On a Ship, Who is the Bosun?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

A bosun is an officer on a ship who is responsible for the rigging, anchors, cables, sails, and other items that are used to keep a ship running smoothly. He or she is considered to be the foreman of the ship's crew, because he or she issues orders to the deck crew. On a small ship, the bosun may also be the third or fourth mate, meaning that he or she is only a few steps below the captain in seniority.

The bosun on a sailing ship was responsible for overseeing the vessel's rigging, cables, anchors, and sails.
The bosun on a sailing ship was responsible for overseeing the vessel's rigging, cables, anchors, and sails.

The term originates from “boatswain,” which is still considered to be a technically correct spelling of the word. Both words stem from a much older English word, batswegen. The batswagen was a boy or follower of the boat, and generally considered to be more like a servant than a member of the crew. The function of the job evolved with the word, which turned into boatswain in the late 1400s. Gradually the pronunciation of the word changed, and the spelling began to reflect that: most sailors use the spelling of “bosun” to refer to boatswains.

On large ships, the bosun may be in charge of the deck and crew.
On large ships, the bosun may be in charge of the deck and crew.

Today, the bosun is an important part of the ship's crew. On small boats and sailing ships, he or she still works with the deck crew to coordinate work and organize duties. When the bosun is also a ships mate, he or she is accorded more authority and respect among the crew. On larger ships where the majority of deck tasks are automated, this person is in charge of the deck crew and ceremonially calls them to work using a bosun's pipe, a specially designed whistle.

The bosun's pipe uses a series of tones to convey orders. The sound could be clearly heard over other noises on a busy sailing ship, and in some navies, whistling by crew was forbidden to avoid confusion. The pipe is still used on small ships to relay orders, and in the formal ceremonies of many navies. It was also considered to be a badge of rank, because ordinary seamen were not permitted to wear it.

Traditionally, the bosun has his or her own crew and series of mates. The bosun's first mate was often given punishment duties, for example, and might be left in charge of the deck crew when the bosun was not on duty. The crew works like a well oiled machine to keep the ship safe and running smoothly, and coordination between its members is crucial in an emergency situation.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


I came here as a result of watching "Mutiny on the Bounty." Captain Bligh would refer to the man responsible for punishment as the "Bosun". He also remarked, paraphrasing here that, "..you should see my bosun and see the science behind the use of the cat of 9 tails.."

At least in this picture, the bosun appears to refer to the man directly responsible for carrying out punishment and with an attainable skill set apparently.


I read that there are historical records mentioning bosun's call even as far back as the Crusades. At first it was used only for the purpose of giving out orders. But after some time, it become a symbol and was used as a badge.


Even if the bosun is not a ships mate, I can imagine how important their role is during a storm or if there is something wrong with the ship. If the bosun wasn't there to give out directions to the crew and locate needed equipment on the ship, a small situation could easily get out of hand.

I think bosuns have a much more important role than it seems. They are kind of like hidden heroes.

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