Cabin boys were usually 14–16 years old and also helped the cook in the galley and carried buckets of food from the galley to the forecastle where the ordinary seamen ate. They would have to run from one end of the ship to the other carrying messages and become familiar with the sails, lines and ropes and the use of each in all sorts of weather. They would have to scramble up the rigging into the yards whenever the sails had to be trimmed. They would even begin to stand watches like other crewmen or act as helmsman in good weather, holding the wheel to keep the ship steady on her course.
In the famous trial of Regina v. Dudley & Stephens (1884) 14 QBD 273 DC, three sailors and a cabin boy were shipwrecked and cast adrift in a small boat without provisions. To save themselves, the sailors killed and ate the cabin boy. They were later convicted of murder, despite their defense of necessity.
Several prominent British Royal Navy officers began their career as cabin boys. The list includes officers that achieved an admiralty rank before 1801.
- Lord Admiral Nelson
- Admiral of the Fleet Sir Cloudsley Shovell
- Admiral Sir Francis Drake
- Admiral Sir John Hawkins
- Admiral (General) Richard Deane
- Admiral (Colonel) William Rainsborough
- Admiral Sir William Penn
- Vice Admiral Sir William Batten
- Vice Admiral Sir John Lawson
- Vice Admiral (Captain) Badilow
- Vice Admiral Sir Thomas Tiddeman
- Vice Admiral (Captain) James Peacock
- Vice Admiral (Captain) William Goodson
- Vice Admiral Sir Christopher Myngs
- Vice Admiral Sir John Harman
- Rear Admiral Sir John Berry
- Rear Admiral Sir Richard Stainer
- Rear Admiral (Captain) Anthony Houlding
- Rear Admiral (Captain) Deacons
- Rear Admiral (Captain) Robert Sansum
Notable cabin boys
- John Anglin—cabin boy who received the Medal of Honor during the American Civil War.
- Hobart Bosworth—cabin boy on the Sovereign of the Seas who became a famous actor.
- Michael Healy—cabin boy who sailed on the American East Indian Clipper Jumna in England in 1854. He quickly became an expert seaman and rose to the rank of officer on merchant vessels. He became the first African-American to command a ship of the United States Government.
- James Machon—cabin boy who received the Medal of Honor during the American Civil War.
- Thomas Nickerson—cabin boy on the Essex who later wrote about the shipwreck and subsequent three months of survival at sea.
- Cabin Boy, a 1994 film
- "Cabin Boy" a song by Tom Robinson from the 1984/1997 Castaway Northwest CNWVP006 album War Baby
- Captain Pugwash, a British television children's animated series about a hapless captain and his crew; Tom, the cabin boy, is depicted as the most intelligent member of the crew.
- Treasure Island, where the main character Jim serves as a cabin boy on the boarding of the ship the Hispaniola.
- "Cabin Boy", a short story by Damon Knight
- Renaissance Festival, The Cabin Boys, Pirate Fire Comedy act from Minnesota.
- Concise Oxford Dictionary, Oxford University Press 1999, entry "Cabin boy"
- Simpson, A. W. B. (1984). Cannibalism and the Common Law: The Story of the Tragic Last Voyage of the Mignonette and the Strange Legal Proceedings to Which It Gave Rise. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. ISBN 978-0-226-75942-5.