Organisation of the crew: Ratings

Ordinary Seamen
Seamen were categorised depending on their experience and ability, and were divided into three rates: ordinary seaman, able seaman and petty officers. These men generally worked aloft, maintaining the sails and all the lines that controlled them, splicing and knotting, handling the rigging and heaving the anchors. Each man would perform his duties on one of two or three ship's watches, and bore responsibilities connected with each mast.
The Topmen - the fittest and often, the youngest and most agile men - worked in the highest yards where work was precarious but vital. Older, stronger seamen performed their duties amongst the lower yards and on the forecastle. Finally, those of the after-guard worked on the quarterdeck and around the mizzen mast.
During a battle, most of the men, whatever their usual station, would be required to work the guns. Therefore, in the course of only a short period at sea the ratings acquired a host of skills that enabled them to work in various capacities aboard ship. Beneath the ratings were landsmen who possessed no skills in seamanship and therefore were used for their brute strength to haul on ropes, rotate the capstans, and perform other laborious tasks. They could potentially acquire skills in the rigging if the captain allowed them into the lower rigging, but for the most part they remained on deck. 


Able Seamen
An ordinary sailor could rise to able seaman, which depended on his ability in certain skills. According to the Admiralty:

The letters A.B., which mean Able Seamen, are placed against the names of only those who are thorough-bred sailors, or who, in the sea phrase, can not only 'hand reef and steer', but are likewise capable of heaving the lead in the darkest night, as well as in the daytime; who can use the palm and needle of a sailmaker; and who are versed in every part of a ship's rigging, in the stowage of the hold, and in the exercise of the great guns......In these, and twenty other things which might be pointed out, he ought to be examined by the Boatswain and other officers before his rating of A.B. is fully established on the books.


Petty Officers
Petty officers are explained on our Warrant Officer page.


If you would like to find out about the roles within HMS Wales ship's company, please head over to our JOIN page