The Life and Mystery of First Officer William Murdoch
In the UK, the term “Master Mariner” is reserved only for those who hold an unlimited master's certificate. The term “unlimited” (often referred to as unrestricted) indicates that there are no limits on size, power or geographic location on the certificate. It is the highest level of professional qualification amongst mariners and Deck Officers in the British Merchant Navy. The Extra Master's qualification, which was discontinued in the 1990s, used to be the highest professional qualification and it was the pinnacle for any mariner to achieve. There are also various other levels of Master's certificates, which may be restricted or limited to Home Trade/Near Coastal Voyages and/or by gross tonnage. The holder of a restricted Master's certificate is not referred to as a "Master Mariner".
Thanks to a contribution by author Senan Molony, I am finally able to publish William McMaster Murdoch's Merchant Service Records for research and educational purposes.
David Gittens 2008 article Could you make it to Extra Master? provides some background on these certificates:
In Britain, four certificates were granted. In order, they were Second Mate, First Mate, Master and Extra Master... All Titanic's officers held such certificates. The Extra Masters were Captain Smith, Chief Officer Wilde, First Officer Murdoch, Second Officer Lightoller and Fourth Officer Boxhall. Third Officer Pitman, Fifth Officer Lowe and Sixth Officer Moody held Master's certificates... It should be understood that, like a modern university degree, the certificates did not guarantee promotion, or even employment. It was quite normal for officers to serve in positions below those for which they were qualified. Many Extra Masters never attained command. In Britain, examinations were conducted by the Marine Department of the Board of Trade.(Dave Gittens, Could you make it to Extra Master?(8.))
It is interesting to note some finer details about William, for example that it mentions his height as 5' 8" 1/2 to 5' 9", a fair complexion, brown hair and hazel grey/hazel brown eyes. However, for the time being at least, it seems we are missing his Master's Certificate. He must have obstained his Masters so as to be able to sit his Extra Masters (likely during the same year 1896). Finally, it is not surprising to see that he passed each test on first attempt (unlike many of his Titanic colleagues, such as Captain Smith who failed his first Extra Master's Certificate -on the subject of navigation).
The following chart, made by Tiphaine Hirou, is a summary of the dates when each Titanic officer acquired (or failed) a certificate. It is quite apparant that Murdoch was a skilled officer, gaining all three of his certificaets on first attempt while every other failed at least once (some only gaining a certificate on third attempt). It is also interesting to note that Boxhall also skipped his Master's certificate, which may mean this was possible to do.
Click on the documents to see the full resolution version.
Second Mate (1892)
Application number 025780, submitted in Liverpool on the 30th September 1892. The Ordinary Examination was held in Liverpool on the 3rd of October, 1892. The application was successful and he received his certificate, issued at the Port of Duumfries, on the 8th October 1892.
According to David Gittins this was "the lowest certificate required knowledge of the fundamentals of navigation. This extended to checking the compass by observations of the sun and the determination of latitude and longitude by solar observations only. At a pinch, a qualified Second Mate could bring a ship safely home in the absence of better-qualified officers, given some sun sights." (Dave Gittens, Could you make it to Extra Master?(8.))
First Mate (1895)
Submitted in Liverpool on the 25th March 1895, this includes a "Personal Description of the Candidate" which seems to have been written by William himself.
"The second certificate [First Mate] introduced navigation by the stars. This included calculating in advance the position of useful stars, so the navigator's sextant could be pre-set to their altitude, ready for observations. A useful skill was the ability to take a quick sight of an unidentified star, seen through a break in clouds, before identifying the star and calculating a position line." (Dave Gittens, Could you make it to Extra Master?(8.))
This certificate and any details about it is presently missing. Although the logical answer is that it simply does not exist, as William skipped straight to his Extra Masters.
To gain a masters certificate "needed to command, the candidate had to know how to navigate by the planets and the moon. These bodies introduce extra corrections. Latitude by Polaris, using a complex method involving logarithms, was required, together with advanced knowledge of the compass and its errors." (Dave Gittens, Could you make it to Extra Master?(8.))
Extra Masters (1896)
Submitted in Liverpool on the 25th of September 1896, he passed his examination on the 28th and a Certificate of Competency numb 025780 was sent on the 3rd of October 1896.
"Great circle sailing... was the province of the Extra Master. This learned mariner was required to solve problems of considerable complexity, using spherical trigonometry. An examination question might ask the candidate to determine the great circle course from a point on the Kamchatka Peninsula, in Russia, to Cape Horn, listing all the turning points on the course and the courses to be steered between them, assuming the course is changed every 10° of longitude. This calculation occupies two large pages.The Extra Master was required to know how to find a position by Sumner's position lines...The Extra Master was able to construct Mercator charts from scratch...The would-be Extra Master was required to write essays on such topics as tropical revolving storms and to explain the reasoning behind the celestial navigation. Plenty of diagrams were required and neat and methodical work was expected. This is partly why the examination occupied 26 hours, spread over five days. The examination papers were marked progressively and after a final oral examination the candidate was immediately informed of his fate. (Dave Gittens, Could you make it to Extra Master?(8.))