The boatswain (pronounced bosun) has played a vital role aboard ships since at least the eleventh century. Many boatswains have left their mark throughout history, including two US Navy boatswains who received the Medal of Honor for heroism. A boatswain played a central character in the opening scene of William Shakespeare’s The Tempest, and if you’ve read Peter Pan or have seen the movie, you will remember Captain Hook’s boatswain, Mr. Smee.
The boatswain is a senior crewman, responsible for all the unlicensed crew members aboard. He plans the deck crew’s work, assigns tasks, and checks that they comply with operating procedures. He oversees all parts of the ship not under the responsibility of the engineering department, including maintenance of the ship’s hull and deck equipment.
On Titanic, the boatswain and boatswain’s mate worked to help save others following the collision with the iceberg. One lived, one perished.
Thirty-two-year-old Alfred “Big Neck” Nichols of London became Titanic’s boatswain following a long history of employment with the White Star Line. On the night of April 14, 1912, Alfred led a team of six seamen to open some of the gangway doors in order to load the lifeboats. The seven men were believed to have been trapped, and their bodies were not recovered.
Boatswain Alfred Nichols
Thirty-year-old Southampton resident Albert Haines, Titanic’s boatswain’s mate, had worked several years at sea as well. When Titanic hit the iceberg, Albert was working below and heard air escaping. He reported what he heard to Chief Officer Henry Wilde, who ordered him to “get the men up and get the boats out.”
Chief Officer Harold Wilde
Albert then went to wake some of the crewmen, saying, “Turn out, fellows, you’ve not half an hour to live.” He then helped with loading of the lifeboats, and was put in charge of Lifeboat 9. Following rescue, Albert returned to the sea. He married in 1914 and had a son. The family lived in Southampton, where Albert was struck by a car and died as a result of his injuries at the age of 53. (Titanic photo credits: Encyclopedia Titanica)
Boatswain's Mate Albert Haines