The Quartermaster Rate

by QM1(SW) Will Scott-Smith

From The Fleet: Advice To A Recruit

Mike's son wants to join the US Navy, and Mike is helping him examine various rates. He found QM1(SW) Will Scott-Smith in an online message board, and Petty Officer Scott-Smith was kind enough to describe the QM rate and, in a follow-up email, answer some specific questions. He also allowed us to post his comments here. Mike's son is scheduled to begin boot camp in JUL03, as a QM.

I've been in the Navy for almost nine years (as of AUG03), and have been a QM since completing QM "A" School in December of 1994. I may be biased, but I think that the QM rate is one of the best in the Navy. Time and time again, I've had people say that in retrospect, they would rather have gone QM as their rate of choice. Even the late CNO, ADM Boorda, once said in an interview that if he could do it all over again, he'd have gone QM or SM. Why, do you ask? Here are the reasons:

  • By and large, it is a clean rate. Our day-to-day duties don't include blowing out stuffed-up toilets, cleaning bilges, or spending time in a sweltering engine room. Don't get me wrong - we do get down and dirty; QMs are normally responsible for the upkeep of the bridge and the bridgewings (a highlight for all tours and visiting dignataries). As a junior QM, I spent a lot of time out on the bridgewings, needle gunning, sanding, priming, and painting. The interior of the bridge is always neat and squared away (brass shined, decks swept and swabbed, etc.).

  • The opportunity to excel is unparalleled. You work with and advise the entire wardroom (the officers on a ship) in your position as QMOW (Quartermaster of the Watch). The most junior QM, if qualified QMOW, will be instrumental in the training of all the junior officers in the wardroom. Your duties cause you to work in full view of - and in very close proximity to - both the CO and XO. Do well as a QM, and it pays.

  • Since our job is mainly navigation (and the upkeep of all related navigation material), there isn't a whole lot for QMs to do in port. On the average, a good QM crew will work until 1300/1400 at the latest (although it isn't unheard of for liberty call to go down before lunch). We earn our pay underway. The QMOW is a watch that is manned 24/7 while not moored to a pier, so all the qualified QMs rotate through the day, with the unqualified QMs as their UIs (Under Instruction). On the average, it takes three to four months to qualify as a QMOW, sometimes longer. On top of the watches, there is the normal day-to-day work that still must be completed, drills to participate in, etc. Underway days tend to be busy days.

  • You always have your finger on the pulse of the ship. QMs always know when and where the ship is going, sometimes months in advance. After all, we're the ones that have to plan the voyage across the open ocean, right? There isn't much that happens aboard the ship that the QMs don't know about.

When I joined the Navy, I had the luxury of coming from a Navy family (I'm third-generation Navy), so a lot of my questions were answered by my Dad, or people that worked for him (i.e. ex-recruiters). I realize that my situation was unique, to say the least, so I try to pass on whatever knowledge, tips, and/or guidance I've picked up over the last nine years to those who need it, especially future Quartermasters!
I hope my answers help you out:

1. Approximately how many QMs are on each ship? I know this will depend on the size of the ship, but give me a rough number as a general guide.

You're right: it does depend on the size of the ship. On most frigates, destroyers, and cruisers, you probably wouldn't have more than five or six QMs. I've heard of some frigates having as few as three QMs. The even smaller ships, such as mine sweeps, patrol coastals, and mine hunters have maybe two QMs assigned to them. The smaller the ship, however, the more you cross-train with other rates. Bigger ships can have as many as twenty QMs, but they man more stations than the QMs on smaller ships do.

2. Who does the QM "crew" report to, and typically what rank would the senior QM be?

The QM division (I used "crew" in my post for simplicity's sake) reports to the senior QM (also known as the "Leading QM" in Navy-speak), and he reports to the ship's Navigator, who reports to the XO (Executive Officer, second in command), who reports to the CO (Commanding Officer). That's the standard throughout the fleet. On very small ships, it isn't uncommon for the Leading QM to be the Navigator, or for the XO to be designated as the Navigator. In any case, it is a very short chain of command to the very top.

The rank of the senior QM would depend on the class of ship. Small ships (up to destroyers, mainly) have an E-6 (Petty Officer First Class, or QM1) as the Leading Petty Officer of the Division (or LPO). Larger ships normally have an E-7 or E-8 (QMC or QMCS) as the Leading Chief Petty Officer (LCPO). There are rare occasions when an E-5 is temporarily the "top dog", but that is normally during a gap in the QM1 turnover process.

3. Exactly what is a "watch" - what do you do, and how long do they last? How often would one do a watch in one 24 hour period when underway?

A "watch" is an assigned duty for a designated amount of time in which the "watchstander" performs various required tasks. For example: a prison guard tower is manned 24/7, although not with just one person who stays up there throughout the entire year. The days are broken up by many people who are qualified to stand in that guard tower. While they are in that tower, they are "standing watch".

The Navy is full of watches. A warship is an extremely complex industrial machine that requires lots of monitoring internally, as well as people monitoring the outside environment, such as radars, steering the ship, navigation, etc. A good QM will be qualified to stand many different watches, but our bread and butter comes from standing QMOW, Quartermaster of the Watch. The QMOW is responsible for the safe navigation of the ship, keeping the ship's log, observing the weather, monitoring the helmsman to make sure he/she is steering the assigned course, and advising the OOD/CO/XO on the navigation picture.

On my ship, we stood what we called "five and dimes" (five hours on watch, ten hours off watch). We mainly did this because we had three qualified QMOWs. Being off watch doesn't always mean that you're off from work, as I mentioned in my post. There's always work to be done underway, or there are fire drills to participate in, etc. Sleep underway is a commodity.

4. You mentioned that there isn't much to do for QMs while in port. How does this work? Do they just get time off? Or are they assigned to do other things on the ship?

Our main function in life is to navigate the ship. When you're pier-side, it's like you work a normal job in the outside world. Normally, the workday starts at 0730 with what's called "Quarters" (the entire QM division stands in formation while roll call is taken, and important information is put out). A lot of maintenance that can't get done underway gets done in port, such as painting the bridgewings, painting the inside of the bridge (salt air/spray is very corrosive), updating our navigation charts and publications, voyage planning, inventory of what supplies we need before we get underway again, etc. A good LPO will make a worklist of what he wants done for the day, and posts it right after quarters. Once the list is done, we go home. Teamwork at its best. Unless there is a stores on-load, or an ammo on-load, QMs pretty much work up on the bridge.

5. Do QMs still learn the flashing light signaling?

They do in the Coast Guard. The Navy still has Signalmen (SM) that take care of the flag hoists, flashing light, semaphore, etc. However, there is talk of the Navy combining the QMs and SMs together (we work side-by-side on the bridge), so you never know. Personally, I learned flashing light, flag hoists, and semaphore on my own because I found it interesting, and I like to cross-train.

6. I suspect that on each ship there is a "hierarchy" of ratings: some get more respect than others. How does the QM fit into this hierarchy? In other words, what is the view of the QM from his fellow seamen?

The QM rating is one of the oldest, and most traditional, in the Navy. Aside from GPS (Global Positioning Service: satellite navigation), not much has changed in the Navigation world in a long time. We still learn Celestial Navigation, which is really cool, by the way. QMs are always around the top of the hierarchy. There is something about a group of people that can figure out where they are by using the stars, planets, moon, and the sun that holds its own in any crowd.

7. What types of shore duty are available for a QM? Is there ever such a thing as shore duty?

QMs can do any number of things on shore duty. From security (law enforcement) to instructor duty to recruiting duty, you name it. I'm on shore duty right now, and I teach Firefighting at RTC Great Lakes (where your son will come through for Boot Camp). Shore duty normally follows a set amount of time at sea: "five and three" for E-5 and below, for example (I can't remember the exact ratio), means that after five years on sea duty (being assigned to a ship), you go to three years of shore duty.

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