As you might expect, I’m writing Posts to this Blog from the perspective of a Member of the Deck Department. I think I may have told you already that there are 3 separate “departments” on a ship, whether it’s a Great Lakes Freighter or a Deep Sea cargo ship. These are; The Deck Department, The Engine Department, and the Galley Department, (or sometimes called the Steward’s Department). On Great Lakes Self-Unloading Bulk Freighters there is often an “obscure” additional “division” within the Engine Department called the Conveyor Gang. Not many people hear about the Conveyor “department” but in reality these two crewmembers are very important indeed. They are the people who operate the entire conveyor system which unloads the Great Lakes Self-Unloading Bulk Freighter.

Because I’m a member of the Deck Department I have the best understanding of job descriptions “on” Deck. But that doesn’t mean that I’m only going to write about the Deck Department. I fully intend to tell you all I know about the Engine and Galley departments as well as the Conveyor Department. I’ll probably have to confer with my friends in those departments to accurately write about them.  But all that doesn’t matter right now because right now I’m going to write about the men and women called “Able-Seamen”. I should know something about the job because I hold an Able Seaman’s Endorsement and have served as AB Watchman and Wheelsman.

Here Is How An “Ordinary” Seaman Becomes An “Able” Seaman

I’m not going to do any research, or Google the term Able-Seaman.  However, the term Able-Seaman has been used for a very long time to describe a Seaman who holds an Able-Seaman’s “endorsement”. Off the top of my head I would say that this “endorsement” has been issued to Seaman who have proven they deserve this title for a hundred years or more. This is an “Endorsement” the United States Coast Guard bestows on Ordinary Seaman who have tested and earned the title “Able-Seaman”.

The only way a seaman on a Merchant Ship can take a job requiring an Able-Seaman’s Endorsement is if s/he actually “holds” that endorsement issued by the United States Coast Guard.  There are certain requirements which must be met before an Ordinary Seaman will be approved by the United States Coast Guard to take the test for the Able Seaman’s Endorsement. Now, I don’t intend this Post or this Blog to be a “guide” to becoming a Professional Seaman. This Blog is for entertainment. I am writing it for the benefit of folks “interested” in Great Lakes Ships.  So I’ll just give a general description here of what a Seaman needs to do to become “endorsed” by the United States Coast Guard as an Able Seaman.

First the Ordinary Seaman must prove s/he has served 12 months as an Ordinary Seaman. Twelve months is the usual amount of sea-time needed to be approved to “write” the Able Seaman’s exam. However there are “special” Able Seaman’s endorsements the Coast Guard provides for different segments of the Maritime Industry.  On U.S. Flagged ships on the Great Lakes, an Ordinary Seaman who simply works on Deck as a Deckhand until s/he has enough time to write for an AB Ticket will need 12 months seatime as an Ordinary Seaman, (Deckhand). If you go to “certain” training Academies and Schools there are all sorts of “Sweetheart” agreements with the United States Coast Guard that reduces the seatime needed for some people to obtain an Able Seaman’s Endorsement.

Next, after proving s/he has served the required seatime as Ordinary Seaman s/he must pass an exam provided by the United States Coast Guard. When I took the Able-Seaman’s exam at the Coast Guard Regional Exam Center I did NOT go to a school first. The exam was more difficult than I thought it would be.  But if an Ordinary Seaman attends certain schools they don’t seem to have any major problems passing the exam.

The Job “Description” Of A Great Lakes Able Seaman

Unloading coal in Essexville, MI
Unloading coal in Essexville, MI

A Seaman who holds an Able Seaman’s Endorsement issued by the U.S. Coast Guard can work on Deep Sea Ships, Great Lakes Ships and Tugs and other Vessels on Coastal and Inland Waters.  Their endorsement is good for all those different places. I have myself served as Able Seaman on several Deep Sea ships and a couple Deep Sea Tugs too.  The job of Able Seaman on a Great Lakes Bulk Freighter is one of the most challenging jobs an Able Seaman can take on.

One of the primary reasons an Able Seaman’s job on a Great Lakes Bulk Freighter is more challenging than many AB jobs is because of the fast “turn-around” of a Great Lakes Bulk Freighter. In other words; A Great Lakes Bulk Freighter typically loads and unloads way more often than most Deep Sea ships do. So a Great Lakes Bulk Freighter “makes” more docks than most Deep Sea ships do. More docks means more work and more responsibility for the Great Lakes Able Seaman and for EVERYONE on a Great Lakes Ship.

One of the fundamental responsibilities of a Great Lakes Able Seaman is that s/he must know how to safely operate mooring winches. A “mooring winch” is a very large and powerful electric or hydraulically driven machine that feeds out or takes up the mooring cable used to tie the ship to a dock. The cable is wound on a drum “driven” or “turned” by the winch motor.

Obviously, mooring winches must be powerful enough to hold the ship to a dock in all kinds of weather and current.  Also on Great Lakes Ships the mooring winches are used to “shift” the ship forward and aft alongside the dock for purposes of loading and unloading the ship.  Deckhands serve as “line-handlers” to move the heavy steel mooring cable between Bollards or “Spiles” on the dock.

The Great Lakes Able Seaman controls two powerful winches simultaneously to shift the ship forward or aft as necessary.  The Great Lakes Able Seaman is DIRECTLY responsible for the safety of the Deckhand who is handling the steel cable on the dock. Obviously a mistake on the Able Seaman’s part could result in frightening consequences for the Deckhand handling the mooring cable.

As a side note; None of the above “skills” are taught in the schools that “prep” a candidate for the Able Seaman’s exam. Neither is it “addressed” in the exam the Coast Guard gives the Able Seaman candidate, oddly enough.

The Great Lakes Able Seaman is also expected to operate the “hatch crane”. The hatch crane picks up the heavy steel loading hatch covers and travels on tracks similar to railroad tracks the length of the main deck. An Able Seaman that has never been on a Great Lakes Bulk Freighter must be taught how to use the hatch crane before s/he can safely use it.

There are a great many other tasks that are the day to day responsibilities of the Able Seaman on a Great Lakes Bulk Freighter. S/He helps the Bosun rinse cargo holds as the ship is unloading so that the cargo being unloaded doesn’t contaminate the next cargo loaded if it is a different cargo. S/he also has a sanitary “station” that s/he maintains as time allows.

S/He “clears” the anchors before a Great Lakes Ship arrives at the many Harbors and Rivers it will transit during its trip. So S/He must have a working knowledge of the Anchor Windlass and all of the parts involved with the anchors.

An Able Seaman on just about any type of commercial vessel will usually do a great deal of painting and other maintenance work while they are signed on a ship.  Other maintenance work might include greasing blocks and chocks and other moving parts and equipment.  There is usually a lot of work that needs doing on any commercial ship I’ve ever been on.

The Great Lakes Able Seaman must also know how to use the large hoists that lift supplies and parts and machinery from the dock to the decks on the ship. The majority of the things that an Able Seaman should know are not taught in any school but learned “on the job”.

The Great Lakes Bosun Is Also An Able Seaman

Bosun Scott Gallagher Rinsing The Cargo Holds In Essexville
Bosun Scott Gallagher Rinsing The Cargo Holds In Essexville

One of the Able Seaman who are required by the “Certificate of Inspection” to be on board a Great Lakes Bulk Freighter owned or operated by the American Steamship Company, (and probably some other Companies), is the Bosun. On an ASC Vessel the Bosun heads up or supervises the unlicensed Seaman in the Deck Department. The Bosun has an incredible amount of responsibilities and his job should not be taken for granted. He answers directly to the First Mate and of course the Captain.

Basically, the 1st Mate tells the Bosun what he wants accomplished and the Bosun utilizes the unlicensed Seaman in the Deck Department to get the job done. A “good” Bosun, that is experienced on Great Lakes Self-Unloading Bulk Freighters needs very little supervision by the First Mate, or anyone else. He works long hours because one of his traditional responsibilities is to make sure the cargo holds are rinsed clean when unloading cargo.

The Bosun is usually pretty good at organizing painting jobs. Most experienced Bosuns are told by the 1st Mate what is to be painted and the Bosun sees that the job gets done. In the event the Bosun is not able to organize and carry out painting jobs by himself the First Mate will normally help him.

The AB Bosun is normally responsible for fixing and maintaining all sorts of stuff on a Great Lakes Ship, or any ship for that matter. S/He is often fixing things when there is no one around to even notice. A good Bosun is hard to find and should be highly valued when you have a good one. They can make a big difference in the overall efficiency of the Deck Department.

Great Lakes Wheelsmen Hold An Able Seaman Endorsement

Last, but certainly not least, the Great Lakes Wheelsmen on ASC ships and ships with any other Company I am familiar with also hold an Able Seaman endorsement.  It was common practice several years ago for AB, (Able Seaman), Watchman to practice “Wheeling” by relieving the Wheelsman for coffee breaks and meals and often on his “own time” before or after his normal watch hours.

When the “Watchman” was determined, (usually by the Captain and Mates), to display skill at the wheel he would be promoted to Wheelsman when the position became available. This practice helped to make certain that an Able Seaman holding the position of Wheelsman actually knew how to steer a ship.

In recent years though it has become common for the Labor Union that contracts the unlicensed seamen, to “ship-out” Able Seaman, (as Wheelsman), who have little or NO experience steering a ship. The Captain and Mates of Great Lakes Bulk Freighters wonder why this practice is followed. But be that as it may, we must go on about our business of training them to understand the skill of Wheeling a Great Lakes ship.

Now I Need To Concentrate On Clearing Our Ship Through US and Canadian Customs!

I’m going to end this post now because I have to concentrate on a job that is important to the entire ship. That is the job of doing the paperwork to “clear” us through US and Canadian Customs. Because after we finish unloading in St. Clair, MI, we’re going across the St. Clair River to Canada to get fuel – AGAIN!

    13 replies to "Able Seaman On Great Lakes Freighters"

    • Beverly La Londe

      This is VERY interesting, Doug! One of their jobs I appreciated was/is putting the ladder down so wives can go aboard safely…and then helping us up and over that final step when we reached the top. 🙂
      Good Writing ! Bev

    • Linda

      That ladder is very intimidating so help is needed. 🙂

    • john mcdonald

      i for one find your blog interesting,i was a chef in the Royal Canadian Navy,served on destroyers,subs and minesweepers so we had to learn other departments as i am at that point in my life where i would like to return to the water,would you have any info as to how i could line up a galley position on one of the lakers.thanks

    • James

      Hey, Buddy. I really enjoyed reading this whole blog. I just received my MMC – Ordinary Seaman/Wiper and TWIC Card. I have about 5 years of experience on deck in professional yachting. I want to get on a boat in an entry level position, commercial vessel, on the great lakes. How could I do this asap? Any info, contacts, websites or company names would be very helpful. Thanks! James

    • Rosemary

      thank you for providing this information. My 13 son has been fascinated with the Great Lakes ships for years and we are kind of gearing him in this general direction. My grandfather was Chief engineer on the Imperial Sarnia in the 60″s. Our family has been fanatical for many years.
      thanks for the research and info.

    • Rosemary

      Do you know of any websites that my son can chat with crew on the lakers? Specifically the Anderson? My son is obsessed with its history.

    • donald creese

      Donald R. Creese
      P.O. Box 231
      Kila, MT 59920
      (406) 755-3008

      Objective A challenging position with a quality company

      QMED-AB Unlimited (STCW-95)
      1st Class Montana Crane Operator License
      CLASS “A” Offshore Hydraulic and Friction Crane Operator

      Deckhand – Premier Pacific Seafood’s 2008-2013
      (206) 286-8584, Seattle, WA.
      Processing seafood on the Bering Sea, standing wheel watch on the bridge.
      Crane Operator – KBR- Haliburton 2006-2008
      (281) 669-2971, Houston, TX.
      Operating various RT and truck mounted hydraulic cranes (up to 100 tons)
      on various military bases in IRAQ.

      Crane Operator – Crowley Marine 2005-2006
      (904)-727-2260, Jacksonville, FL
      Operating a 140-ton MANITOWOC 4100w series 2, crawler crane
      w/ 120-ft lattice boom and a 50-ton hydraulic crane with a 60-ft boom.

      Deckhand – C-Mar America 2004-2005
      (281) 556-1115, Houston, TX
      Temporary A.B. positions on various vessels.

      Deckhand – Boyer Towing International 2002-2004
      (206) 763-8688, Seattle, WA
      90 ft. towing vessel

      Deckhand – Coastal Transportation, Inc. 2000-2002
      (206) 282-9979, Seattle, WA
      Rigging, and moving, cargo offshore with hydraulic yard and stay gear.
      237- ft. Break Bulk Cargo Vessels

      Deckhand – Western Pioneer Shipping Services 1999-2000
      (206) 781-4731, Seattle, WA
      Rigging, and moving cargo offshore with hydraulic yard and stay gear
      157- ft. Break Bulk Cargo Vessels

    • Raymond Brown

      I served on the steamer Clifford F. Hood as a deckhand, what an interesting job it was, I had considered obtaining the Able Body endorsement but pursued my flying career instead. ours was a real coal fired steamer, one of the last, loading coal and hosing the coal dust off the deck was a memory I remember in addition to spending hours on deck in the wind and cold hosing the ice off the tarps as the waves hit the pilot house, broke down the deck and covered us with frozen water, took a crew to unfold the frozen tarps and allow us to open the hatches.

    • Ran mo

      Excellent article! There is no subtitute for writing about something that you know. Can you tell me how I can go about finding a list of ships that a mariner worked aboard-all Great Lakes Freighters. Should I check with the Union hall first-Seafarers Union?I want to put this all on paper as a gift for the mariners’ Granddaughter. Thank you!

    • abdulsalam issa

      I am able seaman limited . I need to work i want to get in a boat in any position I have all my paperwork I need to start to learn I don care about money I want to work with u

    • saundra leonarx

      I am an able body seaman with Coast Guard up-to-date endorsements but being a black woman I have never felt empowered to work on the leg lake, about 10 years ago three women from the lakes came to Piney Point Maryland Atty seamanship school and they point blank told me that I would not be welcome there so I never tried for a job at the lake’s maybe times have changed I’m a certified Stewart certified chief cook the be interesting if you get back to me with your opinion

    • drew fietzer

      I have been a mason for 15 years. A few years ago I took a leave of absence to work as a commercial salmon fisherman in Alaska. I fell in love with the sea! What is my best route to breaking into the profession of the commercial shipping industry. I want to also ask if a felony conviction for drinking will never allow me to be in the field would it be a waste of time to pursue? I do have a college degree and a great work history. Any sites or company names you know of who hire and train people would be appreciated. THANKS

    • donald judd

      Were do i start. To find out more . On working on great lakes boats. Oil platfoams on the water. Or in under water diveing. Thank you.

Leave a Reply to donald judd Cancel Reply

Your email address will not be published.