Merchant Mariner Career

Merchant Mariner CareerThe merchant marine is that part of the maritime trade industry concerned with transporting cargo (and some­times passengers) from place to place via water routes; it is also known as the commercial shipping industry. Merchant mariners operate ships and other water ves­sels on domestic and international waters. Workers on these ships are divided into three crews: the deck crew, which handles navigation and cargo operations, the engine crew, which oversees the generating system that propels the ship, and the steward department, which sees to meals and living quarters. Each crew is commanded by a designated officer. Water transportation workers hold more than 72,000 jobs.

Merchant Mariner Career History

Merchant shipping is an old industry that developed out of the need and desire to trade and travel. In the early days of the American colonies, commercial shipping was very important. Deep-water rivers and channels pro­vided perfect launching sites for water vessels built by craftspeople who emigrated from other countries.

Between 1800 and 1840, U.S. ships carried more than 80 percent of the country’s commerce with other nations. The first steamship crossed the Atlantic Ocean in 1819, and large iron ships began to be built in the mid- 1800s. With the mass production of these iron ships, trade increased and Great Britain dominated the indus­try through the end of the century. Most U.S. trade was carried by foreign ships.

The merchant marine has always been a private indus­try, but the government has relied on it to help in a mili­tary capacity during times of war. The maritime industry benefits during wartime because the country’s defense department contracts shipbuilders and mer­chant mariners to serve as auxil­iaries to the military. In fact, the end of the world wars caused a depression in U.S. merchant ship­ping. During World War II, the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy was established at Kings Point, New York, to offer training for merchant officers (it didn’t admit women until 1974). There are now six maritime academies in the United States.

Since the 19th century, the size, speed, and carrying capacities of nonmilitary transport ships have increased greatly. The various types of merchant marine ves­sels—including supertankers, freighters, barges, and container ships—now carry millions of tons of food, machinery, and petroleum across the waters each day under the flags of many countries.

Despite such advancement, however, much has changed in the business since colonial days. Today, U.S. merchant shipping continues to lag behind other nations because shipbuilding and operating costs are much higher here than elsewhere. And because passenger liner traffic has declined, the major type of merchant vessel today is the cargo ship.

Merchant Mariner Job Description

Just as with land-based businesses, workers on merchant marine vessels can be categorized into various depart­ments. In this industry, there are the deck, engine, and steward departments, each overseen by officers. What­ever your ability and ambition, there could be a job in the merchant marine for you: captain, cook, mate, deckhand, electrician, or baker, for example.

The captain, or master, is in command of the ves­sel and is responsible for navigation, discipline, and the safety of the passengers, crew, and cargo. Captains set course and speed, maneuver the vessel to avoid hazards, and locate the vessel’s position using navigation aids, celestial observations, and charts. The captain is also the sole representative of the vessel’s owner and arranges organizational assignments of duties for the vessel’s operation, navigation, and maintenance with the chief mate.

The deck department

The chief mate, also known as the first mate or chief officer, acts as the captain’s first assistant. He or she is in charge of all cargo planning and deck work and assists with navigation, discipline, and maintaining order. The second mate is in charge of the maintenance of all navigating equipment and charts. Third mates are responsible for the maintenance of life­boats and fire-fighting equipment; they are in charge of all signaling equipment and assist with cargo work. Mates usually stand watch at the navigating bridge for four hours at a time.

The radio officer performs all duties required for the operation, maintenance, and repair of radio and other electronic communications devices. Radio officers maintain depth-recording equipment and electronic navigational aids such as radar and loran (long-range navigation). They also receive and record time signals, weather reports, position reports, and other data.

The boatswain, or bosun, is in charge of the deck crew. He or she carries out orders for work details as issued by the chief officer, directs maintenance tasks such as chip­ping and painting, splices rope and wire for rigging, and handles lifeboats and canvas coverings.

Workers known as able seamen or deckhands perform general duties such as rigging cargo booms and readying gear for cargo loading or unloading. They stand watch and must be qualified as lifeboatmen, able to take charge of a lifeboat crew. Able seamen also steer the vessel by handling its wheel under the direction of the officer on watch (this duty is usually carried out by the quartermas­ter, or helmsman, on noncommercial ships). Ordinary seamen learn and assist in performing the duties of an able seaman by cleaning, chipping, painting, and washing down the vessel.

The engine department

The chief engineer is in charge of all propulsion machinery, auxiliaries, and power-gen­erating equipment. He or she keeps logs on machinery performance and fuel consumption and is responsible for machinery repairs. The first assistant engineer is responsible for the maintenance of lubricating systems, electrical equipment, and engine-room auxiliaries. The second assistant engineer is responsible for fuel and water, supervises tank soundings, and keeps records of fuel and water consumption. He or she may be responsible for the operation of the vessel’s boilers, boiler room equip­ment, the feed water system, pumps, and condensers. The third assistant engineer supervises the operation and maintenance of engine room auxiliaries and the vessel’s pumps.

Electricians repair and maintain all electric motors and electrical circuits. Wipers keep the engine rooms clean by wiping down machinery, and oilers lubricate the moving parts of mechanical equipment throughout the vessel. Firer-water-tenders take care of the boilers to keep the steam pressure constant. They regulate the amount of water in boilers, check gauges, control the flow of fuel, and see to the operation of evaporators and condensers. On newer, automated vessels, the ratings of oilers and firer-water-tenders have been combined, and these work­ers may be known as deck-engine mechanics.

The steward department

The steward department workers maintain the crew’s living quarters and prepare meals. The chief steward supervises food preparation and the operation and maintenance of living quarters and mess halls. Tasks include establishing and maintaining inventory records of foodstuffs, linens, bedding, and furniture and preparing requisitions for voyage require­ments. The chief steward also oversees the staff who work in the steward department.

The chief cook prepares all meals and, in conjunction with the chief steward, plans menus. He or she butchers meat and issues items from the vessel’s refrigerators and storerooms. The second cook and baker bakes all bread and pies and prepares desserts, salads, and night lunches. He or she is responsible for the upkeep and safety of the galley. The mess attendants set tables, serve meals, and wash dishes. They also maintain clean passages, stair­ways, and corridors; make berths in officers’ and crew quarters; and keep the radio room and the vessel’s offices clean.

Merchant Mariner Career Requirements

High School

Mathematics and physics courses are good training for a number of nautical activities. Computer science will prepare you for the increasing use of high technology at sea, and physical education will get you in shape for the sometimes strenuous work on a ship.

Postsecondary Training

A good way to fulfill many requirements and also learn about the various types of shipboard work is to attend a maritime school, such as Massachusetts Maritime Academy, U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, or Maine Maritime Academy. Most students at these schools are required to take courses in computer science, English, history, math, biological sciences, and social sciences. To be accepted to a maritime academy, a good scholastic achievement record and test scores are important. Also considered are extracur­ricular activities, character and personality, and leadership potential. To attend the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, stu­dents must be nominated by a U.S. congressperson.

Certification or Licensing

All officers and captains must be licensed by the U.S. Coast Guard. To obtain the rank of captain, chief mate, or second mate, an applicant must hold documentary evidence of being a U.S. citizen. All must pass certain U.S. Public Health Service physical exams, a written examina­tion, and U.S. Coast Guard regulations regarding years of service and size of vessel on which the applicant served. Deck officers must have full knowledge of navigation, cargo handling, and all deck department operations. The captain must have good judgment and must know admi­ralty law, foreign pilots’ rules, and trends in world trade.

Applicants for positions of chief engineer and first, second, and third assistant must show evidence of citi­zenship and pass health and written exams. To fulfill experience requirements, an applicant must have gradu­ated from the U.S. Naval Academy, U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, or U.S. Coast Guard Academy or have com­bined education with experience in very specified areas. Engineers must have full knowledge of diesel engines and marine boilers. Chief engineers usually have college engineer training or the equivalent.

Unlicensed crew in the deck department must show proof of a job to obtain a merchant mariner’s document from the U.S. Coast Guard. They may not sail without this document. After a required one-year minimum period of service, ordinary seamen may apply to the Coast Guard for a license as an able seaman. After three years they may secure unlimited endorsement as able seamen. An able seaman must hold an endorsed merchant mariner docu­ment, pass a physical exam, and pass either an oral or a written exam of knowledge of shipping and seamanship. Crew working in the steward’s department must carry a certificate from a medical officer of the U.S. Public Health Service.

To be eligible to serve as a deck, engine, or radio offi­cer, a seaman must have a license issued by the U.S. Coast Guard. Radio operators must have a first- or second-class radiotelegraph operator’s license issued by the Federal Communications Commission. Further, they must pass a written exam on such subjects as laws regulating commu­nications at sea, radio and telegraph operating practices, message traffic routing, and radio navigational aids.

Other Requirements

Ultimately, merchant mariners must like to work on board water vessels. If you have ambitions of becoming a captain or an officer, you’ll need a sense of leadership, good academic standing, and determination, as compe­tition for jobs is strong. Engineers must have a desire to

work with the vessel’s operating machinery. On the other hand, deckhands and steward crew should be willing to do more general work. Naturally, the cooks and bakers should enjoy working in the kitchen. Newly hired deck­hands usually learn their skills on the job.

Exploring Merchant Mariner Career

Merchant Mariner CareerAssuming you are already accustomed to being on a boat, there are very few opportunities to explore this field before actually enrolling in a maritime program or applying at union halls or shipping companies. Beginners can hire on a vessel as ordinary seamen to see if they like working onboard. Individuals who already have some training or experience (for instance, as a cook, waiter, electrician, or engineer) might hire on for a voyage to try the experience. If near a port, an aspiring merchant mariner could visit a vessel in port by contacting a steam­ship company. Visiting coastal ports (e.g., in Maine or California) is a good idea.


The majority of merchant marine jobs are at private companies, although some are employed on govern­ment-owned ships. Others work on coastal freighters or on tugboats or barges on inland waterways. Naturally, jobs are concentrated in coastal areas.

Starting Out

An inexperienced person usually gets a first job at sea by applying at a union hiring hall in a major port. An appli­cant is given a shipping card on which is stamped the date of registry. In the hiring hall, dispatchers announce job openings as ordered by shipping companies. The best-qualified worker who is longest out of work gets the job. New applicants may have to wait months to get jobs, and may have to keep in daily contact with the employment center. To become a higher-ranking merchant mariner, such as a captain or an officer, it is best to attend one of the state maritime academies.


There are many advancement opportunities in the mer­chant marines, whether from ordinary seaman to able seaman or from third mate to chief mate. But in almost every rank, promotion depends on length of service, experience, and training, either formal or on the job. Seamen in the deck department advance along well-defined lines; thus, after applying for rating, they take the required examination.

In the engine department, a wiper may advance to any one of many jobs, provided legal qualifications are met. In the steward department, advancement is from messman, to utility man, to assistant cook, to chief cook, and finally to steward. The deck officer must start as third mate; after one year an individual is eligible to take second mate examinations. Second mates gradually work toward more responsible positions, with years of service and experience acquired.


Wages vary according to the worker’s rank and the size of the vessel. The U.S. Department of Labor reports that earnings in water transportation occupations range from the minimum wage for some beginning seamen or mate positions to more than $42.30 an hour or $87,980 annually for experienced ship engineers. In 2004, median annual salaries for ship and boat captains and operators were $49,820; ship engineers earned $53,700; sailors and marine oilers earned $28,610; and all other water transportation workers earned $32,690. After many years of experience, captains of larger vessels, such as container ships, oil tank­ers, or passenger ships, may earn more than $100,000.

The Massachusetts Maritime Academy reports that the starting salaries of its marine engineering graduates and marine transportation graduates range from $45,000 to $60,000. Marine safety and environmental protection graduates start from $35,000 to $40,000 on average. Graduates who majored in facilities and environmental engineering average $35,000 to $50,000 a year to start.

Ship employees generally receive good benefits, which include free room and board while aboard ship. They receive bonuses when working in more dangerous situ­ations (such as when there is dangerous cargo aboard), and they usually receive generous paid vacations, medical benefits, pensions, and disability pay.

Work Environment

Contrary to what many people think, working in the merchant marine doesn’t mean that you sign up for duty in the navy or other military force. The merchant marine is a private industry, although vessels may be obligated to help the military in times of war.

Working on board a vessel is not as glamorous as it first may seem. Crews must be prepared to be away from home for extended periods and, although they travel throughout the world, the crew rarely has time to see much of the ports they visit. Merchant mariners on ocean vessels must be on their vessel during long periods and thus are away from home more often than other workers. However, they can earn long leaves between jobs. Unless they have been in the merchant marine for a number of years, many workers are hired for one journey at a time. Workers on rivers, canals, and the Great Lakes are more likely to find steady work.

Merchant mariners usually share their living areas with other crew members. While at sea, they are exposed to all kinds of weather, often cold and damp conditions. Most mid- and lower-ranking workers must stand watch for four hours at a time. Also, fire, collision, and sinking are all possible, so workers must be physically and psy­chologically prepared for such hazards.

Merchant Mariner Career Outlook

The employment outlook for merchant marine person­nel is not very good, mainly because of foreign com­petition and changes in federal policy. Cargo rates and wages paid to U.S. merchant mariners are the highest in the world, but this keeps the industry small because shippers can send goods on cheaper foreign vessels. However, new international regulations have raised shipping standards with respect to safety, training, and working conditions, so there is expected to be less competition from foreign vessels that will have to pay higher insurance rates for ships that do not meet the standards.

Another factor affecting employment growth is the increase in use of computerized monitoring systems in navigation, engine control, watchkeeping, ship manage­ment, and cargo handling. Ships with more automated equipment can be operated with smaller crews.

The U.S. Department of Labor projects that overall, employment in water transportation occupations will grow more slowly than the average for all occupations through 2014, but the industry has been in decline for several years and now appears to be stabilizing. The demand for licensed and unlicensed personnel has been on the rise.

Maritime academy graduates who cannot find licensed shipboard jobs in the U.S. merchant marine usu­ally find employment in other related industries. There are opportunities as seamen on U.S. flagged or foreign flagged vessels, tugboats, and other watercraft, or they can take civilian jobs with the U.S. Navy or Coast Guard. Some find land-based jobs with shipping companies, marine insurance companies, manufacturers of boilers or related machinery, or other related jobs. All graduates are commissioned as ensigns in the U.S. Naval Reserve or Coast Guard, and many sign up for active duty.

It is anticipated that most job openings will occur as workers retire or leave the field for other reasons. Appli­cants can expect to face strong competition for these jobs. Many experienced merchant mariners go long peri­ods without work.

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