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Able seaman (rank)

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Able seaman (rank)

In the British Royal Navy in the middle of the 18th century, the term able seaman (abbreviated AB) referred to a seaman with at least two years' experience at sea. Seamen with less experience were referred to as landmen or ordinary seamen.

Royal Navy

Rank slide of a Royal Navy able seaman

In 1653 the Royal Navy introduced a new pay scale as part of reforms following defeat in the Battle of Dungeness the previous year. Included in these reforms were, for the first time, separate pay scales for more experienced seamen. It distinguished between an ordinary seaman and an able seaman. The higher ranked able seaman could steer, use the lead and work aloft, traditionally to “hand, reef, and steer.” An able seaman received about 25% higher pay than an ordinary seaman.

In time of war (such as the Seven Years' War or the Napoleonic Wars), with many more warships in service, the navy, merchant marine, and privateers competed ferociously for the limited pool of able seamen, leading to the unpopular use of impressment by the Royal Navy to keep its ships manned. In peacetime, with fewer active warships, there was usually a surplus of unemployed able seamen willing to work in the navy. As late as the Napoleonic Wars, the Royal Navy's practice of stopping American ships to press American sailors into involuntary service was one of the main factors leading to the War of 1812 with the United States.

Notable able seamen

Some notable able seamen from the Royal Navy include:

Royal Canadian Navy

Sleeve Insignia for an able seaman

In the Royal Canadian Navy, able seaman (AB) is the second-lowest of the non-commissioned member ranks, ranking above ordinary seaman and below leading seaman. Able seamen wear a single gold chevron, point down, as an insignia of rank; it is worn on the upper part of both sleeves of the service dress tunic, and on slip-ons on both shoulders on other uniforms.

In all trades, the rank is awarded on completion of 30 months of service, by which time all initial training is completed. Consequently, it is sometimes said that promotion to the rank of Able Seaman means the recipient has lost their 'best excuse', on the theory that Ordinary Seamen are generally assumed to know nothing.

Able seaman is the equivalent rank to private (trained), or simply private, in the Army and Air Force. In French the rank is called matelot de 2e classe.

References

  • N.A.M. Roger. The Wooden World: An Anatomy of the Georgian Navy. W.W. Norton and Company, 1986.
  • N.A.M. Roger. The Command of the Ocean: A Naval History of Britain, 1649–1815 W.W. Norton and Company, 2004.
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