Master (naval)

Master (naval)
Portrait of the head of man wearing black coat and a white scarf around his neck.
John Fryer, Sailing master of the HMAV Bounty.

The master, or sailing master, was a historic term for a naval officer trained in and responsible for the navigation of a sailing vessel. The rank can be equated to a professional seaman and specialist in navigation, rather than as a military commander.

In the British Royal Navy, the master was a rank of warrant officer who ranked with, but after, the lieutenants and was eventually renamed to navigating lieutenant in 1867. When the United States Navy was formed in 1794, master was listed as one of the warrant officer ranks and ranked between midshipmen and lieutenants. The rank was also a commissioned officer rank from 1837 until it was replaced with the current rank of lieutenant, junior grade in 1883.


Royal Navy

In the Middle Ages, when 'warships' were typically merchant vessels hired by the crown, the man in charge of the ship and its mariners, as with all ships and indeed most endeavors ashore, was termed the Master; the company of embarked soldiers was commanded by their own Captain. With the rise of the Royal Navy in the Tudor and early Stuart period the authority in a king's ship of the Captain, formerly little more than a passenger, was extended to giving orders to the Master regarding the ship's destination and employment. By the classic Age of Sail the sailing master in the Royal Navy became the warrant officer trained specifically in navigation, was the senior warrant officer rank, and was the second most important officer aboard rated ships.[1] The master ate in the wardroom with the other officers, had a large cabin in the gunroom, and had a smaller day cabin next to the captain's cabin on the quarterdeck for charts and navigation equipment.[2]


Masters were promoted from the rank of the master's mates, quartermasters, or midshipmen. Masters were also recruited from the merchant service. A prospective master had to pass an oral examination before a senior captain and three masters at Trinity House.[3] After passing the examination, they would be eligible to receive a warrant from the Navy Board, but promotion was not automatic.[4]

Second master

Second master was a rating introduced in 1753 that indicated a deputy master on a first-, second- or third-rate ship-of-the-line. A second master was generally a master's mate who had passed his examination for master and was deemed worthy of being master of a vessel. Master's mates would act as second master of vessels too small to be allocated a warranted master.[5] Second masters were paid significantly more than master's mates, £5 5s per month.[6] Second masters were given the first opportunity for master vacancies as they occurred.[7]


Originally, the sailing master did not have an official officer uniform, which caused problems when they were captured because they had trouble convincing their captors they should be treated as officers and not ordinary sailors. In 1787 the warrant officers of wardroom rank (master, purser and surgeon) received an official uniform, but it did not distinguish them by rank. In 1807, masters, along with pursers, received their own uniform.[2]


The master’s main duty was navigation, taking ship’s position daily and setting the sails as appropriate for the required course. During combat, he was stationed on the quarterdeck, next to the captain. The master was responsible for fitting out the ship, and making sure they had all the sailing supplies necessary for the voyage. The master also was in charge of stowing the hold and ensuring the ship was not too weighted down to sail effectively. The master, through his subordinates, hoisted and lowered the anchor, docked and undocked the ship, and inspected the ship daily for problems with the anchors, sails, masts, ropes, or pulleys. Issues were brought to the attention of the master, who would notify the captain. The master was in charge of the entry of parts of the official log such as weather, position, and expenditures.[3][8]

Transition to commissioned officer

In 1808, master acknowledged as having similar status to commissioned officers, and their title was changed to "warrant officer of wardroom rank". In 1843, the master was formally granted commissioned status as a lieutenant. In 1867, master was renamed navigating-lieutenant, and at the same time the second master was renamed navigating sub-lieutenant.[9]

United States Navy

Master, originally sailing master, was a historic warrant officer rank of the United States Navy, above that of a midshipman, after 1819 passed midshipman, after 1861 ensign, and below a lieutenant.[10]

Some masters were appointed to command ships, with the rank of master commandant.[11] In 1837, sailing master was renamed master, master commandant was renamed commander, and some masters were commissioned as officers, formally "master in line for promotion" to distinguish them from the warrant masters who would not be promoted.[11]

After 1855, passed midshipmen who were graduates of the Naval Academy filled the positions of master.[12] Both the commissioned officer rank of master and warrant officer rank of master were maintained until both were merged into the current rank of lieutenant, junior grade on March 3, 1883.[13]

In 1862 masters wore a gold bar for rank insignia, which became a silver bar in 1877. In 1881 they started wearing sleeve stripes of one 12-inch (13 mm) and one 14-inch-wide (6.4 mm) strip of gold lace, still used for the rank of lieutenant, junior grade.[12]

See also


  1. ^ Lewis, Michael (1960). A Social History of the Navy. London: Ruskin House. OCLC 2832855. 
  2. ^ a b Blake, Lawrence 2005, p. 71.
  3. ^ a b "Officer ranks in the Royal Navy". Retrieved 2009-09-16. 
  4. ^ Lavery 1989, p. 101
  5. ^ "Officer ranks in the Royal Navy". Retrieved 2009-04-25. 
  6. ^ Lavery 1989, p. 326.
  7. ^ Rodger 1986, p. 216.
  8. ^ "Duties of the Master". Retrieved 2009-04-23. 
  9. ^ Lewis 1939, pp. 212, 230.
  10. ^ United States Department of the Navy (1877). Regulations for the Government of the Navy of the United States 1876. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office. pp. 5–6. 
  11. ^ a b "Proud Beginnings: History of Warrant Officers in the US Navy". Naval History and Heritage Command. 1999-03-16. Retrieved 2009-09-15. 
  12. ^ a b "Lieutenant". Naval History and Heritage Command. Retrieved 2009-09-21. 
  13. ^ Mallory, John A. (1914). Compiled Statutes of the United States 1913. 1. St. Paul: Wast Publishing Company. pp. 1062. 
  • Nicholas Blake, Richard Lawrence (in ENGLISH). The Illustrated Companion to Nelson's Navy (2005 ed.). Stackpole Books. ISBN 0811732754.  - Total pages: 207
  • Lavery, Brian (1989). Nelson's Navy: The Ships, Men and Organization. Annapolis, Md: Naval Institute Press. p. 326. ISBN 0870212583. 
  • Lewis, Michael (1939). England's Sea-Officers. W.W. Norton & Co.. 
  • Rodger, N.A.M. (1986). The Wooden World: An Anatomy of the Georgian Navy. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press. ISBN 0870219871. 

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