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What does a Chief Mate do?

By Cassie L. Damewood
Updated Mar 02, 2024
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A chief mate, also called a chief officer, first mate or first officer, has a wide range of responsibilities. His position, which oftentimes is on a passenger liner or merchant ship, entails jobs relating to security, safety and communications. He may also assist in the ship’s upkeep, navigation and cargo management.

His role in security and safety administration varies depending on the type of vessel on which he serves. On a passenger liner, he may be in charge of educating passengers on the use of safety equipment, such as life jackets, lifeboats and basic distress equipment, such as flares and alarms. He generally is trained in basic first aid and CPR techniques.

On merchant or cargo ships, his duties can include guaranteeing the safety of the ship’s structure and the readiness of the navigation devices. Often, these types of ships also require the person in this position to be competent in firefighting and search and rescue operations. The security of the captain and crew commonly are his prime concern.

The chief mate of a cargo ship also may oversee the handling of the freight. He directs the loading and unloading of materials and makes sure the load is securely stored. If special care is required, such as refrigeration or hazardous material handling or storage, he often ensures the measures are correctly applied.

Whether at sea or in port, the chief mate generally acts as the watch stander. This means he literally stands watch over the crew and ship, normally in two four-hour shifts. During these periods, he is responsible for the monitoring of all ship operations. If infractions occur, he is required to correct them or, if necessary, notify external sources for help.

Once the vessel is at sea, the chief mate normally is expected to focus on three basic jobs: to successfully navigate the ship, safely avoid other seagoing vessels, and efficiently respond to any emergencies that arise. While the latter is not a common occurrence, he often is expected to be ready to adequately address every crisis with confidence, knowledge and composure.

To properly navigate the ship, a chief mate generally needs to be educated on using the ship’s instruments and tools. Depending on the weather conditions and other extenuating circumstances, he may have to rely on various techniques to establish the vessel’s position on a navigational chart. These techniques include coastal, terrestrial, celestial and electronic applications.

The education and training required to be a chief mate varies from country to country and on whether the desired position is in the passenger or cargo vessel sector. Regardless of the country or type of vessel, he should have exemplary oral and written communication skills. Good math aptitude is also required to successfully operate the navigational equipment. Work experience can be sufficient to obtain chief mate position, but nautical schools such as the Pacific Maritime Institute in the United States offers classes and education specific to such careers. Certificates and training from such an institute may help one more quickly find work as a chief mate.

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