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What is an Able Seaman?

By Sheri Cyprus
Updated May 23, 2024
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An Able Seaman is also called an Able-Bodied Seaman. This is probably the reason the initials commonly used for able seaman are “AB” rather than “AS.” An Able Seaman has more knowledge and experience than an Ordinary Seaman (OS). The differentiation between the titles “Able Seaman” and “Ordinary Seaman” first occurred in the mid 1800s as a means of creating pay scales. Able Seamen were paid about 25% more than Ordinary Seamen in the Merchant Marines. The Merchant Marines refers to a country's commercial ships that are both publicly and privately owned.

A Merchant Seaman in the United States Merchant Marines must have a Merchant Mariner's Document (MMD), also called a Z-card, issued by the United States Coast Guard. The MMD will have the merchant mariner's “endorsement,” or list of positions he/she is qualified to hold, printed on the back of the document. Able Seaman is one of many endorsements a mariner could hold.

The number of Able Seamen who are required by the US Coast Guard to be employed on a ship depends greatly on the size of the ship. As few as three or as many as ten Able Seamen may be required to legally operate a US flagged merchant ship. If a ship is caught operating without the proper number of Able Seamen, or of any other position, it will be “arrested,” fined, and not permitted to leave port until it has a sufficient crew for its size.

An Able Seaman's job typically includes standing a navigation watch on the bridge, or wheelhouse, of the ship, assisting the deck officer on watch by steering the ship according to the deck officer's instructions. On his off-watch hours, he may be required to perform routine maintenance; painting, cleaning, repairs to ship's deck equipment, or any other tasks that deck officers see fit for him to do.

The life of a merchant marine is a difficult one to choose. Many Able Seamen have difficulty balancing their family and work lives, as they can be at sea for much of the year. It is also a dangerous job, and the wages are generally less than the working conditions may warrant. However, a love of the sea draws people back, convincing them to work as Able Seamen, or a variety of other positions upon a merchant ship.

WikiMotors is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Discussion Comments
By Chromerock — On Mar 26, 2014
There are actually five categories of Able Seamen the US Coast Guard certifies and the qualifications can vary for what sort of ship you're on and where you're sailing, but the basic qualifications go like this:

Competence as a lifeboatsman. Things like launching and successfully rowing or operating the motor of a lifeboat. This includes an actual demonstration.

The operation of commonly used types of davits.

A complete knowledge of nautical terms.

A knowledge of handing the wheel if commanded and other proper engine room commands.

A knowledge of pollution laws and regulation.

There are quite a few steps and a couple redundancies in getting all these qualifications, but the higher ranking crew should be able to give you a clue on the next step to becoming an AB. As long as you know everything you need to know, there shouldn't be anything to worry about. Just study and familiarize yourself to all aspects of the boat.

By Edumundo — On Mar 25, 2014

What are the qualifications to become an Able Seamen with the Merchant Marines?

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