Duties of the Sailing Master and Master’s Mate

William Henry Smyth / Richard Holmes Laurie, A New Chart of the Mediterranean Sea Comprehending the Coasts from Cape St. Mary: in Portugal to Constantinopel; and from Rabat, In Africa, to Alexandretto or Iskenderoon, in Asia, &c. With the Recent Surveys of Capt. Wm. Hy. Symth, R.N., Capt. F. Beaufort, R.N. and other British Officers, London, [1826-27] .

The master was the senior warrant officer and was responsible for the navigation of the ship and the ship’s sailing qualities. He was responsible for setting courses, finding the ships position, supervising the midshipmen and mates taking their noon sightings and the maintenance of the ship’s compass. He was also responsible for sails, rigging, ship’s anchor, stowing of items in the hold and security and issue of spirits. An additional responsibility was that the master had to sign all important documents such as the Muster Books, Pay Books, Tickets, etc.

He was responsible for his own tools, such as charts, reference books and instruments needed for navigation and astronomical observation. He also kept the ship’s official log book (those kept by the captain and the other officers were personal logs).

On Ships of the Line (2 deckers and above) the master was a member of the wardroom and had one of the better cabins. His pay ranged from £12.12 on a 1st rate to £7.7 per lunar month on a 6th rate (in 1808). On sloops, brigs and cutters they earned £6.6 per lunar month. This meant on a 6th rate he earned less than a lieutenant, on a 5th rate he earned as much and on 4th rate and higher he earned more than a lieutenant. His ranking, according to Lavery’s Nelson’s Navy was “with but after the lieutenants”. As part of his pay he was also allowed one servant and was allotted £11 8s per year to pay for one. When on half pay they received 6 shillings per day. And when prize money was distributed, the master had equal share with the Lieutenants, Marine Captains and Physician (1/8th total share between them).

According to A Social History of the Navy, the position of master came about because the work of navigating a large ship as well as commanding it was far too much for the captain to handle on his own. These larger ships were allowed masters to tend to all of the business of navigation. They became known as post ships and their captains Post Captains. In smaller ships it was decided that the position would be combined to economize, so the master was to command, leading to the title Master and Commander. But by 1794 the Admiralty finally accepted that they needed a separate master on smaller ships, allowing for both a Master and a Master and Commander.

To become a Master, there was no particular path. Some masters rose from the ranks via the quartermaster or master’s mate berths. Others were former midshipman or volunteers who had given up on the officer path. To qualify, the prospective master would be examined by a senior captain and 3 of the best qualified masters. They could be either appointed a full master on a smaller ship or a second master on a third rate ship of the line or higher. If appointed as a second, they would be given priority for their promotion to full master when the next vacancy occurred.

The Duty of the Master.

1. He is to repair on Board, and obey his Commanders Orders, for the Dispatch of what is to be done towards her fitting out.

2. He is to inspect the Provisions and Stores sent a Board, and of what appears not good, he is to acquaint the Captain.

3. He is to take care of the Ballast, and see that it be clean and wholesome, and sign the Quantity delivered.

4. He is to give his Directions in stowing the Hold, for the most Room, Trimming the Ship, and for Preservation of the Provisions.

5. He is to take singular Care that the Rigging and Stores be duly preserved; and to sign the Carpenter’s and Boatswain’s Expence Book, taking care not to sign to undue Allowances.

6. He is to navigate the Ship, under the Directions of his Superior Officer, and see that the Log and Log-Book be duly kept.

7. He is duly to obeserve the Appearances of Coasts; and if he discovers any new Shoals or Rocks under Water, to note them done in his Journal, with their Bearing and Depth of Water.

8. He is to keep the Hawser clear when the Ship is at Anchor.

9. He is to provide himself with proper Instruments, Maps, and Book of Navigation, and keep a regular Journal, nothing therein the going out and coming in of all Stores and Provisions; and when the Ship is laid up, he is to deliver a Copy of the same into the Navy-Office, together with his Log-Book.

10. He is to be very careful not to sign any Accounts, Books, Lists or Tickets, before he has thoroughly informed himself of the Truth of every Particular contained in the same.

The Duty of the Master’s Mate.

1. The Mate shall take care of the fitting out of the Vessel, and before they put to Sea, shall examine whether it be sufficiently provided with Ropes, Pulleys, Sails, and all other Rigging necessary for the Voyage.

2. At the Departure he shall see the Anchor hoisted; and during the Voyage he shall visit once a day all the Tackle, high and low, and if he observes any thing amiss, he shall acquaint the Master.

3. He shall execute in the Vessel, and cause to be executed Day and Night, the Orders of the Master.

4. Arriving at a Port, he shall cause the Cables and Anchors to be repaired, and shall have the Care of the Management of the Sails, Yards and Mooring of the Ship.

5. In case of the Absence or Sickness of the Master, the Mate shall command in his place.

Courtesy of Kevin Stall and the Historical Maritime Society.

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