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The master, or sailing master, was a historic term for a naval officer trained in and responsible for the navigation of a sailing vessel. The rank can be equated to a professional seaman and specialist in navigation, rather than as a military commander.

In the British Royal Navy, the master was a rank of warrant officer who ranked with, but after, the lieutenants and was eventually renamed to navigating lieutenant in 1867. When the United States Navy was formed in 1794, master was listed as one of the warrant officer ranks and ranked between midshipmen and lieutenants. The rank was also a commissioned officer rank from 1837 until it was replaced with the current rank of Lieutenant, Junior Grade in 1883.

Royal Navy

Originally in the Royal Navy, the ranks of captain and lieutenant came from the Army, and these officers were commissioned by the King to command the military force aboard a ship during wartime. There were no permanent ships in the Royal Navy, instead merchant ships were commandeered by the Navy along with their officers and crew. The sailing master was in charge of the ship, and he was assisted by his mates, the master's mates. When the ship was not being used by the Navy, the master was in command of the ship.

Over time, the Navy developed a permanent force of ships, and the commissioned officers received training in navigation as well as military discipline. During the Age of Sail, the sailing master in the Royal Navy became the warrant officer trained specifically in navigation, was the senior warrant officer rank, and was the second most important officer aboard rated ships.[1] The Master ate in the wardroom with the other officers, had a large cabin in the gunroom, and had a smaller day cabin next to the captain's cabin on the quarterdeck for charts and navigation equipment.[2]


Masters were promoted from the rank of the master's mates, quartermasters, or midshipmen. Masters were also recruited from the merchant service. A prospective master had to pass an oral examination before a senior captain and three masters at Trinity House.[3] After passing the examination, they would be eligible to receive a warrant from the Board of Admiralty, but promotion was not automatic.


Originally, the sailing master did not have an official officer uniform, which caused problems when they were captured because they had trouble convincing their captors they should be treated as officers and not ordinary sailors. In 1787 the warrant officers of wardroom rank (master, purser and surgeon) received an official uniform, but it did not distinguish them by rank. In 1807, Masters, along with pursers, received their own uniform.[2]


The master’s main duty was navigation, taking ship’s position daily and setting the sails as appropriate for the required course. During combat, he was stationed on the quarterdeck, next to the captain. The master was responsible for fitting out the ship, and making sure they had all the sailing supplies necessary for the voyage. The master also was in charge of stowing the hold and ensuring the ship was not too weighted down to sail effectively. The master, through his subordinates, hoisted and lowered the anchor, docked and undocked the ship, and inspected the ship daily for problems with the anchors, sails, masts, ropes, or pulleys. Issues were brought to the attention of the master, who would notify the captain. The master was in charge of the entry of parts of the official log such as weather, position, and expenditures.[3][4]

Second master

Second master was a rating introduced in 1753 that indicated a deputy master on a 1st, 2nd or 3rd rate ship-of-the-line. A second master was generally a master's mate who had passed his examination for master and was deemed worthy of being master of a vessel. Master's mates would act as Second Master of vessels too small to be allocated a warranted Master.[5] Second masters were paid significantly more than master's mates, £5 5s per month.[6] Second masters were given the first opportunity for master vacancies as they occurred.[7]

Transition to commissioned officer

In 1808, master acknowledged as having similar status to commissioned officers, and their title was changed to Warrant Officer of Wardroom Rank. In 1843, the master was formally granted commissioned status as a lieutenant. In 1867, master was renamed navigating-lieutenant, and at the same time second master was renamed navigating sub-lieutenant.[8]

United States Navy

Master, originally sailing master, was a historic warrant officer rank of the United States Navy, above that of a midshipman, after 1819 passed midshipman, after 1861 ensign, and below a lieutenant.[9]

Some masters were appointed to command ships, with the rank of master commandant.[10] In 1837, sailing master was renamed master, master commandant was renamed commander, and some masters were commissioned as officers, formally "Master in line for Promotion" to distinguish them from the warrant masters who would not be promoted.[10]

After 1855, passed midshipmen who were graduates of the Naval Academy filled the positions of master.[11] Both the commissioned officer rank of master and warrant officer rank of master were maintained until both were merged into the current rank of Lieutenant, Junior Grade on March 3, 1883.[12]

In 1862 the Masters wore a gold bar for rank insignia, which became a silver bar in 1877. In 1881 they started wearing their current sleeve stripes of one one-half-inch and one one-quarter-inch wide strips of gold lace.[11]

See also


  • Nicholas Blake, Richard Lawrence. The Illustrated Companion to Nelson's Navy (2005 ed.). Stackpole Books. ISBN 0811732754.  - Total pages: 207
  • Lavery, Brian (1989). Nelson's Navy: The Ships, Men and Organization. Annapolis, Md: Naval Institute Press. p. 326. ISBN 0870212583. 
  • Lewis, Michael (1939). England's Sea-Officers. W.W. Norton & Co..  - Total pages: 307
  • Rodger, N.A.M. (1986). The Wooden World: An Anatomy of the Georgian Navy. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press. ISBN 0870219871. 

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