Boatswains have long been part of the crew of sailing ships. The word is old, coming from the Middle English bote-swayn, meaning one who looks after ships. Shakespeare included one in the opening scene of The Tempest and when the first European ships set out on their epic voyages of discovery, they all took boatswains with them. Traditionally boatswains began life as seamen, who through talent, experience and ability were promoted. They had a deep understanding of seamanship, gained over long years of practice, which made them highly prized members of any crew.
In the 18th century Royal Navy, a boatswain was one of a ship’s standing officers. This meant that they were warranted to the ship when it was built and, in theory at least, would stay with the vessel to the end of its, or the boatswain’s, career. Commissioned officers and crew might come and go, but the he would stay. When the ship was laid up during peacetime, they remained living onboard the empty hull, often joined by their wives and children. Along with the carpenter, they would supervise a team of ship-keepers who would maintain the fabric of the vessel, so that it would be ready for service whenever war threatened. Such long service gave a boatswain an intimate knowledge of his ship. It was a wise captain who made use of this reservoir of knowledge when he first took up a new command.
Once at sea, a boatswain could show his true worth. They were responsible for all the seamanlike activities that a captain might require, other than the actual handling of the ship. In a large 18th century warship this was a considerable responsibility, with an enormous amount of spars, sails and rigging that all had to operate correctly. Even a modest sized warship, such as a 36 gun frigate, would have three masts, each composed of three separate pieces, and a bowsprit made from two more. Hung on these masts were twelve yards and booms, the largest of which was over eighty feet long, and a foot and a half in diameter. Together it made a structure that could bear up to thirty seven sails, and was rigged with over twenty miles of rope.
But a boatswain was not just responsible for maintaining and repairing a static mass of timber and rope. He also had to be able to take it apart and reassemble it. The volume of such an enormous spread of wood and hemp could imperil a ship in a strong wind, even if no sail was set. When this happened, upper masts and their accompanying yards and standing rigging had to be dismantled and safely lowered to the deck. This was skilled work, carried out high up in the air, with large and heavy pieces of timber; all while the ship that was in motion. And once the wind moderated, the boatswain and his team would have to supervise setting it back up again.
If a boatswain’s lot was hard in peacetime, it became perilous when the ship was in action. The rigging of a warship sustains considerable damage in battle, and is often deliberately targeted by an enemy. The boatswain’s role was to supervise running repairs aloft, splicing a severed line here, fishing a damaged yard there, all under fire, whilst knowing that the very masts they worked on might collapse at any moment.
Even when the ship was not in action, or needed its upper masts swayed down, the boatswain was still busy. He had overall responsibility for the forecastle, the part of the ship that most needed his expertise. Remote from the officer of the watch on the quarterdeck, it was from here that the head and fore sails were handled, the most import ones for manoeuvring a ship. It was also the place from where the tricky business of anchoring was organised.
They supplied one final element onboard a ship, which could be vital in times of stress. As a promoted seaman, they inhabited two worlds. They had an understanding of the concerns of the lower deck, while being a trusted member of their ship’s command structure. As such they provided a useful conduit between the two. It became a tradition of the service that a boatswain would raise the complaints and issues of the men directly with the officers.
Boatswains and their mates were readily distinguished on board ship on account of their ‘calls,’ short metal pipes ending in a round sphere, with which they could send a variety of piercing signals. These were used both for summoning and directing the crew, and also as part of the ceremonial of greeting visiting officers. As sail was slowly replaced with steam, engineers began to eclipse boatswains in importance. But they are still a significant member of a modern warship’s crew, even if they are not as pre-eminent as they once were. They do still retain their calls, however, and use them to this day, just as their forbears did in the past.