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A coxswain in the U.S. Navy is the helmsman, or driver, of a boat, like those that ferry ship crews around a harbor. The term originated in the 15th century English navy as a combination of the words cockboat -- the captain's personal boat -- and swain, or servant. Originally, the coxswain in charge of the captain's boat was a Petty Officer but, over time, the term came to be applied to the helmsman of any Navy boat, regardless of his rating or rank.

Coxswain's Job Today

The U.S. Navy coxswain today is an enlisted service member with the responsibility to ensure the safety of the passengers and supplies in his boat. That means that he not only drives the boat to its destination, but also supervises launch, the recovery and the basic maintenance of the boat in his charge. He is also responsible for the safe and secure stowage of any cargo aboard his boat, and he supervises loading and unloading of cargo and passengers.

Wartime Role

In wartime, coxswains drive and beach landing craft in amphibious assaults. They also drive the assault boats used for special warfare operations. The coxswains assigned to the Navy's Special Warfare Command receive additional training in how to handle the rigid inflatable boats used by today's Navy to insert and recover SEAL commando teams in enemy-held territory.

Boats v. Ships

A coxswain is the sailor in charge of a Navy boat. But what is the difference between a boat and a ship? Navy usage distinguishes boats from ships when it comes to surface vessels, but all submarines are referred to as boats. A Navy boat is a non-commissioned surface watercraft capable of limited independent operation, generally is less than 65 feet long.

2,500 Navy Boats

The U.S. Navy has 2,500 boats in service, divided into 58 different types. Some boats are carried on ships, while others are assigned to shore stations. Boats perform a wide range of tasks to support the peacetime and wartime operations of the Navy's ships. Any Naval surface vessel that is not classified as a boat is a Navy ship.

Coast Guard Coxswains

The U.S. Coast Guard also has coxswains to drive some of the 2,000 boats it uses for port and waterway security, search and rescue missions, and navigation assistance. The Coast Guard's boats operate mainly in U.S. territorial waters and on inland waterways. Coast Guard coxswains' duties are similar to those of Navy coxswains, and they receive similar training.