Do Disgruntled Mariners Make Good Chief Mates?

A recent post that I do not want to reopen because it degenerated into chaos asked why gCaptain lets unprofessional disgruntled mariners post to this forum. I asked if the terms disgruntled and professional are mutually exclusive.

I thought I had read a good discourse on this very topic… something about disgruntled Chief Mates being the only type you can trust. This weekend I found it! And it was written by my favorite ship master turned author, Joe Conrad, in his book The Mirror Of The Sea.

Here’s an abridged version of what he said:

Therefore, of all my chief officers, the one I trusted most was a man called B——. He had a red moustache, a lean face, also red, and an uneasy eye. He was worth all his salt…

I discovered, without much surprise, a certain flavour of dislike. Upon the whole, I think he was one of the most uncomfortable shipmates possible… he had a little too much of the sense of insecurity which is so invaluable in a seaman. He had an extremely disturbing air of being everlastingly ready (even when seated at table at my right hand before a plate of salt beef) to point fingers or exit to grapple with some impending calamity. I must hasten to add that he had also the other qualification necessary to make a trustworthy seaman—that of an absolute confidence in himself. What was really wrong with him was that he had these qualities in an unrestful degree. His eternally watchful demeanour, his jerky, nervous talk, even his, as it were, determined silences, seemed to imply—and, I believe, they did imply—that to his mind the ship was never safe in my hands.

there were moments when I detested Mr. B

It so happened that we both loved the little barque very much. And it was just the defect of Mr. B——'s inestimable qualities that he would never persuade himself to believe that the ship was safe in my hands… The effect of his admirable lack of the sense of security once went so far as to make him remark to me: “Well, sir, you are a lucky man!”

1 Like

Disgruntled or distrustful? My years as Chief Mate were restless and filled with long days and nights where I could rarely relax. I say distrustful because I always felt to be fully on top of the operations on deck I had to be skeptical of just about anything. Constantly questioning if everything was OK or what could be done better. I also felt obliged to turn up the asshole knob on occasion and keep the crew on their toes because the Captain I sailed with really didn’t like to be the bad cop.

I consider Chief Mate to be the hardest job I ever held at sea with infinite variations on how it could be done successfully as well as good and bad days. The best qualities I can hope for from Mate’s that sail for me now is to be intimately involved with the deck operations and also have a good ability to trouble shoot and fix problems. It is most certainly not a job that one can phone in and expect any kind of ‘atta boy’.

1 Like

The term “chronic unease” is a good one.

1 Like

That us a good term!

But more still needs to be addressed concerning the Master / Chief Mate relationship because Conrad hits on some specific points. Personally I was the first of my class to become Chief Mate (mostly due to being in the wrong place at the wrong time) and spent a decade in the position. There are libraries filled with books about being a good Captain but nothing I know of about being a good C/M (at least not directly)… and that is a shame because it would be very helpfull to the industry (not just to the chief mates but very few captains and office managers fully understand this position… which is why it’s the hardest for HR managers to fill).

I could write for days about the position and discourse for hours on topics like why it should be (but is clearly not) the job that provides the most personally satisfaction but I’ll just start with one personal observation… the people that tend to be the most disliked in this world (people that human nature makes everyone naturally inclined to dislike) are needy people and no one is more needy than a Chief Mate.

A Chief Mate needs the crew to cooperate, he needs the support of the Master, he needs to pay attention to everything, he needs the help of the engineers, he really needs the tools and equipment he orders to arrive coorect and in time, he needs decent wether to get shit done, he needs decent food to give him energy, he needs to be in decent shape, he needs a captain who trusts him, he needs to be competent in everything he does, he needs a great bosun and he desperately needs more sleep… and the list goes on.

I was recently offered a job sailing as Chief on an great ship on a great run with a great crew for a salary nearly twice what the Master was getting paid… it was short term and I was very tempted to take it but I turned it down after asking just one question… “do I have to stand a watch?”

Their answer was yes so my answer was no and not because I don’t like standing watch (I actually love bridge watch and would usually stand a few hours of watch on my own time each day as chief mate just to give myself a mental break and the 2/m a real break) but I don’t see how you can be totally effective (with sleep being an important component to effectiveness) as chief mate while being fixed to one spot (the bridge) for a large portion of the day. (Yes there are many ships that manage fine with this arrangement but that’s because those ships don’t - for one reason or another - need a totally effective C/M… but this ship,did, which is why I was called)

The thing is… this was not the first time I’ve been in a position to make a lot more than the Captain but the first time I realized that I was being set up to fail.

After declining they asked me what they needed to take the job and I said I would take it for salary if they used the money to hire a second 3/m to stand my watch… but the HR guy didn’t think I was being serious (I was).

So I think one reason it’s the hardest job aboard ship (and also a reason you often have to be a dickhead) because the chief mate is a needy person.

P.S Yes, yes, the 1st A/E is a hard job too but not as hard because he’s never as needy. The 1st doesn’t need eyes everywhere because the E/R is smaller than the deck, he can manage without great unlicensed because he has more lattitude in assigning officers to a job, he doesn’t need his requisitions to arrive because he can make or find a solution around the part that doesn’t show up, his budget is less likely to be cut because of a safety item or a Master’s pet project, he doesn’t need a Chief Engineer to trust him because he spends time working directly with the chief and can more easily prove that he can be trusted. He does need to be just as confident, compitant and hard working as the chief mate but those are things he can give himself… what he needs from other people is much less.

1 Like

I think one would have a very hard time finding an American merchant mariner who was not disgruntled.

1 Like

I tend to think it works better this way, the Captain should be the nice guy because he’s the one with all the power, and the CM should be the dick (when being a dick is required, as it often - but certainly not always - is) because he’s the one down in the tanks with the crew.

This is also the reason I stopped selling ads here on gCaptain. I’m a decent salesman but when the client asks for a discount (and they always as for a big discount) and I say no we can’t do that they say (or just think to themselves… which is much worse) why not? I thought you are the CEO of gCaptain and had the power to give any discount you want? It’s impossible to prove that you are in full control of the company and can’t give a discount at the same time.

The problem arises when the Captain (or CEO) wants you both to be nice guys or both to be dicks (the former is a much more prevalent problem in this HR dominated world we now live in). Maybe someone has figured how to run a ship this way (I know a bunch of captains who think they’ve figured this out but have not)… but, personally, I’ve never seen it work. Having two dicks is just miserable for everyone. The best you can do is have one be a truly nice guy and the other be a dick as infrequently as humanly possible.

The best comment I ever heard, which came from one of the Masters I most respect, was to an AB who was complaining about what an unfair dickhead the chief mate (me) was. Now this Master is the one who told me to be a dick in this specific instance but the AB never knew that and when he stormed into the old man’s office ranting and raving about indignity of the situation my captain patiently listened to the AB’s entire diatribe (I think he even took notes!) then shrugged his shoulder and said “You’re right, John’s completely unfair and a total asshole, but he’s my asshole so I gonna agree with him.”

There wasn’t much the AB could say about this (because the captain was agreeing with him) and dutifully went back to work.


Yep and that’s why I don’t give c.captain any shit, he’s a dick but that’s ok because he’s our dick :stuck_out_tongue_winking_eye:

There are plenty of books that discuss the role of a good Chief Mate but they are written from the Master’s perspective. I’d love one told from the Mate’s perspective and my first thought was that you should write it @john but I think we both became unqualified the day we were promoted to Master.


I agree with this and never had a problem being the pit bull for the old man. I had another Captain I used to sail with years ago tell me how he delighted in being told by the crew they were going to call the company and complain about him hawking the overtime etc. His take was that it would do wonders for his reputation with the office for running a tight ship if they did so.

I also tell my Chief Mates that they can tell the crew all day long that the reason they are tightening the belt on OT or being particular about this or that is because I’m telling them to do so. Some of the time this is true, most of the time it is not, but if they feel they need to save face for whatever reason, I’m willing to be the wizard behind the curtain so to speak. That being said, those who have sailed with me as Master know that when they end up in my office for a “chat” there isn’t much good cop on the agenda.

Your point about both senior officers trying to play good cop or both trying to play bad cop is very correct. This does not work. The crew either runs roughshod without discipline or shuts down and slow bells on everything. The trick is to get your people wanting to turn in a good days work and produce results to your satisfaction. First they have to know that there is a standard being set and that is a big challenge of leadership for any Mate.

I could expound on the intricacies of sailing as a Chief Mate for hours myself. It was an immensely satisfying as well as frustrating job. The biggest thing I noticed in moving up the ladder was how much less I was plugged into the day to day of the crew on deck. The little scraps of scuttlebutt you hear while working directly with the crew, the general morale of the deck department, etc. As Captain I’m more focused on the ship as a whole and reliant on the Mate and the Chief to keep me informed of the doings below deck. I guess that’s a good indicator whether my Mate is a good fit for the ship. If I know before him, there is probably room for improvement.


I totally forgot about that thread but just fell off my chair rereading it! That post was gold! My favorite quote was “I respect pilots, my son is a Major in the Air Force,” :laugh:


There’s a book published by Witherby Seamanship called The Complete Chief Officer by Captain Michael Lloyd FNI.

1 Like

Ahhh, that sounds like a Shell charter veteran.

In the never-ending tug of war between “Safety First!” and “Git 'er done!” customer-satisfaction mandates, the vast majority of company-specific safety training I’ve ever been exposed to is mostly just feel-good happy-talk. Shell’s “chronic unease” is about the only one that was really worth a damn. Excellent stuff in principle and practice, if it’s actually practiced. A company or an individual still has to walk the walk with it for it to be effective. Or else it, too, is just happy-talk.

For me it was just what I eventually learned I had to do on my own if I didn’t want to ride around mostly on luck, finally given a formal name all these years later. I try to do the best I can to impart it to every mate I’ve had, and anyone else remotely receptive to it.

These days I simply refer to it as The Chronic. :stuck_out_tongue_winking_eye:

Want to avoid real trouble? Be wary. Be vigilant. Don’t ever assume the best. Nip problems in the bud before they bloom into disasters. Embrace The Chronic!


Absolutely but the first question is why is the Captain the last to know. Is it because he trusts the guy or because he doesn’t care? The second question is how fast can the captain get up to speed and assist in solving the problem when shit goes wrong.

I remember an impossible discharge on a product tanker after an insidious compilation of events resulted in a complete shutdown of the pumps after 16 hours of failed attempts to get the cargo off. I was sailing 3/M… The captain at the time, Paul Foran, spent those 16 hours running interference with shore and making sure the CM got the support he needed. When the CM finally ran out of options/ideas Paul asked if he could help then put on coveralls and, less than 3 hours later, we marked departure.

But right before he disappeared into the pump room with the mate I asked him what’s wrong and he said “I have no F%#@# clue” then I asked if he could fix it and he said “That’s not my job. My job is to get clued in quickly and ask the right questions.” And ask them he did!

On another ship with another captain, I was sailing CM and came down with F%#$ ecoli just before a difficult operation on deck during the monsoon season. I told the Captain we better get my relief out there quick and he said not to worry and go to bed… the 3M can answer his “bullshit emails” while he plays Chief. He even suggested that he’d have fun doing it! I thought “I doubt he’ll have enjoy being on deck in this rain but I’ll have fun hearing the bosun tell the story after I recover” but he pulled it off. He did spend 5 hours on the phone scratching his head while talking to my relief… but he pulled it off and danm sure got my full respect.

So, in addition to being able to get up to speed fast the best Captains can (but rarely ever needs to) step into any job quickly along with the necessary traits to do so (a willingness to help, good lsitening skills, good questioning/analytic skills).

But… enough about Captain’s… this thread is suppose to be about Chief Mates! :smile:

1 Like

Awesome but is it good?

Another question… how long would Mr. B last in the job today? Conrad had no options but to put up with him for the year it took to realize his full worth. I’ve sailed with (or opposite) a number of mates of talented mates with a similar disposition who rubbed the old man wrong, but I can’t think of one who kept his job for a full year.

(P.S. I can think of one really good CM who’s best talent was making sure the Captain was the first to be fired… but even he eventually met his match)

I think so, yeah. It’s written by a Brit so it’s a little off but it’s pretty good.

1 Like

What I’ve seen is mariners take either a narrow view or a broad view of their job. If a mariner works hard and is competent either approach will result in promotion but the mate/AE that takes the narrow view make poor captains/chiefs.

The P & I Clubs have done a shedload of worm on this:

Full copy here:

Those were the good old days of gCaptain!


I came upon gCaptain because of my interest in things nautical. I’m not a professional, but have crossed the Atlantic twice now in my 42 foit Kadey Krogen.
And before i say anything else, if it was to to me, all boats of any size should be required to have AIS B send/receive. I know what a PIA we small boats can be. We should everything we can to reduce that.

What stuck me about this thread is that schools are basically the same. My last 5 years in a paying job were in a high school in NYC as the Principal.
The problem i had, was that I had three incompetent Asst Principals.
Thus i was forced to be everything. That doesn’t work for all the reasons mentioned above.

Keep up the good work and I’ll try to stay out off your way.

Richard on Dauntless


My last chief mate wasn’t disgruntle at all… he cared about his men… called BS out and didn’t hesitate to call the DPA on BS…he put in long hours and I would have throat punched the old man for him about if he was busy… Stand up for your people and they will follow you to the ends of the earth

1 Like