and deck gear.
Other duties include supervising anchoring, mooring, towing, and fuelling. A bosun is also responsible for the safe transfer of personnel and cargo, and the operation and maintenance of ship’s boats.
The Boatswain/Bosun is a member of the deck department, and that is where most of his work lies. Among other responsibilities, he is expected to supervise the deck crew. He is also involved in the planning, scheduling and assigning work to the crew members which he does under the supervision of the Chief Officer and the Master. He needs to make sure that his subordinates are doing their work properly and he also needs to take care that the officers of the deck do not need to interact with the deck members constantly for small tasks and can concentrate on their jobs.
A boatswain puts years of effort to gain knowledge and experience and the more experienced he is, the more efficient he becomes in carrying out his tasks. He is superior to all the deck crew and needs to constantly manage them and see that they too are doing their respective jobs properly and efficiently. Before the introduction and the widespread use of GPS navigation, the boatswain was also expected to have sound knowledge on the position of the ship. However, with the extensive use of these devices and technologies, such technical knowledge is no longer required.
With great power, comes great responsibilities and with great responsibilities comes greater monetary compensation. At least it is true in the case of a boatswain. Ship companies are ready to pay a hefty amount to the boatswain because of the years of experience that they have gained. Their ample knowledge in regards to the various aspects of a ship is much sought after. How much they are going to be paid is decided by the Unions set up specifically for this purpose, i.e., for professionals that are aspiring bosuns or existing professionals.
What does a Bosun do?
Generally speaking, the work of a boatswain can be broadly classified as follows:
A bosun is expected to keep a tag on his subordinates and see to it that they are doing their job efficiently and completing them on time.
A bosun is expected to teach the junior crew members the importance of their role and how they can effectively execute the tasks that have been allotted to them. He also needs to maintain several areas of the deck and make sure that everything is working fine.
The bosun plays a crucial part in not just ensuring the smooth functioning of the vessel but also it’s smooth anchoring. Whether it be during a mid-waterway transfer or on reaching a port, it is the job of the bosun to see that the vessel is anchored correctly.
The engineering department maintains certain areas of the ship. The remaining falls under the responsibilities of a bosun. He should be highly skilled in maintaining and repairing the ropes used in a vessel starting from tying knots and splicing to proper storage of ropes. He is also required to clean, paint and maintain the vessel’s hull. He also needs to check if the deck’s equipment is in proper order.
Despite the fact that an effective boatswain will engage in several preventive and maintenance programs, there still might be several emergencies where the bosun might be called upon to lead the damage control efforts and other tasks. If the ship needs repairs that too is supposed to be taken care of by the bosun. Most of the time the deck crew are of diverse backgrounds and falls into the hands of the boatswain to properly communicate with them and make them aware of their roles and responsibilities.
In short, the role of a boatswain is ensuring the smooth functioning of a ship through proper checking and maintenance and acting as a mediator between the deck crew and the officers.