Who does what aboard a Sailing Vessel


A common misconception about life on a Pirate ship surrounds the role and authority of the Captain. Unlike the Captain's who were appointed by their respective governments and who's authority was supreme at all times, most pirate captain's were democratically elected by the ships crew and could be replaced at any time by a majority vote of the crewmen.

Some captains were voted out and removed for not being aggressive enough for their crews, while others were abandoned by their crews for being too bloodthirsty and brutal.  Pirate Captain's were expected to be bold and decisive in battle as well as e skilled in navigation and seamanship. Above all they had to have the force of personality necessary to hold together such an unruly bunch of seamen.

There are surprisingly few detailed descriptions of what the pirate captains looked like, and those we do have are rarely flattering. Most seem to have adopted the clothes of naval officers or extravagantly dressed merchant sea captains, which in this period followed the style of prosperous English gentlemen.


Most British and Anglo-American pirates delegated unusual amounts of authority to an individual called the Quartermaster, who became almost the Captain's equal. The general rule was that during times of battle the Captain retained unlimited authority, but at all other times he and the rest of the crew were subject to the command of the Quartermaster.

The Quartermaster was usually elected by the crew immediately after choosing a Captain, and it was his duty to represent their interests.  For this he received an extra share of the booty when it was divided. Above all, he protected the Seaman against each other by maintaining order, settling quarrels, and distributing food and other essentials.

Serious crimes were tried by a jury of the crew, but the Quartermaster had the authority could punish minor offenses, and kept the records and account books for the ship. If the pirates were successful, he decided what plunder to take from a prize. If the pirates decided to keep a captured ship, the Quartermaster often took over as the Captain of that ship until they disposed of it.


This officer was in charge of navigation and the sailing of the ship. He directed the course and looked after the maps and instruments necessary for navigation. Since the charts of the era were often inaccurate (or nonexistent) his job was a difficult one. Many Sailing Masters were forced into pirate service from captured vessels.


The Boatswain supervised the maintenance of the vessel and its supply stores. He was responsible for inspecting the ship and it's sails and rigging each morning, and reporting their state to the captain. The Boatswain was also in charge of all deck activities, including weighing and dropping anchor, and the handling of the sails.

& Surgeon

The Carpenter was responsible for the maintenance and repair of the wooden hull, masts and yards. He worked under the direction of the ship's Master and Boatswain.

The Carpenter's duties were to check the hull regularly, placing oakum between the seems of the planks and wooden plugs on leaks to keep the vessel tight.  More often than not, the Carpenter would also serve as the Ship's Surgeon and perform operations and amputations with the same wood working tools (with no anesthetic!).


The Master Gunner was responsible for the ship's guns and ammunition. This included sifting the powder to keep it dry, prevent it from separating, insuring the cannons and ordnance were kept free of rust, and that all weapons were kept in good repair. A knowledgeable Gunner was essential to the crew's safety and effective use of their weapons.


On a large ship there was usually more than one Mate aboard (hence the title "First Mate").

Mates served as apprentice to the Ship's Master, Boatswain, Carpenter & Gunner and took care of the fitting out of the vessel, and examined whether it was sufficiently provided with ropes, pulleys, sails, and all the other rigging that was necessary for the voyage.

The Mate also took care of hoisting the anchor, and during a voyage he checked the tackle once a day. If he observed anything amiss, he would report it to the ship's Master. Arriving at a port, the mate caused the cables and anchors to be repaired, and took care of the management of the sails, yards and mooring of the ship.


A ble

B odied

S ailor

The common sailor, which was the backbone of the ship, needed to know the rigging and the sails. As well as how to steer the ship and applying it to the purposes of navigation. He needed to know how to read the skies, weather, winds and most importantly the moods of his commanders.


The sailors assigned aloft to work the running rigging and to furl/release the sails were referred to as Riggers.  Although there were not any truly "safe" jobs, due to the constant risk of falling from a slippery spar high above a rolling deck this was certainly one of the most dangerous.

Cabin Boy

A young boy who worked aboard pirate ships as a servant. Many cabin boys made their way aboard ship by being kidnapped by pirates or were runaways looking for a means of escape.


A role filled by young boys on ship in which they run gunpowder from below decks (such as the orlop) to the cannon crews during battle.

Swab or

Although not technically a rank, a person who mopped the decks using the swab was called a swabbie.  It has also become a slang phrase to describe someone informally whom you do not hold in any high regard, i.e., "Avast, ye scurvy swab!"

Table of Payment:

One of the easiest ways of comparing the rank or station of different officers on board different pirate ships might be to compare the different shares of prizes they received. I have included in this table the shares accorded to officers in the articles of Roberts, Lowther and Phillips, and the shares given to privateer officers of the 17th century according to Monson. By way of comparison I have also included the amount officers listed would have been paid per month had they served in a Royal Navy sloop in 1700. I have not included all the ranks listed in Monson or the Navy pay lists, only those ranks which also appear in pirate articles.






Royal Navy




11/2 shares


£8, 8s


11/2 shares

11/2 shares

11/4 shares

7 or 8 shares



11/2 shares

11/4 shares

11/4 shares




11/2 shares

11/4 shares

11/4 shares






£1, 6s


11/4 shares




11/4 shares


£2, 2s


11/4 shares


£5 + 2d per man aboard.

"Other Officers"

11/4 shares

Various rates

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Patchwork Merchant Mercenaries had its humble beginnings as an idea of a few artisans and craftsmen who enjoy performing with live steel fighting. As well as a patchwork quilt tent canvas. Most had prior military experience hence the name.


Patchwork Merchant Mercenaries.


Vendertainers that brought many things to a show and are know for helping out where ever they can.

As well as being a place where the older hand made items could be found made by them and enjoyed by all.

We expanded over the years to become well known at what we do. Now we represent over 100 artisans and craftsman that are well known in their venues and some just starting out. Some of their works have been premiered in TV, stage and movies on a regular basis.

Specializing in Medieval, Goth , Stage Film, BDFSM and Practitioner.

Patchwork Merchant Mercenaries a Dept of, Ask For IT was started by artists and former military veterans, and sword fighters, representing over 100 artisans, one who made his living traveling from fair to festival vending medieval wares. The majority of his customers are re-enactors, SCAdians and the like, looking to build their kit with period clothing, feast gear, adornments, etc.

Likewise, it is typical for these history-lovers to peruse the tent (aka mobile store front) and, upon finding something that pleases the eye, ask "Is this period?"

A deceitful query!! This is not a yes or no question. One must have a damn good understanding of European history (at least) from the fall of Rome to the mid-1600's to properly answer. Taking into account, also, the culture in which the querent is dressed is vitally important. You see, though it may be well within medieval period, it would be strange to see a Viking wearing a Caftan...or is it?

After a festival's time of answering weighty questions such as these, I'd sleep like a log! Only a mad man could possibly remember the place and time for each piece of kitchen ware, weaponry, cloth, and chain within a span of 1,000 years!! Surely there must be an easier way, a place where he could post all this knowledge...

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