Who is an Able Seaman on Ship?

Sailing a vessel in the unpredictable seas is not an easy task to perform. Unlike other modes of transportations, sea voyages are always challenged by often chaotic climate conditions. However, it’s always the teamwork by a group of trained seafarers abroad the ships that help journeys reach destinations.

Similar to other industries, the marine sector also involves a certain order of hierarchy in jobs to make the operation of a vessel smooth and coordinated. Be it a cruise ship or cargo vessel, the hierarchy, from the Captain to steward, is essential for maintaining an order abroad the ships.

Related Reading: Merchant Navy Recruitment Process – Entrance Exam, Salary And Job

In the field of the merchant navy, the role of seafarers is predominantly divided into three categories: deck, engine and catering departments. Under the deck department of the ship, seafarers are responsible for the navigation of the vessel and handling cargo operations, among others.

Besides training and skills, it is the experience and acquired knowledge of a seafarer that strengthens one’s role in this department. In addition to the Captain or Master, the deck department of a ship houses deck officers and ratings.

Typically, deck officers include Chief Mate, Second Mate Third Mate and Deck Cadets, while non-officers in the deck rating section are Bosun, Able Seaman (AB), Ordinary Seaman (OS) and Trainee OS etc.

Related Reading: 8 Things to Keep In Mind Before Joining Merchant Navy

Able seaman

Who is an Able Seaman?

An able seaman, also known as an Able Bodied Seaman or AB, is a naval rating of the deck department of a merchant’s vessel. Technically, a seaman who has a good amount of experience at sea, at least more than two years of experience, is known as an able seaman. In addition to the required period of experience, an Ordinary Seaman also needs to pass suggested tests to become an Able Seaman.

The origin of the title of Able Seaman can be traced back to the 18th century during which the term was used to differentiate the pay rates among different sea workers. In 1653, the Royal Navy brought this title in the marine sector as part of the introduction of a new pay scale following the defeat in the Battle of Dungeness. It is said that, during earlier times, the able seaman was paid at least 25% more than what the other inexperienced merchant seamen used to be paid after working for a similar number of hours on the ship.

Related Reading: A Guide To Merchant Navy Officer Ranks

Duties of an Able Seaman

It also has to be noted that along with the increased pay, an able seaman is also expected to work even more than other merchant seamen. Seaman jobs of an able seaman include standing guard and taking up a duty-post near the helm (the steering wheel of the ship) along with being an expert in life-threatening situations and rough weather situations.

Able Seaman is required to perform watchstanding or as a day worker, or even a combination of these roles, according to the requirement on the ship. They are also required to assist loading and unloading of cargo as well as help the mooring of the vessel.

Basic Requirements for an Able Seaman

The minimum requirements needed to qualify as an Able Bodied Seaman vary according to the ship specifications and regional laws. In the earlier days, the level of experience that used to separate the able seaman from other seamen was two years, nowadays the requirement of experience has changed and modified to suit different types of ships and boats. Currently, the required experiences to qualify as an Able Bodied Seaman can be summarised as follows:

  • Seaman with at least six months of working experience on the vessel can be considered for the AB-Sail, AB-Fishing Industry (FISH IND) and AB-Offshore Supply Vessel (OSV). Alternatively, training on a school ship that gives training at sea along with coursework can be substituted for a portion of the service requirement. For these able seamen, the duties include maintenance and repair jobs, raise and lower lifeboats and handle and stow cargo etc.
  • A person who wants to be an able seaman in certain specific areas (like the Great Lakes in theUnited States) needs to have compulsorily a minimum of a year’s worth of experience as a seaman. The Ordinary Seaman with an experience of one year on vessels at least 65 feet in length is eligible to be an AB-Mobile Offshore Unit (MOU) (Do note that the rules change according to the country). Similarly, a seaman with a year of qualifying sea service experience on ships operating on the federally navigable inland waters of the US as well as on ocean waters can qualify for the rank of AB-Special. AB’s under this category will be assigned to stand watch on the bow of the vessel and steering the vessel as per the direction of the Captain or responsible officer.
  • An individual who wishes to be an able seaman in only some selected water-bodies has to have a minimum of one-and-a-half years of work experience as a seaman. To qualify as an AB Limited, the seaman needs to have a minimum of 18 months working experience on vessels of at least 100 Gross Register Tons. The responsibilities of an AB Limited include the duty to direct other crew members on ship maintenance duties and communicating with other ships.
  • A seaman who wishes to be an Able Bodied Seaman in any water-body across the world requires a minimum of three years of experience working on a ship.AB Unlimited, the highest-ranking for able seamen, will have at least 1080 days of qualifying sea service experience on the deck of vessels. AB Unlimited earns the highest salary for able seamen working in the industry and often assigned with important responsibilities including the verification of the accuracy of the vessel’s navigation when sailing under the autopilot mode.

Related Reading: 8 Myths To Be Cleared Before Joining Merchant Navy

Moreover, it has to be noted that the seaman’s experience that is taken into account also includes the weight carrying capacity of the ship (measured in gross tonnage) and the speciality of the ship (cargo or passenger). Similarly, the candidate’s adeptness and ability to perform well as a seaman also assessed before finally acknowledging him as an able seaman.

Qualifications of an Able Seaman

However, just having experience does not qualify a person to become an able seaman. Typically, the candidate must be at least 18 years of age and according to the merchant marine employment rules, the candidate has to undergo several tests and qualification exams to be regarded as an able seaman.

These tests are conducted to check whether the person is fit to take care of the extra responsibilities and duties that need to be taken care of. During the tests, the personal survival techniques and the capabilities of the seaman in fire prevention and firefighting, personal safety, elementary first aid and social responsibility will be assessed. Moreover, the candidate’s proficiency in the English language also comes under evaluation during the tests.

Related Reading:  21 Websites To Find Maritime Jobs

Life-saving acumen is a very important concept that is tested primarily because as a person who is required to be on guard duty, it becomes the responsibility of a merchant seaman to make sure that lives are promptly saved in case of an emergency.

During the actual demonstration, the candidate should be in a position to show his/her capabilities by taking command of the vessel. The applicant will be required to demonstrate the training in other various duties abroad the vessel including directing the operation of clearing away and lowering the lifeboat into the water, among others.

In addition, the seaman shall also demonstrate the knowledge of nautical terms and other significant practices abroad the vessel such the principal knots, splices, hitches, and bends, etc.

The profession of an able seaman is definitely for those who are ready to put in extra experience at sea for ensuring a promising maritime career in future. Apart from providing a high salary compared to the other seaman jobs abroad the vessel, the position offers a platform for a bright and promising career ahead.

Learn more about different maritime careers here.

You may also like to read – What is Seaman’s Service Book?

Disclaimer: The authors’ views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of Marine Insight. Data and charts, if used, in the article have been sourced from available information and have not been authenticated by any statutory authority. The author and Marine Insight do not claim it to be accurate nor accept any responsibility for the same. The views constitute only the opinions and do not constitute any guidelines or recommendation on any course of action to be followed by the reader.

The article or images cannot be reproduced, copied, shared or used in any form without the permission of the author and Marine Insight. 

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  1. Sir,I have H.S.(science) ,S.T.C.W,PANAMA CDC,computer Diploma passed.I have Indian passport. Sailing experience 3years seagoing.How I have got 3rd engineer certificate/CDC.Please sir guideline to me by mail.Thanking you sir.

  2. hi sir i have work in gulf as os in six month on micronesia cdc now i got panama watchkeping and indian cdc fresh can possible to work as able seaman in uk.as a able seaman .

  3. I want a basic principles for Marine Deck cadet book. Just to use it as my guide during my life at sea

  4. I’m a deck cadet I have sailed for 18 months in FG ship. Now I don’t have that much money to give 2nd mate exam. Can I sail as an Ab on ship and how ?

  5. @Zoheb: Yes, you can. With the previous 18 months experience you can approach the companies.

  6. Sir actually i have completed my diploma in mechanical engineering.so my passion to became a seaman .i don’t the procedure to take training or and basically i just don’t know about how to be a seaman .will u please give me what the procedures have to be a seaman.please sir. Thanking you

  7. Hello sir
    I’m zakir my ambition is to work in abroad and vessel
    I completed 10 th pass 12 th fail
    My full life experience is administration line banking collection based on experience i become an credit manager level 28 years completed
    For my ambition of work now i completed my STCW COURSE and STS course also and i applied for the seaman also,
    I want become a sailor what can I do
    Give me idea or help me to become a good sailor
    I tried for GMDSS UK course also they are not give the opportunity to study
    I’m ready to work
    Will you please help me

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