Nautical Terms and Naval Expressions: Seamanship Edition Part 3

By Naval History and Heritage Command Communication and Outreach Division

Driving a U.S. Navy warship is a team effort! Read below for information on some of the positions that make up a bridge watch team and learn the historical origins of some of the terms.

OFFICER OF THE DECK

At sea, the officer of the deck (OOD) is stationed on the ship’s bridge and is in charge of the navigation and safety of the ship. The OOD, often aided by a junior officer of the deck (JOOD), supervises and conducts on-the-job training for the junior officers and enlisted personnel of the bridge watch team.

 BOATSWAIN’S MATE OF THE WATCH

Officially established in 1794, boatswain’s mate (phonetically pronounced as bosun) is the oldest rate in the Navy and has a rich history of honored traditions. They are considered the leaders and backbone of every ship’s crew. The origins of the term boatswain can be traced to the Saxon word swein, meaning “boy” or “servant,” and the late Old English word bat, meaning “boat.” In the days of sail, the boatswain was in charge of the ship’s anchors, cordage, colors, deck crew, and the ship’s boats. Today, the boatswain’s mate of the watch (BMOW) has specific duties. An enlisted assistant to the OOD, the BMOW ensures that all members of the underway watch are posted, alert, and are in the proper watch standing uniform. The BMOW helps carry out the ship’s routine and ensures that the watch functions efficiently. A BMOW must be a qualified helmsman. He or she may supervise the on-watch helmsman if senior to the quartermaster of the watch (QMOW).

QUARTERMASTER OF THE WATCH

The quartermaster of the watch (QMOW) assists the OOD in navigational matters and maintains the ship’s daily written record, also known as the deck log. In Connell and Mack’s Naval Ceremonies, Customs, and Traditions, they note “the quartermaster originally had nothing to do with the bridge or steering of a ship, but was assigned to the specific duty of looking after troop quarters. In later years, these men were retained aboard after troops debarked and were assigned to other duties.” Today, those additional duties include reporting and recording weather changes and executing required ship’s navigational lighting changes when standing watch.

CONNING OFFICER

The word conn was first used in the English language in the early 1600s and referred to controlling or directing the steering of a ship. Thus, the conning officer is responsible for giving the helmsman instructions on direction and thrust of the ship’s engines. Changes in course and speed of a ship can also be ordered by the OOD, but the helmsman can only respond to the conning officer’s orders—this keeps the helmsman from being confused by multiple sets of orders.

HELMSMAN

The helmsman is responsible for keeping the ship on course as directed by the conning officer. The lee helmsman is responsible for operating the engine order telegraph, ensuring that all bells are correctly answered.

The term helmsman can be traced to the Germanic word helmo, which means “handle”— as in the handle or steering apparatus of the ship. Thus, the helmsman is the Sailor who physically steers the ship, or keeps the ship on course.

NAVIGATOR

The navigator is the person aboard a ship who is responsible for the ship’s position and route. The navigator advises the commanding officer and OOD as to the ship’s movements and, if the ship is running into danger, as to a safe course to be steered. The responsibilities of the navigator include planning the journey, estimating timing to destinations while en route, and ensuring hazards are avoided. Finding your way through the world’s vast oceans is no easy task, so you can imagine how important the job of a navigator is, how the tools of navigation have changed through history, and why these skills are still important for today’s Sailors.

Read more about the origins of the U.S. Navy’s nautical terms and naval expressions here.