The Bosun's Chair

29 May 2009 By Ofer Shelter
Photo by Suki Finnerty

During a bosun's yachting career, he/she spends hours sitting in the bosun’s chair cleaning topsides, working on the rigging, polishing the mast or just enjoying the bird’s eye view. In my time spent up there, I’ve thought about the origin of the rank of bosun. So after doing some digging, I came up with a few interesting facts.

The word bosun is a phonetic spelling for boatswain. The boatswain/bosun works in a ship’s deck department as the foreman of the unlicensed deck crew. Sometimes, the bosun also is a third or fourth mate. He or she must be highly skilled in all matters of marlinspike seasmanship (the set of skills used to make, repair, use and store rope on board, including knot-tying) required for working on the deck of a seagoing vessel. The bosun is distinguished from other able seaman by his supervisory role: planning, scheduling and assigning work.

Two sayings we still use today are related to the historical role of the bosun. In the British Royal Navy, the punishment prescribed for the most serious crimes was flogging. This was administered by the bosun’s mate, using a whip called the cat o’ nine tails. The “cat” was kept in a leather bag. It was considered bad news indeed when “the cat was let out of the bag.”

The entire ship’s company was required to witness a flogging. The crew would crowd around the bosun’s mate so closely he often didn’t have enough room to swing his cat o’ nine tails – hence the saying, “no room to swing a cat.”

The bosun’s chair is a rigging safety harness with the addition of a plank or a rigid seat for added comfort during extended periods aloft. In case a bosun’s chair is unavailable, it is possible to tie a bowline on a bight (for more on this, check out Then you have two loops; one for your bottom and the other for your back. When securing the bosun’s chair to a halyard instead of attaching it directly to the shackle tie, tie a bowline through the eye that holds the chair together and then secure the shackle to the chair. You can never be too safe.

It goes without saying that the person pulling you up the mast in the bosun’s chair should be someone who can be trusted and who can handle the mission physically. Before you start up,  always make sure both parties have a good understanding of the hand signals and/or orders from up top, as sometimes from 140 feet up in the air, things don’t seem so clear. The best thing is to take a radio with you in order to avoid any misunderstandings.

I once witnessed the crew member who was sent up to change the masthead fly drop it as he was replacing it with a new one. The masthead fly fell first on deck, chipping the paint,and then went overboard. We were lucky it didn’t land on anybody’s head.

At the end of the day, the bosun is the “manager” of the deck crew. Crew management can be a lot more efficient with proper communication between the mates and the bosun – both aloft and on deck.