What does the First Mate do?

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  • Written By: John Markley
  • Edited By: Melissa Wiley
  • Last Modified Date: 03 November 2019
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A first mate, also known as a chief mate, first officer, or chief officer, is a type of officer on merchant ships. The first mate is in charge of the ship's deck department, manages the ship's cargo, and is responsible for the well-being of the ship and crew. The first mate will usually stand watch for eight hours a day. If the ship does not have a staff captain, the first mate is also second in command to the ship's captain.

While standing watch, the first mate is directly responsible for the ship's operations and safety. He or she oversees navigation to ensure that the ship steers clear of hazards, such as other ships, and remains on course. His or her presence also ensures that an experienced mariner will already be on the bridge if an unexpected crisis occurs.

The first mate is responsible for safety aboard the ship and provides aid in crisis situations, such as fires, medical emergencies, and loss of stability. He or she assesses damage in the aftermath of a collision or other mishap, commands the ship's fire control and damage control teams, and oversees aid procedures if there is a person overboard or if another ship is in distress. He or she must know how to operate lifeboats, thermal protection, and other emergency equipment and is trained in survival at sea in the event that it becomes necessary to abandon ship.


The first mate is in charge of the loading and unloading of the ship's cargo and of its care while at sea. This has potentially serious implications for the ship's safety, as cargo that has not been properly arranged can unbalance the ship and cause it to capsize, especially in turbulent conditions. He or she is also responsible for the safe transport and storage of cargoes that are hazardous in other ways, such as toxic or flammable materials.

A first mate is a licensed mariner and holds a chief mate's license from at least one country, the requirements for which vary by jurisdiction. In the US, a mariner must first either attend an approved maritime training institution or serve for at least three years in the deck department of an ocean-going vessel, including at least six months as a quartermaster, seaman, or boatswain, and take a set of required courses. After passing the licensing exam, he or she then becomes a licensed third mate. He or she must serve at least one year as a third mate to become eligible for a second mate's license, and then serve at least one year as a licensed second mate and pass a set of qualifying tests to receive a chief mate's license. In some jurisdictions, he or she must also have a master's license to be qualified to take command if the captain is incapacitated.


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