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Seamanship is the art of operating a ship or boat.

It involves a knowledge of a variety of topics and development of specialised skills including: navigation and international maritime law; weather, meteorology and forecasting; watchstanding; ship-handling and small boat handling; operation of deck equipment, anchors and cables; ropework and line handling; communications; sailing; engines; execution of evolutions such as towing; cargo handling equipment, dangerous cargoes and cargo storage; dealing with emergencies; survival at sea and search and rescue; fire fighting.

The degree of knowledge needed within these areas is dependent upon the nature of the work and the type of vessel employed by a mariner. However, the practice of good seamanship should be the goal of all.



More than just finding a vessel's present location, safe navigation includes predicting future location, route planning and collision avoidance. Nautical navigation in western nations, like air navigation, is based on the Nautical mile.


A fundamental skill of professional seamanship is being able to maneuver a vessel with accuracy and precision. Unlike vehicles on land, a ship afloat is subject to the movements of the air around it and the water in which it floats. Another complicating factor is the mass of a ship that has to be accounted for when stopping and starting.

Ship-handling is about arriving and departing a berth or buoy, maneuvering in confined channels and harbours and in proximity to other ships, whilst at all times navigating safely. Two other types of operations, berthing alongside another ship and replenishment at sea, are occasionally included. A key ability for a ship-handler is an innate understanding of how the wind, tide and swell, the passage of other vessels, as well as the shape of the seabed, will affect a vessel's movement, which, together with an understanding of a specific vessels performance, should allow that vessel a safe passage.

Fundamental to low speed maneuvering is an understanding of the configuration and handedness of the propeller(s). An effect known as propeller walk will kick the stern of the vessel to port or starboard depending on the configuration and the type of propeller when large variations on propeller rotation speed or changes of propeller rotation direction take place. (In single screw vessels where the rotation of the propeller is reversed on an astern bell, a standard was established that the propeller would turn clockwise when viewed from astern. This would mean that the propeller would turn counterclockwise when going astern and the stern would walk to port. This aided in docking operations, where "port side to" was the preferred situation and the vessel would be brought to the dock with a small bow-in angle and backing would flatten the angle, slow or stop the vessel and walk it alongside. An exception to this was the U.S. Sealift class tankers which used a controllable pitch propeller, where the pitch and not the direction of rotation was reversed to go astern. These propellers rotated counterclockwise at all times and so the "walk" was "normal".) In addition to being fully conversant with the principles of seamanship and ship-handling a good pilot will have developed his or sense of 'situational awareness' to a point well beyond that of a member of a ships crew, his reactions will appear to be instinctive, positive and at all times safe.

Most commercial vessels in excess of size limits determined by local authorities are handled by a 'Marine (or maritime) pilot. Marine pilots are seafarers with extensive seafaring experience and are usually qualified Master mariners who have been trained as expert ship-handlers. These pilots are conversant with all types of vessel and propulsion systems, as well as handling ships of all sizes in all weather and tidal conditions. They are also experts in the geographical areas they work. In most countries the pilot takes over the 'conduct' of the navigation from the ship master, this means that the master & crew should adhere to the pilots orders in respect of the safe navigation of the vessel when in a compulsory pilotage area. The master may, with good cause resume 'conduct' of the vessels navigation however this should never be done lightly. In situations where the Pilot is an "advisor" even though he has the con, the Pilot or his "Association" have no responsibility or liablilty in the case of an accident. The Master, upon realizing there is a dangerous situation developing, must take such action as to avoid an accident or at least minimize the damage from one that can't be avoided. In some countries and area's (e.g. Scandinavia and the U.S.A.) the Pilots role is an advisor, however to watch them in action, who would see they are likely to have the conduct of the vessel, especially on larger ships using tug boats to assist The general Rule of Thumb is that a Pilot assumes command of a vessel and is not classed as "an advisor" in the Panama Canal, crossing the sill of a drydock, or in any port in Russia (or, perhaps, all the old Soviet States). This distinction is important because when a Pilot is in command, the Master can not take any action, but is limited to advising the Pilot on any circumstance that creates what he considers a dangerous situation.

Progression in seamanship

An able-bodied seaman climbs a kingpost to perform maintenance aboard a general cargo ship or freighter.

In the days before mechanical propulsion, an ordinary sailor was expected to be able to "hand, and reef, and steer." Training is more formal in modern merchant marines and navies, but still covers the basics.

The crew of a large ship will typically be organized into "divisions" or "departments", each with its own specialty. For example, the deck division would be responsible for boat handling and general maintenance, while the engineering division would be responsible for propulsion and other mechanical systems. Crew start on the most basic duties and as they gain experience and expertise advance within their area. Crew who have gained proficiency become "able-bodied seamen", "petty officers", "rated", or "mates" depending on the organization to which they belong.

On smaller commercial craft, there is little or no specialization. Deck crew perform all boat handling functions. The officers of the ship are responsible for navigation, communication, and watch supervision.

Captains must pass formal examinations to demonstrate their knowledge. These examinations have a progression based on the size and complexity of the craft. In the U.S., the progression begins with what is known as "the six pack", a license that allows fishing guides to operate with up to six passengers.


  • Admiralty Manual of Seamanship, ISBN 0-11-772696-6.
  • Seamanship: A Guide for Divers / Kris Pedder, BSAC, ISBN 0-9538919-7-6.
  • Naval Shiphandler's Guide / James Alden Barber — Naval Institute Press, 2005 — ISBN 1557504350.

See also



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