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Originally a rank in the Royal Navy during the days of sail as well as a rank in the merchant marine. The naval master was a specialist navigator and ship handler whose function was to manoeuvre his ship into a position required by the captain. Appointed by the commissioners of the navy, he was required to be a good officer and seaman, and ranked as a subordinate to a lieutenant. After 1814 a master ranked with a commander and was known as master and commander, but this position was abolished towards the end of the 19th century when the navy established a professional hierarchy of navigators. He had assistants, classed as master's mates, who kept watch.

Nowadays a merchant service master is a qualified master mariner, though the term master mariner can apply to any merchant service officer who has the necessary qualifications but who has insufficient seagoing experience to hold the rank of master. A master is certified by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) in the United Kingdom, or its equivalent in other countries, his certificate being regulated by the International Maritime Organization's Convention on Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers (STCW), which now governs the certification of seafarers worldwide. The qualification has varying grades and endorsements for specialists in tankers (chemical, gas, and oil), bulk carriers, and sail training vessels. One especially important feature of the Convention is that it applies to ships of non-party states when entering ports of states which are parties to the Convention. Currently, there are 144 signatories to it which together control over 98% of the world's shipping tonnage.

Masters of ships carry heavy responsibilities to their owners, charterers, maritime organizations, safety executives, the environment, and their crew members, in addition to their seafaring functions of navigating and ship handling. The Indian master of the ultra-large crude oil carrier (ULCC) Jahre Viking was described as a ‘hero’ by a Royal Naval captain in appreciation of the skill and care required in navigating and handling this ship—the largest man-made moving object in the world. This vessel carries over 550,000 tonnes of crude oil at 14 knots with a draft of more than 23.7 metres (80 ft) and a turning circle of over 3 kilometres (2 mls.). The same epithet was also applied to the British master of Brunel's Great Eastern, who carried an equally heavy burden in 1859. The master of a German ship negotiating, for instance, the Saimaa Canal locks in Finland, where the clearance is measured in centimetres, needs to exercise just as much skill and care. These different vessels point up the universal character of masters and their qualifications. The international status of STCW and its ongoing amendments reflect the many changes in seafaring since the days of master and commander.

Martin Lee

Subjects: Maritime History.

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