Etiquette & Chain of Command: Dos and Don’ts
Minding One’s P’s and Q’s
Welcome to the seventh installment of Rum, Sodomy, and the Lash, a series looking at the fantasy and the reality of being a sailor in the modern age. Today we’ll be covering etiquette and the chain of command aboard a tall ship, as well as various superstitions and commonly asked questions.
Welcome back to the seventh installment of me discussing the Age of Sail. In this column I’ll be talking about the chain of command and proper etiquette aboard a tall ship, which overlaps quite a bit with etiquette and the chain of command aboard any ship.
There are also differences between current chain of command rules and the rules that were in place during the golden Age of Sail. Jayne Cobb notwithstanding, the chain of command is not a chain Jayne beats you with; it’s who is responsible for what, and who answers to whom aboard a ship.
In the golden Age of Sail and piracy, when aboard a merchant ship, the captain’s word was law. A captain could legally beat a crew member within an inch of his life for no reason whatsoever. They could withhold pay from the crew if the cargo was damaged, even though the crew usually weren’t the ones loading the cargo (that was done by the stevedores at the dock). They could withhold food or grog rations, again for no reason whatsoever, and they could make the crew work for as long as they wanted at whatever hours they wanted [ 1 ].
Aboard a naval vessel, conditions were much the same, except the captain was less likely to withhold pay, grog, or food, and that much more likely to have a crew member beaten. Corporal punishment was a longstanding tradition in the British Navy, one which lasted throughout the Age of Sail.
In the American Navy of the time, corporal punishment was abolished, but the grog ration was abolished at the same time, so… less beating, but also less alcohol to make the time pass quicker on long voyages. The captain’s word was still law, and he could withhold pay or rations, or throw a sailor in the brig.
A pirate ship, on the other hand, was an entirely different kettle of fish. The captain’s word was only law when the ship was attacking or fleeing from another ship. Every other matter was voted upon—where the ship sailed, whom you attacked, what your working conditions were, including bedtimes. Yes, pirates had bedtimes, and they voted on them as part of the ship’s articles, or the democratically created rules for the ship.
When a new pirate crew was formed, every member of the crew would know what the rules were and sign off on them before the ship set sail. This was one of the biggest reasons for the popularity of piracy; pirate ships were some of the most egalitarian and democratic societies of the time [ 2 ].
Choosing a Captain
Pirates didn’t just vote on the rules of the ship. They could even vote on who would be captain. If a captain was seen as incapable or inappropriately cruel, the crew could vote and elect a new captain. This wasn’t seen as a “mutiny” or rebellion, but just a normal facet of the pirate life.
If your captain wasn’t doing their job, you elected a new one. This meant it was in a pirate captain’s best interest not only to do his job well and lead his crew to successful attacks and raids, but also to treat them well enough, with enough respect, that they weren’t too tempted to choose a new captain.
One example of such a fair-and-just captain, whose behavior toward his crew had a polarizing effect on his narrative, was Ned Lowe [ 3 ]. Lowe was an Englishman who came to Boston as a sail maker. Times were hard. Lowe had a wife and two children, and making sails wasn’t feeding his family, so he chose to go pirate.
While he was at sea acting as a pirate captain, his wife died. When Lowe heard of it, something in him snapped. From then on, he would ask the crews of merchant vessels they boarded how well they had been treated by their captain. If the crew had been beaten, or had pay withheld, or otherwise been abused by the captain of the vessel, Lowe would punish the captain in order to “teach them a lesson.”
In many cases, the lesson wasn’t so much for that particular captain, as all the others who heard about it. One thing he’s noted having done on one occasion was slitting open an offending merchant captain’s belly, pulling his intestines out and nailing them to a mast, then chasing him around the mast with a red-hot brand—not an education method with a high rate of survival for the student.
Lowe obviously had gone beyond having issues and moved on to receiving entire subscriptions, but he justified his behavior by citing the sometimes-bestial behavior of the captains themselves.
Lowe had other peculiarities, as well. When he took a merchant vessel, he would ask if any of the crew wished to join him. If any said yes, he would ask if they were married, and if they were, he would refuse to take them, because he didn’t want the death of a woman’s husband on his conscience.
As you can see from this and the way he meted out the “just desserts” to abusive merchant captains, Lowe had a sense of morality, even if the expression of his morality wound up being quite brutal.
Now, all of these things, most notably beatings, are not something a modern-day sailor has to face. Aboard the Formidable, for example, it is strictly against company policy for anyone to be beaten by the captain or his representatives. Discipline is maintained by us being professionals doing a job we love, knowing that if we fool around too much it can put people at risk of injury or death, and understanding that in an emergency someone needs to be in charge.
In a way, our method is far closer to the pirates of the golden age than the Navy or even the merchants, despite our ship leaving port pretty much entirely because the passengers pay us to do so. Beyond that, our captain is a good man who has earned all of our respect and is genuinely enjoyable to work for. I’m sure that if he had been a captain in the golden Age of Sail, he would have been one of those who chose not to use the lash to enforce discipline.
Above all, he’s shown me, and everyone else who has been on his crew, that in any given situation, we ought to be listening to him. Being eager and proactive is all well and good, but acting without consulting the captain winds up, at best, with everyone out of sync and the captain upset, and, at worst, with people working at cross purposes and someone getting hurt or something getting damaged.
Instead, those of us with experience stop, wait, and listen to take our direction from him. Even with jobs we’ve all done hundreds of times before, the captain is the one in a position to know if anything needs to be different. If the wind is gusting differently than it normally would as we come into dock, he might need us to pull in a line faster than we normally would, to “make it up,” meaning to take in the slack of a line rather than putting the eye around a cleat, or to fend us off from the dock with a little more gusto than normal [ 1 ].
Communication and confirmation of communication is important as well. When the captain gives an order, you start doing it immediately, confirm that you heard it, and are doing so by saying “Aye, sir,” and repeat it back to him as you do. For example, if he says, “tie on the bow line,” you jump to it and say “Aye, sir, tying on the bow line.”
You do this so that the captain knows you’re doing the job he told you to do and that you haven’t misheard nor heard someone else’s comment as his order. This is something we go over when we teach our passengers about life aboard ship. Essentially, you have to be able to adapt to new situations, whether it’s a new ship, a new captain, or odd weather, but you must do so at the direction of the captain for the reasons I listed above.
Every captain, for example, has his or her own way of docking a ship, possibly different ways depending on which ship they’re captain of at the time of docking. Every captain will insist that their method is the best one. As a sailor, you agree with each of them when you’re working for them, because that’s what you do to make sure everyone does what they need to do when they need to do it.
There are other ranks besides captain aboard ships, of course, and those ranks and jobs have a pecking order.
Historically, the person after the captain was the quartermaster, who was the crew’s representative to the captain. No one on the crew would approach the captain directly with something. They’d instead report their issue to the quartermaster, who would then speak with the captain if it was warranted—typically when more than one person had the same problem.
- First and Second Mates
Next came the first mate and second mate, who were the captain’s assistants. If he wasn’t available (whether because he was injured, asleep, ashore, or otherwise unable to answer a question or give an order right away), they would fill in for him until he returned. They weren’t, however, “co-captains.”
Next in line came the bosun, who worked hand in hand with the quartermaster. The quartermaster’s primary duty wasn’t as a crew rep but was to make sure the ship had all of the materials it would need while at sea, like food and water. The bosun was primarily responsible for tools and maintenance gear.
- Master of Arms
The master of arms, which is the position I have aboard the Formidable, would make sure the ship was appropriately armed, including ammunition, and that the weapons were in good working order. The master of arms would also work with the master gunner and the gunner’s mates to make sure they had anything and everything they needed in the case of a fight.
This requires quite a lot of knowledge of weapons, since they’re responsible for swords, axes, pistols, cannon, carbines, and even sometimes daggers, although those were usually considered tools rather than weapons. As personal tools, they were usually taken care of by the sailors themselves, but some ships had the master of arms take care of making sure everyone had at least a dagger, as well.
Aboard naval vessels there would be midshipmen. These were younger “officers in training,” and were named for the place amidships where they bunked.
Below the midshipmen were the able-bodied seamen, who had been at sea for many years and knew their trade. They would be deckhands, sail handlers, dock line workers, and so on.
Next you had regular seamen, who were still considered “in training” but otherwise did the same work as the able-bodied seamen.
- Cabin Boys and Powder Monkeys
Next came the cabin boys, who primarily functioned as servants, gofers, and messengers for the officers of the ship. They were at the bottom of the totem pole along with the powder monkeys, who were young men between 6 to 10 years old, depending on how big they were. They needed to be able to get into tight spaces to load the guns.
They were given a canvas bag which they ran down to the powder magazine and filled with charges for the great guns. When they returned with the charges, they helped load them into the cannons, and sometimes loaded the shot into the cannon as well.
And that, from captain to cabin boy, is the pecking order aboard a ship in the golden Age of Sail. In modern times, we usually only have one captain and two deckhands on board, but we refer to ourselves by the historical jobs we perform [ 1 ].
On paper, the crew of the Formidable includes Captain Russ and two deckhands; myself and Casey. Casey is the quartermaster, and I am the master of arms. These aren’t official ranks but are descriptions of the jobs we do. These are honorary ranks but are given to us in recognition of the time we’ve spent with the ship and captain, as well as by what we do.
For example, if there were something I wasn’t comfortable approaching the captain about, I would speak with Casey, and he would bring it to Russ in an appropriate manner. A modern shore-bound equivalent of a quartermaster would be the director of human resources.
On days when Casey isn’t aboard, I’m referred to as the senior deckhand. The other deckhand is usually someone who works for the company that leases the boat from the captain, and usually isn’t as well dressed as we are, because they’re wearing a simple checked or striped shirt we provide along with cargo shorts and deck shoes, whereas the captain and I will be decked out in our full pirate kit.
When we have someone like that aboard, I’ll be the one who familiarizes them with the ship, literally showing them the ropes. That phrase originates from ships and predates the time when the various ropes were called lines. Essentially, a line is any rope that has an actual job, whereas “rope” is rope that is just laying around.
At any rate, I show them the lines, the sheets, the guns, and anything else they need to know about during our time away from the dock. If they’re going to use any of the weapons, I run them through the safety training I was taught before they can use them.
Etiquette and Superstitions
Along with the basic rules of a ship, the chain of command from captain to cabin boy, and the areas of authority everyone has based on their position, there’s also some bits of etiquette which are more based on superstition than anything else. Every ship might have its own quirks, but there are some that are nigh universal.
The biggest one that I’m constantly reminded of is the tradition of not whistling aboard ship [ 4 ]. This comes more from the social problems which occur when either a couple might have issues aboard after a long voyage, or when a woman of more flexible morals might dally with more than one crew member, causing those crew members to get jealous and start trouble. It’s not the woman’s fault, but they’re the one the superstition landed on.
At some points in history, it was good luck to have a cat on board, because they killed off the vermin. At other points it was considered unlucky, and I have no idea why [ 5 ].
One of the “different on every ship,” or even different with every crew superstition, is which days of the week are unlucky to sail out on [ 6 ]. I’ve heard all seven described as unlucky at some point in my career, so this one you’re doomed to ill luck if you subscribe to all of the myths.
Another I’ve personally adhered to aboard the Formidable is whenever there is a big roll of spray coming over the deck, Casey will begin singing the theme song to Gilligan’s Island, and I’ll inevitably call out, “Belay that, it’s bad luck!” because we do not go on three-hour tours for that specific reason.
That’s the only single-ship tradition I’ve come across personally, although historically there’s the pirate Bartholomew Roberts, also known as Black Bart Roberts, who attacked over 400 vessels in three years. He didn’t want to be captain, but he decided if he’d been elected, he would do it right, and so he did. He himself was a teetotaler, and one of his personal quirks or traditions was that he made his crew attend church on Sundays. His crew was happy to oblige. They were averaging two ships a week, which meant that they were doing quite well for themselves under Captain Roberts.
There’s another bit of etiquette or tradition that relates to that pecking order I referred to earlier. The foremast jacks, those who slept foreward of the fore mast, kept to their own. They didn’t associate with the midshipmen or officers, and an excellent example of that is shown in Master and Commander, either the books or the movie.
Admittedly, that series takes place well after the golden age of piracy and sail, in the time of the Napoleonic Wars, but the traditions were as old as tall ships. The able-bodied seamen might socialize with the ordinary seamen or the foremast jacks, but mostly each group stayed with their own.
Social mobility, especially on a naval or merchant vessel, wasn’t a thing that occurred. Midshipmen might socialize with officers, if the officers were willing to tolerate their presence, but only if they were looking to better themselves, which wasn’t always an acceptable thing. More frequently, the officer might mentor a single midshipman if they saw some potential in that midshipman.
Songs were a way the groups, especially the seamen, would bond. Foremast jacks would sing fo’c’sle shanties at the end of the day, about homecoming, places to hang out, and people they loved, such as wives, sweethearts, and family members. Someone who had entertaining skills, like knowing a good song, how to play an instrument, or how to dance entertainingly were often sought after.
As a passenger aboard a ship, the best behavior on board a ship is to remember that there are no silly questions. You’re not in your normal element, so ask. Never assume anything about someone you’re aboard a ship with. Also, don’t assume someone knows some random bit of trivia just because they’re aboard a ship.
One of the most amusing things I learned from a passenger is that sealed, watertight cargo containers are written off by the cargo companies if they fall overboard, so they’re usually picked up by whatever ship comes across them; the most interesting bit of salvage I heard of was a container full of left shoes. No right ones, just left ones. Of such things are superstitions made.
Historically, one of the worst things a pirate could do was to steal from his crew mates. This didn’t just mean taking things that weren’t theirs. It also focused on not sharing loot found aboard a taken vessel. If someone saw you doing so, rather than turning loot in to the bursar, and you were trying to short the crew, the crew would slit your nostrils and ears, then leave you at the most populated location they could easily get to. That was a warning to everyone around you that you not only were a pirate, but you were an untrustworthy pirate.
Another example of someone showing bad etiquette is William Kidd [ 7 ], also known as the infamous Captain Kidd, who was commissioned to be a privateer hunting French merchant vessels. Instead of hitting merchants, he targeted French Naval vessels to curry favor with those who commissioned him. The problem, of course, is that naval vessels were short on loot, which meant the crew wasn’t making any money. Eventually, the crew mutinied and left him in Antigua for not properly taking into consideration his crew’s livelihood and safety.
On a modern vessel, please don’t bring Play-Doh on board, and don’t let your gum hit the deck. Both of those are awful to get off the texture in the deck.
I get a few common questions aboard the Formidable and I’ll answer them here for your convenience. The most common question is how old the boat is. She looks old, but she was built in 2000, which means she’s more than 20 years old. Another common question is whether there were woman pirates—there were! Keep a weather eye out for a future issue pertaining to women in piracy [ 1 ].
Regarding chain of command, the only question I’ll get is, “Who do I listen to?” As a passenger, you should listen to anyone on the crew, but first and foremost defer to the captain; he’s in charge.
So there you have the etiquette and chain of command aboard a tall ship. Be sure to sail by next time when we discuss the differences between pirates, buccaneers, corsairs, and privateers in the Age of Sail!
- “’Life In The Brig: Second Winter’ by Elisha Kent Kane (1856), from her Arctic Explorations collection.“ Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Life_in_the_brig_cropped.jpg
- “Corporal punishment has been a significant part of maritime law for generations. Captains and Officers could demand severe beatings and more, well into the 20th century. Seen here, with this French tintype photo dating back to 1913.“ Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:FMIB_37186_Peloton_du_Punition.jpeg Clerc-Rampal, G. (1913) Mer : la Mer Dans la Nature, la Mer et l’Homme, Paris: Librairie Larousse, p. 199
Jeromy Foberg has staffed conventions as a historian and panelist for the better part of a decade. His work in historical reenactment and experimental archaeology is voluminous, leading historical walking tours and serving as a tall ship sailor. In addition to his series, Jeromy’s worked with SFS as a model, performer, and a writer for The Living Multiverse. Having spent the past few years “living the dream”, he’s rarely settled down in one place to recount his accumulated lore … until now.
- Foberg, Jeremy. Rum, Sodomy, and the Lash. Interview by Savan Gupta, 10 Sept. 2016.
- Rollick, Rachel. “5 Ways Pirate Ships Functioned as a True Democracy.” History News Network, 1 Mar. 2015, historynewsnetwork.org/article/158274
- Williams, Joseph A. “A Pirate Profile: The Most Vicious Ned Low.” Curious Historian, 20 Apr. 2019, curioushistorian.com/a-pirate-profile-the-most-vicious-ned-low
- Formula Boats. “Boating Myths and Supersitions.” Formula, 16 July 2019, formulaboats.com/blog/boating-myths-and-superstitions/#/Boating-Myth-1-No-Whistling-Allowed). The practical reason is that a person whistling might be mistaken for the bosun’s whistle, and indication of the start of a new watch. Pirates didn’t follow this one that much, unless they were a naval vessel crew member turned pirate, like the HMS Bounty.
Other things include always asking the captain for permission if you want to do something like smoking or anything else of a similar nature. He’ll usually say yes and tell you where to stand so you’re not blowing smoke at everyone else, but sometimes there isn’t a good place to stand, or you’ll wind up causing problems for the crew.
There’s a myth that it’s bad luck to have a woman aboard a boat ((Ronca, Debra. “Why Were Women on Ships Considered Bad Luck?” How Stuff Works, people.howstuffworks.com/why-were-women-on-ships-considered-bad-luck.htm Accessed 26 Dec. 2021.
- Milzarski, Eric. “The Long and Curious History of Ship Cats.” The Archive, 15 June 2018, explorethearchive.com/curious-history-of-ship-cats
- Hanauer, Eric. “Seafaring Superstitions and Marine Myth Rituals Explored.” Dive Training, 6 Aug. 2006, dtmag.com/thelibrary/seafaring-superstitions-marine-myth-rituals-explored
- Biography.com Editors. “William Kidd.” Biography, 2 Apr. 2014, biography.com/explorer/william-kidd