Requirements for Certificates of Competency

The text below is taken from the guidelines for obtaining a Certificate of Competency to be a Mate and Master Mariner. The complete document of some 75 or so pages includes a preface (not given below) as well as many worked examples of exercises they would be required to take to pass their examination (also not included - though I have provided a couple of example pages to show what was covered in the manual). Our master mariner great grandfathers and their relatives would undoubtedly have used such a manual and even if they had not, the manual shows the kinds of knowledge and skills they needed to possess in order to obtain their Certificates of Competency. The notice of examinations below also explains some of the details that will be seen in the Certificates of Competency (such as where the certificate should be sent).

A Manual for the Use of Candidates Requiring a Certificate of Competency as

Mates and Ordinary Masters

and Comprising

I. The Principles Fully Laid Down and Taught by Examples.

II. Two Methods of Finding the Time of High Water, Being Those Required by the

Local Marine Boards of England and Scotland.

III. Questions in Astronomy, with Answers.

Edward J. Henessey,

Master of the Board of Trade School of Navigation, Aberdeen;

Late of the Navigation Schools, London Aad Liverpool.

With Nine Illustrations.

Aberdeen: Leslie & Maule.

Edinburgh: John Menzies.   London: Simpkin, Marshall, & Co.

Liverpool: Geo. Philip.   Glasgow: Hutcheson Campbell.

Peterhead: W. L. Taylor.



Notice of Examinations of

Masters and Mates,

Established in Pursuance of the

Mercantile Marine Act, 1850;

and of

Voluntary Examinations in Steam. 

To come into operation on the 1st September 1852.

The results of the examinations were clearly published in the local press. Thus in the London Daily News for Thursday 16 May 1850, under the heading “The Merchant Service” [From last Friday’s Gazette] we read:

A list of the masters and mates in the merchant service, who have voluntarily passed an examination and obtained certificates of qualification, for the class against each assigned, under the regulations issued by the Board of Trade since 31st March last.


Alexander Croal, second, Palmyr, London.

So, clearly Alexander Croal, (who I now believe is not the same man who was the brother-in-law of fellow mariners John and Alexander Raitt), having passed the exams for master went straight from being second mate on the Palmyr registered in London to master without apparently passing the exams as first or only mate. Presumably his record of time served at sea was also taken into account - as a letter shows (see under Alexander Croal on the Arbroath Mariners page).

Similarly, in the Dundee Courier for 14 February 1867,  under the heading “Local Marine Board”, we learn that:

The following is the list of candidates who have passed their examinations as masters and mates before the Local Marine Board, Dundee, during the month of January.

First Mates

James D. Raitt, Arbroath (plus two others)

We further learn that five candidates failed to pass their examinations

as masters, two as first mates, and seven as only mates.

No Foreign-going vessel (By a Foreign-going vessel is meant one which is bound to some place out of the United Kingdom, beyond the limits included between the River Elbe and Brest.) is permitted to clear out from any custom-house in the United Kingdom unless the masters and mates respectively are in possession of Certificates, either of Service or of Competency.

     The Certificate of Service entitles an officer, who has already served as either master or mate in the British merchant service before the 1st January 1851, to go in those capacities again, and may be had by application to the Registrar-General of Seamen, Custom-House, London, on the transmission of the necessary certificates and testimonials.

     Certificates of Competency will be granted by the Board of Trade to all mates and masters who have passed examinations, whether under the old or the present regulations, and also to all officers who have passed Lieutenants', Masters', and Second Masters' examinations in the Royal Navy and East India Company's Service, unless special reasons to the contrary exist; and any person desirous of exchanging a passing certificate—obtained under the former Board of Examiners—for a Certificate of Competency, should send it to the RegistrarGeneral, as before mentioned, with a request to that effect, and state the port to which he wishes it to be sent, where it will be delivered to him by the Collector of Customs or the Shipping Master.

     All other officers, entering for the first time upon their duties, whether as mate or master, will be required to undergo an examination before one of the Local Marine Boards before they can act in either of those capacities. For this purpose, Examiners have been appointed under the Local Marine Boards, and arrangements have been made for holding the examinations at the under-mentioned ports upon the day specified against them; and these days are so arranged for general convenience, that a candidate wishing to proceed to sea, and missing the day at his own port, may proceed to another port where an examination is coming forward. The days for commencing the examinations at the various ports are as follow:

Dundee – Saturday in each week.

(NB - many other locations and days are given, but since the Raitts took their exams at Dundee then that is the only one I have shown from the list.)

     The examinations required for qualification for the several ranks undermentioned, are as follow:—

A SECOND MATE must be 17 years of age, and must have been 4 years at sea

In Navigation.—He must write a legible hand, and understand the four first rules of arithmetic and the use of logarithms. He must be able to correct the courses steered for variation and leeway, and find the difference of latitude and longitude therefrom; be able to correct the sun's declination for longitude, and find his latitude by meridian altitude of the sun ; and work such other easy problems of a like nature as may be put to him. He must understand the use of the sextant, and be able to observe with it, and read off the arc.

In Seamanship.—He must give satisfactory answers as to the rigging and unrigging of ships, stowing of holds, &c.; must understand the measurement of the log-line, glass, and headline; be conversant with the rule of the road, as regards both steamers and sailing-vessels, and the lights carried by them.

An ONLY MATE must be 19 years of age, and have been 5 years at sea.

In Navigation.—In addition to the qualification required for a Second Mate, an Only Mate must be able to work a day's work complete, including the bearings and distance of the port he is bound to by Mercator's method. He must be able to observe and calculate the amplitude of the sun, and deduce the variation of the compass therefrom. He must know how to lay off the place of the ship on the chart, both by bearings of known objects, and by latitude and longitude. He must be able to use a sextant, and determine its error, and adjust it, and find the time of high water from the known time at full and change. He must also be able to find the longitude by chronometer from an observation of the sun.

In Seamanship.—In addition to what is required by a Second Mate, he must know how to moor and unmoor, and to keep a clean anchor; to carry out an anchor; to stow a hold; and to make the requisite entries in the ship's log.

A FIRST MATE must be nineteen years of age, and have served five years at sea, of which one year must have been as either Second or only Mate, or as both. (Service in a superior capacity is in all cases to be equivalent to service in an inferior capacity.)

In Navigation.—In addition to the qualification required for an Only Mate, he must be able to observe azimuths and compute the variation; to compare chronometers and keep their rates ; to work the latitude by single altitude of the sun off the meridian; and be able to use and adjust the sextant by the sun.

In Seamanship.—In addition to the qualification required for an Only Mate, a more extensive knowledge of seamanship will be required, as to shifting large spars and sails, managing a ship in stormy weather, taking in and making sail, shifting yards and masts, &c, and getting cargo in and out; and especially heavy spars and weights, anchors, &c.; casting ship on a lee-shore; and securing the masts in the event of accident to the bowsprit.

A MASTER must be twenty-one years of age, and have been six years at sea, of which one year must have been as first or Only Mate, and one year as Second Mate; or two years as First and Only Mate. (Service in a superior capacity is in all cases to be equivalent to service in an inferior capacity.)

     In addition to the qualification for a First Mate, he must be able to find the latitude by a star, &c. He will be inquired of as to the nature of the attraction of the ship's iron upon the compass, and as to the method of determining it. He must possess a sufficient knowledge of what he is required to do by law, as to entry and discharge, and the management of his crew; as to penalties and entries to be made in the official log. He will be questioned as to his knowledge of invoices, charter-party, Lloyd's agent, and as to the nature of bottomry, and he must be acquainted with the leading lights of the channel he has been accustomed to navigate, or which he is going to use.

     In cases where an applicant for a certificate as master ordinary has only served in a fore and aft rigged vessel, and is ignorant of the management of a square rigged vessel, he may obtain a certificate on which the words "fore and aft rigged vessel" will be written. This is not, however, to apply to Mates, who, being younger men, are expected for the future to learn their business completely.

An EXTRA MASTER'S EXAMINATION is intended for such persons as are desirous of obtaining command of ships and steamers of the first class. Before being examined for an Extra Master's Certificate an applicant must have served one year as a Master with an ordinary Certificate of Competency, or as a Master having a First Class Certificate granted by one of the former Boards of Examiners.

In Navigation.—As such vessels frequently make long voyages, to the East Indies, and the Pacific, &c, the candidates will be required, in addition to the qualification necessary for an ordinary Master, to work a lunar observation by both sun and star, to determine the latitude by the moon and star, by Polar star off the meridian, and also by double altitude of the sun, and to verify the result by Sumner's method. He must be able to calculate the altitudes of the sun or star when they cannot be observed, for the purposes of lunars, also to find the error of a watch by the method of equal altitudes. To correct the altitudes, observed with an artificial horizon.

     He must understand how to observe and apply the deviation of the compass; and to deduce the set and rate of the current from the D. R. and observation. He will be required to explain the nature of great circle sailing, and know how to apply practically that knowledge; but he will not be required to go into the calculations. He must be acquainted with the law of storms, so far as to know how he may probably best escape those tempests common to the East and West Indies, and known as hurricanes.

In Seamanship.—The extra examination will consist of an inquiry into the competency of the party to heave a ship down, in case of accident befalling her abroad; to get lower masts and other heavy weights in and out; how to construct rafts, and as to his resources for the preservation of the ship's crew in the event of wreck, and in such operations of a like nature as the Examiner may consider necessary.

     The candidates will be allowed to work out the various problems according to the method and tables they have been accustomed to use, and will be allowed five hours to perform the work; at the expiration of which, if they have not finished, they will be declared to have failed, unless the Local Marine Board see fit to extend the time.

     Applicants for examination are required to give their names to the Shipping Master, or to the Local Marine Board at the place where they intend to be examined, on or before the day of examination, and to conform to the regulations in this respect which may be laid down by the Local Marine Board; and if this be not done, a delay will be occasioned.

     The examinations will commence early in the forenoon on the days before mentioned, and be continued from day to day until all the candidates whose names appeared upon the Shipping Master's list on the day of examination are examined.

     Testimonials of character, sobriety, and trustworthiness will be required of all applicants, and without which no person will be examined; and as testimonials will have to be forwarded to the office of the Registrar-General of Seamen in London for verification, before any certificates can be granted, it is desirable that candidates should lodge them as early as possible. Upon application to the Shipping Master, candidates will be supplied with a form, which they will be required to fill up and lodge with their testimonials in the hands of the Examiners.

     The fee for examination must be paid to the Shipping Master. If a candidate fail in his examination, half the fee he has paid will be returned to him by the Shipping Master on his producing a document which will be given him by the Examiner.

The following are the fees to be paid by applicants for examination :—

                                                                                £      s.      d.

Second Mate                                                            1       0      0

First and Only Mate, if previously possessing an

     inferior certificate                                                 0    1 0      0

If not                                                                       1       0      0

Master, whether Extra or Ordinary                              2       0      0

  Home Trade Passenger Ships :—

     Mate                                                                 0     10      0

     Master                                                              1      0       0

     Service as Mate in a Home Trade Passenger Ship is not allowed as such unless the person is possessed of an appropriate Certificate.

     Any one who has been one year in possession of a Master's first-class Certificate granted by one of the former Boards of Examiners, or of an Ordinary Master's Certificate of Competency granted under the present Examiners, may pass an Extra Examination, and receive an Extra Certificate in exchange for his former one, without payment of any fee; but if he fails in his first examination he must pay half a Master's fee on his coming a second time; and the same sum for every subsequent attempt.

     If the applicant passes, he will receive a document from the Examiner, which will entitle him to receive his Certificate of Competency from the Shipping Master at the port to which he has directed it to be forwarded. If his testimonials have been sent to the Registrar to be verified, they will be returned with his certificate.

     If an applicant is examined for a higher rank and fails, but passes an examination of a lower grade, he may receive a Certificate accordingly, but no part of the fee will be returned.

     As the examinations of Masters and Mates are made compulsory, the qualifications have been kept as low as possible; but it must be distinctly understood, that it is the intention of the Board of Trade to raise the standard from time to time, whenever, as will no doubt be the case, the general attainments of officers in the merchant service shall render it possible to do so without inconvenience; and officers are strongly urged to employ their leisure hours, when in port, in the acquirement of the knowledge necessary to enable them to pass their examinations; and Masters will do well to permit apprentices and junior officers to attend schools of instruction, and to afford them as much time for this purpose as possible.


Arrangements having been made for giving to those Masters or applicants for Masters' Certificates who desire to do so, an opportunity of undergoing an examination as to their practical knowledge of the use and working of the steam-engine, these examinations will be conducted under the superintendence of the Local Marine Boards, at such times as they may appoint for the purpose; and the Examiners will be selected by the Board of Trade, from the engineer surveyors appointed under the Steam Navigation Act. The examination will not comprise intricate theoretical questions, but will be such as to satisfy the Examiner that the applicant is competent to control the working of the engine, and has such a knowledge of the ordinary parts of the machinery as will enable him to judge of the nature of an accident, and, in the absence of the engineer, to give the necessary directions in the engine-room. The practice will be as follows: The applicant must deliver to the Shipping Master a statement in writing to the effect that he wishes to be examined in Steam. If he is about to pass a Master's examination in navigation also, this statement must be on or annexed to the form E E; if he has a Master's Certificate of Competency, it must be delivered to the Shipping Master with his Certificate, so that due notice may be given to the Examiner, and so that the Board of Trade on receiving it may have the means of indorsing on his Certificate and recording the fact that he has passed in Steam. He must also, at the same time, pay a fee of £1, which will be applied in remunerating the Examiners. Notice will be given of the time at which the applicant is to attend to be examined; and if he passes, the result of the examination will be reported to the Board of Trade, and his Certificate of Competency will be issued or returned to him, as the case may be, with an indorsement as above mentioned, shewing that he has passed in Steam. If he fails, no notice of the failure will be recorded on the Certificate, but no part of the fee will be returned.