What is a Sailor?

A sailor works and lives on a vessel, typically a ship or a boat, and is responsible for operating and maintaining the vessel while it is at sea. Sailors play an important role in the maritime industry, as they are essential for transporting goods and passengers across oceans, seas, and waterways. Sailors also contribute to national defense and security by serving in navies and protecting territorial waters, safeguarding a country's maritime interests and sovereignty.

Sailing requires a unique set of skills and physical endurance, as sailors often face challenging and unpredictable conditions at sea. They must be proficient in navigation, weather interpretation, and maritime communication to ensure a safe and successful voyage. Sailors work in a hierarchical structure, with different ranks and positions, such as deckhands, able seamen, officers, and captains, each having specific duties and responsibilities. Some sailors may work on commercial cargo ships, cruise liners, fishing vessels, or naval ships.

What does a Sailor do?

A sailor standing on a ship.

Sailors facilitate global trade and travel. Their expertise in navigation, seamanship, and maritime operations ensures the safe and efficient operation of vessels, reducing the risks of accidents and incidents at sea.

Duties and Responsibilities
The duties and responsibilities of a sailor can vary depending on the type of vessel they serve on, their rank, and the specific role they hold. However, here are some common duties and responsibilities of sailors:

  • Navigation and Seamanship: Sailors are responsible for assisting with the navigation of the vessel, ensuring it follows the intended course and avoids obstacles. They must be proficient in seamanship, which includes knot tying, line handling, and sail handling (for sailing vessels).
  • Watchkeeping: Sailors work in shifts or watches, where they take turns to monitor the vessel's systems, watch for potential hazards, and ensure the safety and security of the ship and its crew.
  • Routine Maintenance: Sailors are involved in routine maintenance tasks, such as cleaning and painting the vessel, performing inspections, and making minor repairs.
  • Cargo Operations: On commercial cargo ships, sailors assist in loading and unloading cargo, ensuring it is properly secured and stowed according to regulations.
  • Safety Procedures: Sailors are trained to respond to emergencies, including fire drills, man overboard situations, and abandon ship procedures. They must also be familiar with lifesaving equipment and safety protocols.
  • Communications: Sailors use various communication systems to maintain contact with other vessels, the shore, and maritime authorities. This includes radio communication and understanding maritime signal flags.
  • Security: Sailors play a role in vessel security, implementing measures to protect against piracy, unauthorized access, and other security threats.
  • Environmental Protection: Sailors follow strict protocols to protect the marine environment, including adhering to pollution prevention measures and waste management procedures.
  • Maintaining Records: Sailors are responsible for keeping records related to the vessel's operations, including navigational logs, maintenance reports, and crew records.
  • Teamwork and Collaboration: Sailors work as part of a team, collaborating with other crew members and officers to ensure the smooth operation of the vessel and successful completion of voyages.

Types of Sailors
There are various types of sailors, each with specific roles and responsibilities depending on the type of vessel they serve on and their rank. Here are some common types of sailors and what they do:

  • Ship Captain: The captain, also known as the master, is the highest-ranking officer on the ship and is in overall command of the vessel. They are responsible for the safety, navigation, and management of the entire crew and ship.
  • Commercial Fisherman: Commercial fishermen engage in fishing as a profession. They work on various types of fishing vessels, such as trawlers, longliners, and gillnetters, depending on the fishing methods and target species.
  • Merchant Mariner: Merchant mariners work aboard commercial vessels engaged in maritime trade and transportation. They operate and maintain the ship, ensuring cargo is safely loaded and unloaded, and following navigation protocols during voyages. Merchant mariners play a vital role in facilitating global trade and ensuring the smooth movement of goods across oceans and waterways.
  • Recreational Sailor: Recreational sailors engage in sailing as a hobby and leisure activity rather than as a profession. They typically sail for enjoyment, relaxation, and the thrill of navigating the open waters.
  • Deckhand: Deckhands are entry-level sailors responsible for general tasks on deck. They assist with mooring and anchoring the vessel, handling lines, and performing routine maintenance. Deckhands may also assist in cargo operations and are involved in watchkeeping duties.
  • Able Seaman (AB): An able seaman is a more experienced sailor who has demonstrated proficiency in various deck duties. They are responsible for watchkeeping, navigation, and maintaining safety equipment. ABs may also serve as helmsmen, steering the vessel under the direction of the officer on watch.
  • Ordinary Seaman (OS): An ordinary seaman is a junior deckhand who is learning the ropes of seamanship and deck duties. They assist more experienced sailors and officers in various tasks.
  • Boatswain (Bosun): The boatswain is a senior deck department officer responsible for overseeing deck operations and coordinating the work of deckhands. They are in charge of deck maintenance, rigging, and supervising cargo operations.
  • Steward: Stewards, also known as galley hands or messmen, work in the ship's galley or kitchen. They are responsible for food preparation, serving meals, and maintaining the cleanliness of the living quarters.
  • Purser: Pursers are administrative officers responsible for passenger services and financial matters on passenger ships. They handle passenger accommodations, tickets, and finances related to onboard services.
  • Engine Room Rating: Sailors who work in the engineering department of a vessel are known as engine room ratings. They assist engineering officers in operating and maintaining the vessel's machinery and propulsion systems.
  • Navigation Officer: Navigation officers, often referred to as mates or deck officers, are responsible for the safe navigation of the vessel. They plan and execute the ship's course, maintain navigational charts and instruments, and assist the captain in watchkeeping.
  • Military Sailor: A military sailor serves in the United States Navy, which is the naval warfare service branch of the US Armed Forces. They operate naval vessels, conduct maritime missions, and support national defense and security interests both at home and abroad.

Are you suited to be a sailor?

Sailors have distinct personalities. They tend to be realistic individuals, which means they’re independent, stable, persistent, genuine, practical, and thrifty. They like tasks that are tactile, physical, athletic, or mechanical. Some of them are also conventional, meaning they’re conscientious and conservative.

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What is the workplace of a Sailor like?

The workplace of a sailor can vary significantly based on the type of vessel they serve on and the maritime sector they work in. There are several types of sailors in the US, including those in the United States Navy, merchant mariners, fishing vessel crew, and others involved in various maritime operations.

For sailors in the United States Navy, the workplace is primarily onboard naval vessels, ranging from aircraft carriers and destroyers to submarines and amphibious assault ships. They operate in a structured and disciplined environment, with living quarters, mess areas, and workspaces on the ship. The workplace is dynamic, and sailors may find themselves on deployments that take them away from home for extended periods. They follow a watchkeeping schedule, working in shifts to ensure continuous operations and security of the vessel.

Merchant mariners, who work in the commercial shipping industry, have a diverse workplace that can range from cargo ships and tankers to container vessels and bulk carriers. Their duties may include operating navigational equipment, handling cargo, and ensuring the proper functioning of ship systems. Merchant mariners may work on both domestic and international routes, experiencing different ports and countries during their voyages.

Fishing vessel crew members have a unique workplace on fishing vessels, where they engage in catching and processing fish. Their workplace can be physically demanding, with long hours spent at sea, often facing adverse weather conditions. Fishing sailors work closely with the fishing gear, nets, and winches to bring in the catch, and they are responsible for the proper handling and storage of the harvested fish.

Sailors involved in the offshore industry work on vessels that support oil rigs, conduct research, or provide other maritime services. They may work as technicians, engineers, or support crew, operating specialized equipment and vessels tailored to offshore operations.

Sailors are also known as: