What Is a Seaman?

A seaman is defined under maritime law as someone who is a captain or other crew member aboard a vessel in navigation. In legal terms, this means the boat or ship is afloat, in operation, and in a condition in which it can move. The vessel must also be located on navigable waters. An able seaman is a term that appeared in the 18th century and defines a person who has significant experience at sea. At the time, it was used to differentiate pay grades, but today has many legal ramifications.

An able seaman is typically defined as one who has at least three years of experience working on a ship, or at least a year-and-a-half work experience on certain bodies of water. An individual with a year of experience may qualify on the Great Lakes and other areas. The use of the ship, experience level, personnel adeptness, and weight capacity of the vessel are also accounted for when determining whether a seaman is fit for duty.

The U.S. Supreme Court created a benchmark in 1995 as to who qualifies as a seaman under the Jones Act. It stated that any worker who spends over 30 percent of their employment hours on a vessel (or the fleet it belongs to) fits the definition. That means they can bring legal action in a state or federal court, with the entitlement to a jury trial.

For an individual to be considered a seaman, a vessel:

  • Does not have to be in motion, or even out at sea.
  • Can be moored or at a dock.
  • Must not be out of the water or in drydock.
  • Must be on a river, lake, or other body of water.
  • Can be on a landlocked lake that crosses state lines or is connected to a river that does.

An individual must contribute to the work conducted onboard a vessel, or the completion and success of its mission. This applies to just about everyone on a ship, except for maybe administrative support staff who work for the vessel’s owner. The in-navigation requirement has been a cause for confusion, and certain entities in the water have not technically been included. An oil drilling platform floats, but is anchored to the ocean bottom so does not fit the category. Nor does a vessel undergoing sea trials; despite moving on water, it is not being used commercially. Another exception is a floating casino barge, which does not move under its own power around a lake or ocean. The legal issues and potential liability depend on the case and circumstances in which an employee is injured.

Traditional Duties of Vessel Employees

Individuals working aboard ships have traditionally been classified by their job level. Under the Jones Act, anyone employed for duty on a vessel is a seaman, but in other environments, there are classifications such as:

  • Ordinary seaman: Assisting the able seaman, this individual is essentially a utility person who can be asked to do many things, from handling mooring lines to painting, carpentry, or standing as a lookout.
  • Able Seaman: A person capable of deck duties from splicing wire and operating winches and other machinery, to splicing wire and working aloft. They may be responsible for painting, cargo stowage, lookout duties, and handling rigging and making repairs.
  • Boatswain: A senior crew member who maintains contact with everyone on board, oversees maintenance and protection of cargo and supervises preparation of the vessel for sea.
  • Carpenter (Chips): Serving as a seaman and a mechanic, must be competent in wood construction, anchor operation, and lashing of deck cargo. They’re also responsible for duties involving the condition of lifeboats, bulkheads, and rivets, and commanding an emergency crew following a collision.
  • Quartermaster: More often employed on large ships, serves as a wheelsman and keeps the bridge in order, and stands a gangway watch when a vessel is in port. Also escorts individuals aboard, knows conversational signals, and can conduct other seaman’s duties.
  • Third Mate: A junior deck officer that oversees life-saving equipment, keeps the ship’s log, assists in navigation, and follows any orders given by the captain. They also stay on the bridge during docking and aid in cargo loading and unloading in port.
  • Second Mate: Usually in charge of navigation and has after deck duties when tying up.
  • First or Chief Mate: Responsibilities include ship maintenance and cargo stowage, and handling the fore deck while tying up.
  • Captain: Also called Master, the captain is in charge of everything on the vessel, in close communication with engine and other crews, and remains on the bridge even during an emergency in which every other crew member abandons ship. If the captain is incapacitated, the First Mate is responsible for taking over, while the Third Mate is in charge of any lifeboat if the ship must be abandoned.

Benefits a Seaman Is Entitled To

General maritime law and the Jones Act provide benefits if a seaman is injured as a result of another party’s actions or negligence. In the case of the Jones Act, or Merchant Marine Act of 1920, negligence must be proven for a worker aboard an in-navigation vessel to receive compensation for their injuries. This can include payment for past and/or future lost wages, physical/psychological damage, pain, and suffering, and past/future medical expenses. Only a judge or jury can determine the amount of fair compensation and the scope of benefits provided under the Act.

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