Thursday, April 16, 2009

Welcome aboard!

Maersk Alabama in Mombasa, Kenya after the pirate attack. US Navy photo by Laura A. Moore.

Don't know port from starboard? My new blog, The Misunderstood Mariner helps make the world of ships and the people who run them understandable and interesting. Ships are the vehicles of globalization so along the way we'll talk about how important the maritime industry is to the modern world, especially economically.

I'm still getting the blog up and running, but on the meantime here's the original Note I composed for Facebook that got this whole thing started. Since I wrote it, the whole crew of the Maersk Alabama, including the captain, has been rescued. As of today, the captain was still in Kenya still, but the rest of the crew have returned to the US. Meanwhile, the pirate taken prisoner may face a criminal trial. For the latest click here.

Who's driving the boat? A Nautical Primer for Journalists
Some of the reporters covering the Maersk Alabama drama seemed to have learned everything they know about nautical affairs from watching Master and Commander and Titanic. Here, then, a short primer addressing some of the biggest whoppers I’ve seen, from a former journalist turned professional ship captain.

Your author as captain of the Spirit of Discovery in south-
east Alaska, 2010. Photo by Kathryn Hill.
Who’s driving the boat? Captain is commonly used to refer to the person in charge of any vessel, but the term is inexact. It can be very confusing when dealing with the military, where “captain” is a specific rank (and even then, a captain in the Navy is equivalent to an Army or Air Force Colonel, while a captain in those two services is equal to a Navy lieutenant). The captain of a military vessel can be almost any rank, depending on the size of the vessel, it mission, etc. The Coast Guard uses the word master to refer to the person in command of any civilian vessel. To some people, especially in the yachting world, master is only used when the owner and the captain are the same person. Sail boaters often use the term skipper to refer to the captain. Although many of these folks are licensed and working mariners – often as professional sailing instructors – this term may be considered derisive outside the recreational boating community (‘Nice docking there, skipper!” said in a sarcastic tone). 

Mate is an even more inexact term. It can be anyone from the only other crew member on a family’s recreational boat to the Chief Mate on a large tanker or container ship. As vessels get larger, the mate becomes less of a glorified deckhand and more of an officer in charge of the vessel when the captain is not on the bridge. Larger commercial vessels will carry more than one mate, each of whom may take charge of the vessel’s operation for a period of time called a watch. The larger a vessel is, the less likely the captain will actually be assigned a watch, only taking charge in particularly difficult circumstances. Also, as vessels get larger, the less likely it is that even the mates will actually steer. Steering is usually done by a deckhand, called an able seaman  (not a lot of gender inclusive terms in this industry) or AB on commercial vessels under the direction of the mate on watch. The person actually in charge of the watch is said to be conning the vessel, as in “You have the conn, Mr. Sulu.” 

Boats, ships, and names. It’s not easy telling a boat from a ship. One definition says a boat can be carried on a ship but not vice versa, but this doesn’t necessarily work. Mark Twain said anything that works on a river, regardless of size, is a boat. Also, the Navy refers to large nuclear submarines as boats. In general, a boat will be smaller than a ship. The Coast Guard doesn’t even use these terms in its regulations, preferring “vessel.” Crews on even large vessels may refer to their vessel as a “boat” as a diminutive, fond or otherwise. 

The old tradition, in which ships are referred to as “she,” is fading away. Even Lloyds of London refers to ships as “it” these days. A ship is never “he”, even when named after a man (“The Edmund Fitzgerald took a wave over her bow.”)  In a lot of the coverage of the Maersk Alabama I saw the ship referred to as “the Maersk”. This is incorrect. Maersk is a shipping line and like many such lines puts the name of the company before the name of the specific vessel. If shortened at all, the vessel should have been referred to as “the Alabama”, although this is an informal usage, the equivalent of referring to Barack Obama as “Barack” in a news story.

Most vessels have a prefix before the name. These days they usually refer to the vessel’s function, although one of the most common is M/V, which simply means “motor vessel.” Other common prefixes are S/V (sailing vessel), F/V (fishing vessel), R/V (research vessel), and M/Y (motor yacht). You get the idea. Military vessels have a whole designation method I won’t get into here.

Knot. A knot is a unit of speed equal to one nautical mile per hour. Thus it is never correct to say, “knot per hour.” A nautical mile is equal to 6082 feet plus change, the same as a minute of latitude.  Knot is commonly used to express both ship speed and wind speed, even in many places that have adopted the metric system. 

Seizing a vessel. If the crew illegally takes control of a vessel, its cargo, etc. it’s called mutiny. If an outside person or persons do so it’s called piracy. If the captain does so it’s called barratry. Note that the captain has a separate legal status from the crew, thus the common usage “captain and crew.”

Updated October 16, 2013


  1. Thanks to Don Johnson, who wrote to tell me that Russian ships are referred to as "he." I was writing about English usage of, of course, but languages where nouns have a gender are a whole different story. The Spanish words "barco" and "buque" are both masculine, but does that mean individual ships are referred to as "he?" I'm not sure; I suspect there are a number of traditions, maybe a different one for each language. RE.

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