As mentioned in our general description of the Quartermaster rating, the QM rating can be confusing to those unfamiliar with the Navy because of the varied uses of the words “quarter” and “quarters” in military parlance. In point of fact, the term “Quartermaster” is derived from “quarterdeck”—the raised portion of the deck directly behind a sailing ship’s main mast where the ship’s wheel was located. This was where the helmsman stood and steered the ship, and in the Age of Sail it was the Quartermasters job to assist him with assorted navigational duties.

Today, Sailors in the Quartermaster rating (QM) work in one of three Navigation jobs: Specialist, Administrator, and Manager. Specialists and Administrators work closely with the Officer of the Deck (OOD) and the Navigator; Specialists stand watch as Assistants to the Navigator and the OOD, while Administrators use their navigation to offer recommendations to both of them. As the name implies, Specialists are tasked with much of the hands-on work involved in ship navigation, serving as Helmsmen, selecting the charts and aids used to plan voyages, maintaining the compass book, keeping track of and recording weather and oceanographic conditions, and making recommendations related to international and inland Rules of the Road—basic guidelines to prevent collisions between vessels.

Navigation and related subjects make the lion’s share of the Quartermaster’s world, but a 2003 decision to disestablish the Signalman rating and assign those duties to the QM rating added an entirely new set of tasks to the Quartermaster’s roster of duties. At first blush, new duties such as transmitting and receiving messages using signal lamps, signal flags, and semaphore, as well as maintaining the halyards used to hoist signal flags, don’t seem like that much of an addition. But learning Morse code, semaphore code, signal flags is akin to learning a new language—a language that typically is only used during exercises or a real-life event that mandates their employment. Thankfully, the transition was quite smooth, a testament to the emphasis the Navy places on its training methods and the quality of recruits it attracts.


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