How to Be a Good First Mate

For those who are old enough to remember Gilligan’s Island, you probably have an idea of how not to be an effective first mate. Here are some qualities and qualifications for those who want to be a good first mate

1) Understand what a first mate is, and what his duties are. On a small sailing vessel, the crew may consist of only a captain and one or two hands, or persons charged with operating the boat. In this situation, the first mate acts as a hand in the craft’s operation, but for larger vessels, the first mate is the second in command, and on shifts, may be the officer of the deck, or OD

2) Obey orders in a timely and certain fashion. No first mate would hesitate to immediately set to a task when he is ordered to it by the skipper of the vessel

3) Understand sea language. Here are some examples with their definitions: •The deck. This is the main level of the vessel, usually referring to the exterior area around the cabin (or superstructure of large ships).

  • The wheelhouse. This is the location, usually an interior area with windows and the wheel, which is used to steer the vessel.
  • Below decks. On small craft, this may simply be a cabin, the head (bathroom), the engine compartment, and whatever storage space is built into the boat. Larger vessels may include a galley, crew’s and officer’s quarters, a hold (for cargo), a bilge, and a variety of other specialized compartments.
  • Stern/aft. The rear of the vessel.
  • Port. The left side of the vessel.
  • Starboard. The right side of the vessel.
  • Forward, or any designation including the prefix for/fore designates the front of the vessel, such as fore-deck, forecastle, etc.

4) Know the functional elements of the vessel. For a sailing ship, you should understand the nomenclature and purpose of the rigging, including all hardware, lines, spars, mast, sheets, and be able to tend them efficiently if the need should arise, for instance, the crew falls ill or someone is injured

5) Know your captain. This is a critical issue where the captain’s ability and mental condition are suspect, of course, since the safety of the vessel and crew are dependent on a captain making good decisions in every circumstance, but knowing the captain also makes it possible for the first mate to anticipate orders, keep the ship and crew in pleasing form, and make life more pleasant for everyone in the cramped spaces of a ship or boat.

6) Keep morale up. On a long voyage, the first mate must help keep the crew cheerful and in good spirits. This means being an arbitrator in disputes, maintaining discipline, making sure everyone pulls their own weight, and keeping things running smoothly.


7) Run a tight ship. Keep tackle and gear stored properly, make sure cargo and stores are secured, be aware of the condition of rigging or engines, know how much fuel, food and water are on hand, and make sure hatches are kept secured. Keeping the deck clear of debris and loose lines and tackle makes for a safer environment for everyone.

8) Communicate effectively with the crew. When the captain gives an order, carry it out by giving accurate and concise instructions to the crewman responsible for completing the task. For particular tasks, it is advisable to attend to it or observe it being taken care of personally.

9) Stay in top shape. Sea voyages are often boring and lacking in physical challenge on modern vessels, but when a crisis occurs, equipment fails, or severe weather is encountered, the first mate must be able to physically perform his duties without fail

10) Observe the seas and weather for unusual events. Even with modern communications, satellite weather technology, and onboard radar, nothing can replace a pair of sharp eyes scanning the seas and skies for approaching squall lines or other vessels wandering into the path of your ship.

11) Get to know all the hands on the boat personally. Knowing each person will make the job of managing their efforts much easier, since personalities often dictate different management techniques to get optimum performance from the crew.

12) Make yourself available at all times, for both the captain and crew. This means being willing to take a midnight shift at the helm, talk about personal problems with a deckhand, or taking orders.

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