Pirate Ship Roles – The Pirate Crew Ranks

A pirate ship was a well-organized vessel, with each crew member assigned specific duties to ensure smooth operations and successful plundering. Many pirate crews followed a hierarchical structure and a code of conduct, which governed their behavior and the division of spoils (Rediker, 2004). This article discusses the key roles aboard a pirate ship, drawing on historical sources for context and accuracy.


The captain held the highest authority aboard a pirate ship and was responsible for overall command, strategic decision-making, and navigation (Cordingly, 1996). Elected by the crew, the captain’s authority was respected and often unquestioned during battle, but he was expected to consult the crew on other matters. Notable pirate captains include Edward Teach, also known as Blackbeard, and William Kidd, commonly known as Captain Kidd.


Second in command to the captain, the quartermaster was responsible for maintaining discipline and order among the crew, distributing provisions, and managing the division of loot (Rediker, 2004). The quartermaster also settled disputes among crew members and ensured adherence to the pirate code. In some cases, the quartermaster would assume command of the ship if the captain was incapacitated or killed.

Sailing Master

The sailing master was an experienced navigator responsible for plotting the ship’s course, taking into account factors such as prevailing winds, ocean currents, and hazards (Cordingly, 1996). This role was vital to the success of a pirate crew, as accurate navigation could mean the difference between seizing a valuable prize and getting lost at sea.


The boatswain supervised the ship’s maintenance, ensuring that the sails, rigging, and hull were in good working order (Rediker, 2004). This role required a thorough knowledge of the ship’s components and the ability to manage repairs and oversee the work of the crew.


The gunner was in charge of the ship’s armaments, including cannons, muskets, and ammunition (Cordingly, 1996). This role required expertise in maintaining, loading, and firing these weapons, as well as training the crew in their use. Effective gunners could significantly improve a pirate ship’s combat capabilities.


Responsible for repairing the ship’s wooden components, the carpenter was a skilled tradesman who played a crucial role in maintaining the vessel’s structural integrity (Rediker, 2004). From fixing leaks to replacing damaged planks, the carpenter’s work was essential to keeping the ship seaworthy.


While not present on every pirate ship, a surgeon was a valuable asset when available. They were responsible for treating injured crew members, performing amputations, and administering medical care during illness outbreaks (Cordingly, 1996). Many pirate surgeons were not formally trained but had acquired their skills through practical experience.

Ordinary Crew Members

The majority of a pirate ship’s crew were ordinary sailors responsible for various tasks such as raising and lowering the sails, cleaning the decks, and assisting with ship maintenance (Rediker, 2004). These crew members were essential to the smooth operation of the vessel and shared in the spoils of piracy according to the agreed-upon pirate code.


  • Cordingly, D. (1996). Under the Black Flag: The Romance and the Reality of Life Among the Pirates. New York: Random House.
  • Rediker, M. (2004). Villains of All Nations: Atlantic Pirates in the Golden Age. Boston: Beacon Press.