A U.S. Merchant Mariner begins a career at sea as an ordinary seaman. With minimal medical requirements and no education requirements, "the ordinary" only needs be between the ages of 16 and 70 and ambitious, to advance to able seaman, third mate, second mate, chief mate and, finally, master. The ordinary might even spend an evening looking for a mysterious miracle cleaner called "Prop Wash," while cleaning, painting and learning the seaman's trade.
Janitor and Lookout
Able seamen -- the next rating above ordinary seaman -- sometimes describe the ordinary seaman as "a seagoing janitor who ties up the ship." Many of the ordinary seaman's duties involved cleaning the interior of the vessel by sweeping, mopping, dusting, emptying trash and cleaning the "head," or bathroom. He also prepares the exterior surfaces of the ship for painting with a variety of chemicals and mechanical devices, a process called "chipping and painting."
While not a qualified member of the watch -- the crew that oversees the ship''s passage -- the ordinary seaman will serve as lookout on the bow of the ship, looking for objects blocking the ship's path. The ordinary also learns basic firefighting, man-overboard rescue and abandoning ship drills. In between, he's expected to lubricate deck equipment and do everything else that the able seaman, deck supervisor and ship's officers who are working the same hours can find for him to do.
In keeping with the description of a seagoing janitor who ties the ship up, the ordinary, under the tutelage of the able seaman, deck supervisor, or watch officer, learns the proper, safe, seaman-like way to tie the ship to another ship, a pier or the walls of a lock. The ordinary will then take on the duty and responsibility of tying docking or mooring lines as needed. He'll also begin to learn to tie knots, splice fiber and wire rope to make useful and decorative items used aboard ship, including mooring and dock lines, with the aid of a device known as a "marlinspike," so-named because it resembles the long thin spike on the nose of a deep-sea fish.
Norwegian documents refer to a rank of Ordinary Seaman -- "halvbefaren" -- as early as 1704, according to the Norwegian sailing website Norway Heritage -- Hands Across the Sea. U.S. Navy documents reference the rank of ordinary seaman in 1798 and the the British Royal Navy established the same rank in 1853. In his 1840 book, "Two Years Before the Mast," Richard H. Dana tells the tale of his 1834 voyage as "an ordinary seaman." The rating has persisted in the U.S. Merchant Marine at least since that time.
The ordinary seaman's rating is found on the qualification page of his or her U.S. Coast Guard-issued Merchant Mariner Credential. The endorsement, "Ordinary Seaman, Wiper, Steward's Department (FH)" gives the ordinary the opportunity to train in three departments aboard ship. The duties related to seamanship fall under the "Ordinary Seaman" part of the endorsement, "Wiper" allows the ordinary to work under close supervision in the Engine Department, where the ship's engines and physical plant are maintained by the chief engineer and his staff. The Steward's Department endorsement authorizes the ordinary to work in the "hotel" part of ship's operations, including exclusive janitorial services and the galley. "FH" stands for "food handler."
The word "ordinary" is misleading. As baseball great Satchel Paige said, "Ain't no man can avoid being born average, but there ain't no man got to be common." While Paige was never a mariner, the words apply to the ordinary seaman.
The ordinary seaman, when signing the Ship's Articles, agreed to live in a world completely foreign to those ashore, for a time. At that moment, the ordinary is taking on the responsibility of standing against Nature itself, if need be, for the safety of the ship -- hardly the duty of a "common man."
With study and enough documented time at sea, the ordinary seaman can sit the examination for able seaman, the next step toward licensing as a ship's officer. Eventually, with sea time, study, experience and after examination, the former ordinary can assume command at sea, one of the least common of occupations.
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