What is a Boatswain

Below are excerpts from various sources regarding the Boatswain occupation:




The term boatswain is the oldest title in the sea service. It is derived from the Old English batswegen or batsuen (boat’s swain or husband).

In Saxon times the boatswain was in command.  In medieval England, he was the officer who made the ship go, having charge of the masts, yards and sails, and was second only to the master.  Nathaniel Boteler in his Dialogues, in the reign of King Charles I, showed the wide responsibilities of the boatswain in the early seventeenth century.  He had charge of all ropes, anchors, sails, flags, colours, and care of the long-boat.  He called up the watches to their duty, kept the sailors “in peace, and order one with another,” and he saw to it that all offenders were punctually punished (boatswain’s mates had to wield the cat-o’-nine tails), “either at the Capstan, or by being put in the bilboes, or with ducking at the main yardarm.”

It is readily seen that through the centuries the boatswain has had the duties not only of command but those associated with the coxswain and the late master-at-arms.  But through it all, the boatswain has remained to this day the seaman specialist, particularly in terms of equipment related to seamanship.

In HMC ships today, the boatswain is usually a master or chief warrant officer, looks after small arms, anchors and cables, hawsers and fenders, paints, life rafts and demolitions, as well as parade and small arms training.

Taken from the “Customs and Traditions of the Canadian Armed Forces (1980), Chapter 5: Words and Expressions


From Canadian Forces Recruiting (2018):

Job description

Boatswains are the seamanship specialists of the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF). They are responsible for the safe operation and maintenance of the ship’s rigging, shipboard cargo handling equipment, boats and small craft.

The range of their responsibilities and supervisory duties is wider than in most other seagoing occupations. Their primary responsibilities are to:

  • Operate and maintain shipboard equipment associated with cargo handling and inter-ship transfers of personnel, fuel, and materiel while at sea
  • Operate and maintain the ship’s equipment for such tasks as anchoring, towing, launching and recovering  boats, and surface rescue operations
  • Operate and navigate small craft in all waters
  • Perform required tasks with ship’s rigging and lifesaving equipment
  • Organize the storage, training, and use of small arms, demolitions and ammunition
  • Plan, organize and conduct drill and ceremonies
  • Assist and supervise deck crews in maintaining the ship and its equipment
  • Coordinate watch keeping duties at sea and in harbour


Working environment

The Boatswain is truly “the professional sailor,” experiencing the unique adventures and challenges that come with work at sea, such as open deck surfaces and a rotating shift or watch system. Ashore, Boatswains normally work as instructors training other naval personnel. Junior Boatswains spend time working outside their occupation performing general duties such as cleaning, painting, working in the cafeteria, standing sentry duty, storing the ship, and acting as members of the Naval Boarding Party.

Pay and career development

The starting salary for fully trained Boatswains is $60,000 per year; however, depending on previous experience and training the starting salary may be higher. Boatswains who demonstrate the required ability, dedication and potential are selected for opportunities for career progression, promotion and advanced training.

Related civilian occupations

  • Tugboat captain
  • Deck hand on a fishing vessel
  • Boatswains employed by private ships


Basic military qualification

The first stage of training is the Basic Military Qualification course, or “basic training,” held at the Canadian Forces Leadership and Recruit School in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Quebec. This training provides the basic core skills and knowledge common to all occupations in the CAF. A goal of this course is to ensure that all recruits maintain the CAF physical fitness standard; as a result, the training is physically demanding.

Naval environmental training

Naval recruits attend the Canadian Forces Fleet School in Esquimalt, British Columbia or the Canadian Forces Naval Operations School in Halifax, Nova Scotia for approximately five weeks. Training includes the following topics:

  • Naval history and organization
  • Shipboard firefighting and damage control
  • Shipboard safety and ship’s security
  • Watchkeeping duties
  • Seamanship

Basic occupational qualification training

The next training is specific to the duties of Boatswains. It lasts about 12 weeks. It includes the following topics:

  • Working of anchors, cables and lines, and tasks associated with mooring, anchoring, and towing
  • Maintenance of the upper deck and its equipment
  • Transfer of materiel and personnel between ships at sea
  • Procedures for ship refuelling at sea
  • Rigging tasks including brows, ladders and buoys
  • Boat work, including high-speed small boat operation, boat maintenance and navigation
  • Rescue operations
  • Handling, preparation and detonation of demolition charges
  • Operation and maintenance of small arms, from rifle and pistol up to .50 calibre heavy machine-gun

Specialty training

Boatswains may be selected to develop specialized skills through formal courses and on-the-job training, including:

  • Naval Boarding Party
  • Ship’s Diver
  • Charge of Tenders (i.e., small naval vessels)
  • Navigator’s Yeoman
  • Instructional Techniques

Entry plans

Required education

The minimum required education to apply for this position is the completion of the provincial requirements for Grade 10 or Secondaire IV in Quebec. Foreign education may be accepted.

Part-time option

This occupation is available part-time within the following environment: Navy

Serve with the Reserve Force

This position is available for part-time employment with the Primary Reserve at certain locations across Canada. Reserve Force members usually serve part time at a Naval Reserve Division (NRD) in their community, and may serve while going to school or working at a civilian job. Naval Reservists are paid during their training. They are not posted or required to do a military move. However, they can voluntarily transfer from one NRD to another. They may also volunteer for deployment on military missions within or outside Canada.

Part-time employment

Reserve Boatswains serve as members of the Royal Canadian Navy. Like their Regular Force counterparts, they are employed as seamanship specialists and are responsible for the safe operation and maintenance of ship’s rigging, shipboard cargo handling equipment, boats in all waters, and small arms. Part-time employment is normally in the Boatswain’s NRD; some part-time training is conducted on weekends at naval schools or in ships afloat. Casual full-time employment in ships and at naval schools is normally available in the summer months.

Reserve Force training

Reserve Force members are trained to the same level as their Regular Force counterparts for work that is common to the two components. Reservists usually begin training in their Naval Reserve Davison to prepare them for the Basic Military Naval Qualification course. Following basic training and naval environmental training, Boatswains complete their occupation qualification at either the Canadian Forces Fleet School in Esquimalt, British Columbia or the Canadian Forces Naval Operations School in Halifax, Nova Scotia for approximately nine weeks.

Working environment

Reserve Force members usually serve part-time with their home Naval Reserve Division for scheduled evenings and occasional weekends. They are paid 85 percent of Regular Force rates of pay, receive a reasonable benefits package including a pension plan, and may qualify for reimbursement of civilian education expenses.