All English speakers have a clear understanding of what “ordinary” means: average, typical, generic. At sea, as usual, things are a little different.
Webster tells us that the word comes from the Latin ordinarius whose root word is ordo meaning an order, through the Middle English word ordinarie. Webster also notes, as number nine out of twelve meanings, “… out of commission: applied to ships of war.”
This is the most common use of the word when applied to ships, both in navies and in more loosely ordered groups such as privateers, pirates and merchant vessels. A ship is said to be “in ordinary” when she is at anchor with all sails reefed and tied. Sometimes, her spars and even her masts are knocked down indicating that she may be in ordinary a very long time. In such cases the unfortunate ship is perhaps being prepared to be rebuilt as a “hulk”, a floating house used for training, as a headquarters or – most unfortunate of all – as a prison.
Historically, in both the Royal and the U.S. Navy, an “ordinary” was one of many men who looked after ships in ordinary at any given dockyard or port. Most ships, at least those that would sail again at some point, had crew aboard but those that did not were taken care of by these ordinaries. The men in question should not, however, be confused with ordinary seamen.
Ordinary seaman is a rating in most navies from at least the 18th century. It indicates a man who is capable of performing most types of work aboard, including going aloft and taking a place in the tops. He is not yet a “complete” sailor, however, as he still has a thing or two to master.
That complete sailor would be an able seaman. Termed an A.B. in most muster roles, he is described as follows in the Sailor’s Word Book:
He must be equal to all the duties required of a seaman in a ship – not only as regards the saying to “hand, reef, and steer,” but also to strop a block, splice, knot, turn in rigging, raise a mouse on the main-stay, and be an example to the ordinary seamen and landsmen.
Of course the landsman is the idler who gawps about, good for very little besides applying holy stones and prayer books to the deck in the morning and certainly too incapable to be trusted even halfway into the rigging.
Any of these three ratings may also be a supernumerary. That is, a man over the established complement of a ship. These men would be entered into the muster book separately for purposes of victuals and pay.
And that, dear Brethren, is enough for another Saturday. May your evening be far from ordinary.
Header: The whaler Charles W. Morga in ordinary via NYT