Becoming a Seaman

Line drawing of a four masted sailing vessel
Over the millennia countless men have lived and worked at sea, fishermen, merchants, and warriors alike, but you don’t have to work at sea to enjoy life on the high seas. If you’ve never been at the helm of a boat or ship, then you have one more thing for your bucket list. Before you get started there a few things you need to know. 


To understand any discussion of sailing you need to know some of the unique terminology. There’s far more but that can be left for another time.

Aft – towards the rear of a vessel 

Ahead – in front of a vessel 

Air draft – the total height of a vessel above the waterline 

Astern – behind a vessel 

Beam – the vessels width 

Berth – either a place to moor a vessel at a deck or a bed or sleeping assignment onboard 

Bow – the front end of a vessel 

Cabin – either the interior space of a small vessel or sleeping quarters on a larger one

Deck – technically the covering of any enclosed space but also commonly used to refer to a floor or level in a ship’s structure

Draft – the distance the hull extends below the waterline 

Forward – towards the front of a vessel 

Freeboard – the distance from the waterline to the top of the hull

Galley – Most commonly, a kitchen at sea

Her, she – the appropriate pronouns for any vessel 

Hull – the primary structure of most vessels

Inboard – within a vessel or nearer to a vessel’s centreline 

Leeward – downwind, sheltered 

Line – virtually any rope or cable

Mast – a tower structure used to elevate equipment or rig sails

Outboard – outside of a vessel’s hull or further from the centreline 

Port – left

Rudder – a movable fin at the stern used for steering 

Starboard – right

Stern – the back end of a vessel 

Superstructure – any and all structures above the hull

Vessel – a generic term for watercraft, giving no consideration to power, size, or function

Windward – upwind


Many sailors have died at sea, it can be a very dangerous place so safety is of utmost importance. Be sure all the necessary safety equipment is on board and in working order. You’ll also want to make sure the whole crew and as many of the passengers as practical know how to handle emergencies. What you need onboard depends on the size and type of vessel you have. It’s the owner’s responsibility and the Coast Guard can tell you what you need. It’s also important to know your vessels limitations and never exceed them. Possibly most important, avoid sailing aboard vessels that aren’t in good working order. 


Every vessel needs a crew. That crew may be one man or it could be hundreds or even thousands. Every vessel needs a skipper and a helmsman, who may be the same person, and other crew members as needed. The most important thing is that a vessel is never knowingly left to float freely.

Some of the most common crew positions are:

Skipper, Captain, or Master – the person in charge of the entire vessel

Helmsman – the person responsible for steering the vessel 

Engineer – responsible for maintaining and repairing the vessel 

Steward – responsible for the care of passengers and crew

Deckhand – general labourer

Boatswain (pronounced: bozun) – chief deckhand 

Every crew member must know how to properly use whatever equipment their job requires. The skipper should also know how to navigate without the help of GPS.

The Watch System

All the work that needs to be done 24/7 while at sea is divided using the watch system. Crew members are divided into groups or “watches” which then work 8 to 12 hour days split into shifts, also called watches. Lookouts should also be assigned to cover gaps in visibility from the helm or maintain awareness when moored or at anchor. The watches are usual scheduled around mealtimes and a longer rest period.  Crews never get entire days off at sea, nor would they want them.

Rules of the “Road”

Just like cars on the roads, vessels at sea follow certain rules to safely navigate. Among them; right of way. 

Right of way means the same thing at sea. When two vessels are at risk of colliding, which one gives way? Human powered vessels usually have the right of way and sailing vessels usually have the right of way over power vessels. What is universal though is vessels restricted in their movements have the right of way over vessels that are unrestricted and moored and anchored vessels have the right of way over everything. If both vessels are otherwise the same, direction decides right of way. 

All vessels have the right of way over vessels approaching from astern and power vessels approaching from port. The rules are more complicated when vessels are approaching head-on. One vessel either sounds their horn once and adjusts course to starboard, or sounds the horn twice and adjusts course to port, the other then follows suit, but adjusting to starboard is more common. When two sailing vessels are approaching, the leeward (downwind) vessel has the right of way. 

At night it becomes more difficult, which is where lights come into play. If all you can make out are spots of light, they can be used to identify the type of vessel and the direction from which you’re approaching. If all you see are white lights, you yield because they’re a human powered vessel, at anchor, or you’re approaching from astern. If you see stacked white, red, and green lights, they’re a sailing vessel and you must treat them accordingly. If all you see is a red or green light, you’re approaching a sailing vessel from port or starboard, respectively. If you see a white light above a red or green light, you’re approaching a power vessel from port or starboard, respectively. If you see red and green lights, you’re approaching from head-on. 


Buoys are the nautical equivalent of road signs. They give navigation and safety information to seaman as they need it. 

Yellow or yellow and black buoys warn of hazards and you should keep your distance. Yellow buoys are placed at or near hazards, but yellow and black represent larger hazards. Striped “cardinal buoys” indicate in which direction the hazard is, keep to that side. 

Diagram of cardinal buoys (north, south, east, west)

Yellow buoys with a black anchor mark the boundaries of anchorages. Only enter if you plan to anchor there or are going to a vessel already anchored. 

Plain white buoys mark the edges of swimming areas. Power vessels are prohibited within them and sailing vessels should stay out as well. Sometimes other colours are used, although they shouldn’t be, but they’re always a solid colour. 

White buoys with orange tops are mooring buoys. They also have some sort of attachment point to tie a vessel to. Unless you intend to use it, treat it as though a vessel is already moored. 

White buoys with orange stripes and geometric shapes are information, hazard, control, and “keep out” buoys. Circles are used for control buoys that communicate rules that must be obeyed, like speed limits. Diamonds are on hazard buoys that mark potentially unsafe waters. Squares are used for information buoys that communicate information that’s of little importance in terms of safety or the law. Diamonds with crosses are on “keep out” buoys and passing into the area they mark is dangerous and/or illegal. 

A red flag with a white diagonal stripe flown from a buoy or vessel means there are divers in the water. You must keep your distance, unless you want to kill innocent people. 

Sometimes channels are marked with buoys. Channels are the nautical equivalent of roads, safe pathways through potentially dangerous waters. When traveling upstream, you keep the red buoys to starboard and the green buoys to port, and do the opposite when sailing downstream. A red and green striped buoy marks a junction in the channel and you can safely and legally pass it on either side, just make sure you’re still heading to your destination. Signposts called “daybeacons” are sometimes used to mark channels as well, but they aren’t nearly as common. 

If you come across any other buoys, just keep your distance. 


Mooring is the process of tying a vessel up to a dock or mooring buoy. The first step is to position your vessel as close as possible to the dock. You also want to make sure your vessel is parallel to the dock. Precisely manoeuvring on the water can take quite a bit of practice so you’ll want to approach the dock as straight as you can. You’ll likely need to apply power in the opposite direction to come to a stop. When you’re in position someone will need to secure the first mooring line. After that securing the other lines is trivial. 

Securing Mooring Lines

How mooring lines need to be secured depends on the equipment on your vessel and the dock. The most common for small vessels are sets of paired hooks called cleats. If you loop the line around them in a figure eight pattern, you can secure the line without tying a single knot. You’ll want to run mooring lines from the bow and stern to the dock. For small vessels two lines is usually enough but for larger vessels it’s advisable to run lines forward, aft, and straight to the side from both points. 


When there’s either no dock or the water near shore is too shallow, the only option is often to drop anchor. Before you start, you should use a chart, depth sounder, or sounding line to find the depth where you intend to drop anchor. The best place to anchor is in sn established anchorage, but wherever you are you want to keep your distance from shore and other vessels, for safety and courtesy.

Once you know the depth you can determine how much anchor line you need to let out. You want enough line so the anchor can reach the seabed without being directly below the vessel. You’ll want to secure the line to either a cleat or windlass, capstan, or other winch aboard your vessel and the other end to the anchor. Then simply drop the anchor in the water. 

When you’re ready to leave, just position your vessel directly over the anchor and pull on the line until the anchor comes back aboard. It may take a fair bit of force to lift the anchor out of the seabed, so be careful because you’re also pulling your vessel down. 


Beaching is essentially a controlled crash. You simply run your boat onto a soft, gently sloping section of shore. It’s only practical with small vessels and you need to be sure only the hull touches the bottom before you’ve come to a complete stop. Once you’re ashore you’ll want to lower anything you safely can into the bottom and secure a mooring line to any structure you can find, most likely a tree.

Getting Ready

Much of getting ready to set sail each time is fairly intuitive, but there are some things to keep in mind. First of all, you’ll need to very careful to ensure your safety equipment and supplies are all aboard and in good working order, in all likelihood you’ll never notice a problem here but if you do it’ll likely be fatal. As far as the amount of supplies and fuel you bring aboard, you’ll want 150% what you expect to use so a slight problem doesn’t turn into the Donner Party. For everything you bring aboard, you need to remember that you’ll probably have extremely limited space, so pack light and carefully consider where you stow everything.


Just like everything else, there’s an etiquette to seamanship. In its simplest form, the etiquette of seamanship is that you should be friendly while still respecting privacy. It’s a good idea to greet people when they’re on the dock, ashore, or on deck. However, you must always regard the interior of a vessel as equivalent to the interior of a house. 

The most important rule though, is you never leave another seaman in danger. If you come across another sailor in distress, you help them however you’re able. It’s a good idea to carry some extra provisions for exactly that purpose.


The legal matters of seamansh revolve around two issues; crew competency and vessel registration. Crew competency requirements vary widely depending on jurisdiction and vessel.  You’ll want to check the requirements before you set sail. 

Vessel registration falls into two categories; licensing and registration. Licensing is used exclusively for pleasure craft and requires an arbitrary number to be printed on both sides of the bow. Registration is more complicated and used for any vessel that isn’t licensed. A registered vessel displays a name chosen by the owner on the stern and both sides of the bow, and a port of registry and optional prefix on the stern. In either case, the documents are typically carried onboard and an ensign is flown in foreign waters to identify where the vessel is registered. 


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