On the Job

Epaulets Explained: Everything You Need to Know About the Crew Ranking System

18 May 2021By Holly Overton
iStock/yoh4nn

Written by

Holly Overton

Holly grew up sailing dinghies on the south coast of England and discovered the world of big boats after landing a job as a digital writer for our sister website boatinternational.com.

Just been handed your first pair of epaulets? Here's everything you need to know...

When greeting guests at the passerelle your shirt must be tucked, hair tied back, and do not forget your epaulets. It is funny to think how a piece of material could be held in such high regard, but in yachting it is an all-important symbol of rank. 

The word epaulet, also spelled 'epaulette', comes from the French word “epaule” meaning shoulder (no surprise there) but its origins can be traced back to military coats worn at the end of the 17th century. Back then, epaulets were ribbons tied into knots with the fringe end left free. They were partially decorative but also prevented shoulder belts from slipping as they carried around a bayonet or sword.

By the early 18th century, epaulets had become a distinguishing feature of commissioned rank in the military and were adopted into the United States Navy uniform regulations in 1797. Captains wore an epaulet on each shoulder while the lieutenants wore only one, which eventually evolved into today's stripe system.

The system isn’t rocket science: the more stripes you have on your epaulets the higher you rank. Naturally, the captain sits at the top of the pecking order with four stripes while green crew will likely be given just the one, although this can vary from yacht to yacht depending on size and number of crew on board.

Four stripes: Captain, chief engineer

Three stripes: First officer, first engineer, chief stewardess, chef

Two stripes: Bosun, second stewardess, second engineer

One stripe: Deckhand, third stewardess, third engineer

The stripes are also accompanied by symbols that represent which department each member of crew belongs to. The captain, first officer, and deckhands have anchors emblazoned on their epaulets, while engineers have a propellor. Stewardesses' epaulets are often silver and embroidered with a crescent moon. The shape is a historic symbol of food and supplies and can be traced back to the 1800s where Napoleon introduced crescent-shaped bread into the rations for the Grande Armée.

In the military, epaulets are generally limited to ceremonial uniforms and the same goes on board a luxury yacht. White shirts and epaulets are generally worn on smart occasions such as welcoming guests aboard or dinner service. More often, you'll find crews dressed down in polo shirts or t-shirts branded with the yacht's name and a pair of shorts.

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