Becoming a bosun: all about the bosun meaning and its career

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Nadia Mentzel

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Jul 18, 2022
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Have you already gained a lot of experience as a deckhand and are you looking for a new challenge in your maritime career? Then the job as a bosun might be something for you! But what is a bosun on a ship? In a few minutes, you are up-to-date about the bosun meaning and how to become a boatswain, its original term.

What is a bosun?

Before going into the details of a boatswain’s career, we give you a brief bosun definition. A boatswain is a seafarer working in offshore or merchant shipping. He/she is not only part of the qualified deckhands but seen as the most experienced and competent one. Therefore, a bosun often holds a senior rate in the deck department. Not surprising that this person bears a lot of responsibilities on board. 

A bosun is a real all-rounder

“You organize and manage the day-to-day running of the exterior of a ship”, says former bosun Ruud Wessing who has been working at sea for 48 years. A boatswain is in charge of the deckhands, assures the maintenance on deck, and ensures that the vessel operations are running well. A boatswain is under the guidance of a chief officer. Besides being a natural leader who likes to roll up his/her sleeves, he/she is social and positive. A bosun is a real all-rounder!

What does the boatswain job entail?

What a bosun's working day looks like depends on the size of the ship and the team of deckhands. Besides, on vessels that are below the 50-meter line, a boatswain may be known as the lead sailor that mainly carries out hands-on activities. On larger vessels, there is a lead deckhand and a bosun, with the latter serving as the manager and the first as his/her assistant. 

As the manager or foreman of the deckhands, the bosun is the one first coming up in the morning and the last going back into the cabin every evening. He/she spends most of his working time on and around the deck. His/her general day-to-day responsibilities can be separated into several categories - you will be in charge of ‘crew supervision’, ‘security monitoring’, ‘vessel maintenance’, ‘ship navigation’, and ‘mooring, anchoring, and splitting’.

Bosun and it's deckhands on the vessel

Crew supervision

First, a deck foreman supervises the crew members, the ordinary seaman, and the able seaman, working on board. “He/she determines and plans the daily schedule and divides the necessary tasks to the appropriate deck crew members”, explains Wessing. During the day, this deck foreman checks whether the tasks are being carried out properly and on time. As a senior, the boatswain is expected to act like a role model. 

Sometimes, senior deckhands need to account for their tasks to their supervisor, the chief officer, or directly to the captain. The boatswain acts as a link between the officers and the crew members. He/she discusses with officers and the captain which tasks should be prioritized. In addition, he/she communicates if any problems arise, such as damage to equipment or injuries to deck members. 

Security monitoring

Second, the bosun is tasked with overseeing safety on board, such as whether crew members carry out their work safely. He/she is also the contact person in case of any injuries to the staff. Furthermore, he/she conducts safety exercises and inspections, to be able to act properly, for example, in fire situations. 

“We used to walk in slippers”, says Wessing. “Now protective clothing is mandatory”. The former boatswain says that safety protocols have become increasingly important and are therefore more monitored. Wessing takes the vessels to build wind farms at sea as an example: "The daily work is much more complex and therefore more challenging than on, let’s say, a tugboat.”

Evening horizon of windfarm at sea

Vessel maintenance

Third, as a senior deckhand, you must not be afraid to get your hands dirty. This certainly happens since you take care of the maintenance of the ship’s exterior, tenders, and other equipment. Although it may sound obvious, these tasks must be done properly. The maintenance duties make the bosun job dynamic and serve as a good variety with the more managerial tasks. 

Tasks are deck painting, cleaning accommodations, separating waste, and piloting activities. Also, the hull of the vessel as well as the anchors and windlasses are maintained. “To prevent defects, rust, and corrosion of the vessel and its equipment, the deck foreman performs maintenance inspections”, says Wessing. “He/she determines whether repairs are needed and directs the deckhands to fix it.”

The deck foreman also takes care of the supplies of the vessel. This means, for example, guaranteeing the presence of equipment and its elements. Wessing: “If new supplies are necessary, the deck foreman makes sure new orders are made.” 

Ship navigating

Fourth, the bosun assists in the navigation of the vessel. Previously, he/she keeps logs of the necessary nautical charts and instruments. The world, and therefore the maritime sector as well, is subject to digitization. There are now GPS systems and onboard computers taking over much of the former boatswain’s navigation duties. However, when these devices fail, a bosun is expected to be able to take over the navigation.

Mooring and anchoring

Lastly, a deck foreman ensures that the ship runs smoothly during mooring, anchoring, and sailing (away). He/she manages the anchors, the ropes, and the chains of the mooring lines. For example, when reaching a port, the boatswain lays down the mooring lines on deck. When arriving at or loosening from the wharf, he/she guarantees proper communication and collaboration with the shore staff and the deck members.

"Splitting trusses is also an important part of this." As a bosun, Wessing has had to do this a lot, an act that, according to him, not everyone can master. Splitting makes trusses thinner, used to moor vessels. “Bunches are also split to ensure they fit through machines”, says Wessing. 

Bosun is splitting trusses on deck

What are the required skills? 

What skills do you need to be able to perform the above tasks? As said before, a boatswain is a real all-rounder on board! Therefore, to become one, you need to be intelligent and possess a variety of competencies. The following are important:

  • Leadership skills

A bosun has leadership qualities - he/she has an opinion, idea, or vision and dares to propagate his/her work strategies. In addition, a boatswain can stimulate cooperation between the deckhands and motivate them to achieve desired results on board. Furthermore, the deck foreman is an organizer and a good planner, to oversee and direct the crew and the (performed) tasks.

  • Flexibility and problem-solving

Moreover, a bosun must be flexible - he/she must be able to adapt to different and changing circumstances. Given the diverse tasks, the dynamics on board, and the dependence on many crew members, a day like a boatswain will never go as planned. For example, when parts of a ship fail or there is a shortage of deckhand, a bosun needs to be a quick-thinker and act spontaneously.

  • Independent and team player

What’s more, a bosun must be able to work well in a team as well as individually. He/she is a team player when directing the team of deckhands and corresponding with the chief officer and the captain. However, since a deck foreman is responsible for performing several tasks on board and is a point of contact for the crew, he will also have to be able to take on tasks independently.

  •  Communication skills

You have to be able to work with different people

Former bosun Ruud Wessing

A boatswain is also expected to have strong communication skills as he/she is the mediator between the crew members on the one hand and the chief officer and the captain on the other. In addition, to account for your work and to direct the deckhands, you must be proficient both verbally and in writing. According to Wessing, social adroitness here is a pre: "As a manager on deck, you need to be able to work with different people."

  • Technical skills

Another important requirement is technical skills, as various processes on board are automated by digital devices. Take the navigation system. Even though a computer can do most of the navigation work, the bosun needs to understand how it works. Moreover, to be able to take over the navigation in case of errors, technical knowledge of the vessel's geographical position is crucial. 

What are bosun’s required education and qualifications?

Deckhand climbing his professional ladder up to the bosun position

To become a bosun, you need to have at least a high school degree or a General Education Diploma (GED certificate). Sometimes, maritime employers ask for an Associate's Degree in Marine Transportation or an equivalent area of discipline. Some senior deckhands have completed an HBO diploma at the nautical school, obtained a bachelor's degree, or even have a master's degree. But this is not necessary.

Officially there are no certificates specifically necessary for boatswain, however, without the following ones, you cannot climb the career path of a bosun. Many employers prefer seafarers who are certified. With the right documents in your pocket, you have a better chance. In addition, your salary is higher than a boatswain who is not certified. The following certificates are relevant:

- MCA STCW Basic Safety training

- ENG1 medical certificate

- Tender Driving License

- EDH (Efficient deckhand) course

- Started with OOW (Officer of Watch) Modules 

Also, at least two or three years deckhand experience is required, to gain a strong comprehension of sailing and the operational processes on board. Most training will be on the job, in acquiring the position as one of the most experienced deckhands, to, in the end, become a bosun. Besides the important basic experience certificates, you can always boost your resume with the following certificates:

- RYA Power Boat Level 2 or IYT Tender Driver License

- GMDSS VHF/SRC Radio Operators Certificate

- Extended OOW modules

- AEC (Approved Engine Course)

How to obtain the bosun position? 

Becoming a deck foreman is easier said than done. Wessing tells how it used to be: “Back then you could work your way up - I started as a cook's mate, after which I became a deck boy. I learned how to split ropes, helped the bosun with chores in the evening, and became a sailor, up to a bosun.”  Wessing says that nowadays certificates and appraisals are becoming more important.

Listen to your supervisor, show initiative and stand out

Former bosun Ruud Wessing

Once in the position, after years of hard work, the rewards will pay off - you will have the opportunity to lead your crew, take responsibility, and earn a good salary. And your experience as a boatswain might be a stepping stone to the next desired career step! “To get there, you have to listen to your supervisor and at the same time show initiative”, says Wessing. “Make sure you stand out.”

Crewlinker serves as an excellent tool to make your professional goals come true. You can use our platform to easily track your career and that of peers. Moreover, your Crewlinker profile ensures that you are easily noticed by offshore employers. We will match you with the vacancies required to follow a bosun's career or we will already link you with employers looking for a bosun!

Don't you have an account yet? Register quickly and see if the job as a bosun or another position fits your profile!

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