Assuming 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.
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 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. They also coil and splice rope.
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, or pumpmen, keep the engine rooms clean by wiping down machinery, and oilers lubricate the moving parts of mechanical equipment throughout the vessel. Fire-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-watertenders have been combined, and these workers may be known as deck-engine mechanics.
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.