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What is an Ordinary Seaman?

By Jan Maxwell
Updated May 23, 2024
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An ordinary seaman is the lowest rank of a ship’s deck crew. It is considered an entry-level position and comprises the main labor force on board a boat. This person is supervised by the captain and the engineer, and can be given instructions by any individuals ranked above him, such as mates or able bodied seamen.

The term originated in Great Britain during the 18th century. The Royal Navy, which protects the coasts of Great Britain from attack, described an ordinary seaman as an individual who had less than two years experience at sea. The term was later adopted by two of America’s naval services, the U.S. Coast Guard and the U.S. Merchant Marine. The U.S. Navy’s title is seaman first class.


To become a seaman in the US, an individual must have a merchant mariner's document issued by the Coast Guard, which provides information about the applicant's age, health, and citizenship. Individuals must also pass physical and drug tests, pass an FBI background check, and be able to follow orders. While the job is physical and physical fitness is important, most companies only require a clean bill of health and the ability to lift at least 50 pounds (22.6 kg).


An ordinary seaman works two four hour watches a day, seven days a week. His duties include the following:

  • Upkeep — Painting, cleaning, and polishing of ship brightwork; the collection and disposal of garbage; maintenance and repair of various types of equipment.
  • Cargo — Handling ropes and wires; storing and securing of items; assisting with the movement of cargo on and off the ship.
  • Lookout — Standing watch both in port and at sea.
  • Other Duties — Assisting with any aspect of the ship's operation and maintenance that the superior Seamen or Officers feel is necessary.


The starting base pay for an ordinary seaman depends on the company for which he or she works, but it is an entry-level position. Seamen may receive a 15% sea premium pay while the ship is away from its home port. He or she may also receive overtime pay for Saturdays, Sundays, and holidays while the ship is at sea.

Advancement Opportunities

Once an seaman has acquired enough experience at sea, he may apply to the US Coast Guard to test for the next rank, which is able seaman.

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Discussion Comments
By anon338740 — On Jun 17, 2013

I want to become a seaman but don't have any background.

By Oldbosun — On Nov 14, 2012

Edison Chouest pays $185/day for an ordinary, working 28 days on and 14 days off. That's $67,340 a year. Not bad for an entry-level job.

By backdraft — On Jun 11, 2011

@truman12 - This does sound tough. 8 hours a day, seven days a week for less than $25,000 a year. Working and living on the sea sounds nice but I would never take an ordinary seaman job. Maybe if I could just go straight to being the captain,

By truman12 — On Jun 08, 2011

Wow, it sounds like ordinary seamen get all the worst jobs which is maybe kind of predictable. It is easy to forget now, but being a sailor used to be one of the hardest and most miserable jobs around. The stereotype of the salty swearing seamen was once a reality because these men lived such hard grueling lives. Conditions have thankfully improved, but it seems like ordinary seamen still have to do a lot of unpleasant jobs.

By Bertie68 — On Jun 08, 2011

The term "ordinary seaman" is a little demeaning, I think. I like the U.S. Navy's title "Seaman First Class" better.

My grandfather, who lived in Sweden, started out as an ordinary seaman at the age of 16.I'm sure he did his share of swabbing the decks. He loved the sea and made it his career. As he got older, most of his time was spent in dock working on the ships.

The position of ordinary seaman is an apprenticeship to becoming an able seaman. His main duties are working on the deck, cleaning, and maintenance work.

A seaman has to put in a certain amount of "sea time" and then can start taking some classes and tests to qualify him to move up to able seaman.

I would say that this would be a great job for someone who loves the sea and boats. You would have to love working outdoors in all kinds of weather. If you didn't have too many ties back home, the job would be easier.

By anon142093 — On Jan 12, 2011

@Anon124006: There isn't one.

By anon124006 — On Nov 04, 2010

what is the maximum height limit for ordinary seaman?

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