Water transportation workers operate and maintain vessels that take cargo and people over water. The vessels travel to and from foreign ports across the ocean and to domestic ports along the coasts, across the Great Lakes, and along the country’s many inland waterways.Duties
Water transportation workers typically do the following:
These workers, sometimes called merchant mariners, work on a variety of ships.
Some operate large deep-sea container ships to transport manufactured goods and refrigerated cargos around the world.
Others work on bulk carriers that move heavy commodities, such as coal or iron ore, across the oceans and over the Great Lakes.
Still others work on both large and small tankers that carry oil and other liquid products around the country and the world. Others work on supply ships that transport equipment and supplies to offshore oil and gas platforms.
Workers on tugboats help barges and other boats maneuver in small harbors and at sea.
Salvage vessels that offer emergency services also employ merchant mariners.
Cruise ships employ a large number of water transportation workers, and some merchant mariners work on ferries to transport passengers along shorter distances.
A typical deep-sea merchant ship, large coastal ship, or Great Lakes merchant ship employs a captain and a chief engineer, along with three mates, three assistant engineers, and a number of sailors and marine oilers. Smaller vessels that operate in harbors or rivers may have a smaller crew. The specific complement of mariners is dependent on U.S. Coast Guard regulations.
Also, there are other workers on ships, such as cooks, electricians, and mechanics. For more information, see the profiles on cooks, electricians, and general maintenance and repair workers.
Captains, sometimes called masters, have overall command of a vessel. They have the final responsibility for the safety of the crew, cargo, and passengers. Captains typically do the following:
Mates, or deck officers, direct the operation of a vessel while the captain is off duty. Large ships have three officers, called first, second, and third mates. The first mate has the highest authority and takes command of the ship if the captain is incapacitated. Usually, the first mate is in charge of the cargo and/or passengers, the second mate is in charge of navigation, and the third mate is in charge of safety. On smaller vessels, there may be only one mate who handles all of the responsibilities. Deck officers typically do the following:
Pilots guide ships in harbors, on rivers, and on other confined waterways. They are not part of a ship’s crew but go aboard a ship to guide it through a particular waterway that they are familiar with. They work in places where a high degree of familiarity with local tides, currents, and hazards is needed. Some, called harbor pilots, work for ports and help many ships that come into the harbor during the day. When coming into a commercial port, a captain will often have to turn control of the vessel over to a pilot, who can safely guide it into the harbor. Pilots typically do the following:
Sailors, or deckhands, operate and maintain the vessel and deck equipment. They make up the deck crew and keep all parts of a ship, other than areas related to the engine and motor, in good working order. New deckhands are called ordinary seamen and do the least complicated tasks. Experienced deckhands are called able seamen and usually make up most of a crew. Some large ships have a boatswain, who is the chief of the deck crew. Sailors typically do the following:
Ship engineers operate and maintain a vessel’s propulsion system, which includes the engine, boilers, generators, pumps, and other machinery. Large vessels usually carry a chief engineer, who has command of the engine room and its crew, and a first, second, and third assistant engineer. The assistant engineer oversees the engine and related machinery when the chief engineer is off duty. Small ships might have only one engineer. Engineers typically do the following:
Marine oilers work in the engine room, helping the engineers keep the propulsion system in working order. They are the engine room equivalent of sailors. New oilers usually are called wipers, or pumpmen, on vessels handling liquid cargo. With experience, a wiper can become a Qualified Member of the Engine Department (QMED). Marine oilers typically do the following:
Motorboat operators run small, motor-driven boats that carry only a few passengers. They provide a variety of services, such as fishing charters, tours, and harbor patrols. Motorboat operators typically do the following:
Education and training requirements vary by the type of job. There are no educational requirements for entry-level sailors and oilers, but officers and engineers usually must have an endorsement certificate from the U.S. Coast Guard. Most water transportation jobs require the Transportation Worker Identification Credential (TWIC) from the Transportation Security Administration and a Merchant Marine Credential (MMC).Education
Some deck officers, engineers, and pilots have a bachelor’s degree from a merchant marine academy. The academy programs offer a bachelor’s degree and a Merchant Marine Credential (MMC) with an endorsement as a third mate or third assistant engineer. Graduates of these programs also can choose to receive a commission as an ensign in the U.S. Naval Reserve, Merchant Marine Reserve, or U.S. Coast Guard Reserve.
Nonofficers, such as sailors or marine oilers, usually do not need a degree.Training
Ordinary seamen, wipers, and other entry-level mariners get on-the-job training for 6 months to a year. The length of training depends on the size and type of ship and waterway they work on. For example, workers on deep-sea vessels need more complex training than those whose ships travel on a river.Licenses, Certifications, and Registrations
All mariners working on ships with U.S. flags must have a Transportation Worker Identification Credential (TWIC) from the Transportation Security Administration. This credential states that a person is a U.S. citizen or permanent resident and has passed a security screening. The TWIC must be renewed every 5 years.
Mariners who work on ships traveling on the open ocean require the Standards of Training, Certification, and Watchkeeping (STWC) endorsement. Regional U.S. Coast Guard offices provide this training, and it includes topics such as first aid and lifeboat safety. The STWC training must be completed every 5 years. Mariners who work on inland waterways and the Great Lakes are excluded from the STWC endorsement.
Most mariners also must have a Merchant Marine Credential (MMC), which they can apply for at a U.S. Coast Guard regional examination center. Entry-level employees, such as ordinary seamen or wipers, do not have to pass a written exam. However, some have to pass physical, hearing, and vision tests, and all must undergo a drug screening, to get their MMC. They also have to take a class on shipboard safety. The MMC must also be renewed every 5 years. More information on MMCs and endorsements is available from the U.S. Coast Guard National Maritime Center.
Pilots are licensed by the state in which they work. The U.S. Coast Guard licenses pilots on the Great Lakes. The requirements for these licenses vary, depending on where a pilot works.Advancement
Crewmembers can apply for endorsements to their MMC that allow them to move into more advanced positions.
Wipers can get an endorsement to become a Qualified Member of the Engine Department (QMED) after 6 months of experience by passing a written test.
It takes 3 years of experience and the passing of a written test for an ordinary seaman to become an unlimited able seaman. However, several able seaman endorsements below the level of unlimited are available after 6 months to 1 year of experience, depending on the type of ship the seamen work on.
Able seamen can advance to become third mates after at least 3 years of experience in the deck department. This experience must be on a ship similar to the type they hope to serve on as an officer. They also must take several training courses and pass written and onboard exams to receive the third-mate endorsement on their MMC. The difficulty of these requirements increases with the complexity and size of the vessel. Similarly, QMEDs can receive an endorsement as a third assistant engineer after 3 years of experience in the engine room and upon completion of a number of training and testing requirements. Experience and testing requirements increase with the size and complexity of the ship.
Officers who graduate from a maritime academy receive an MMC with an endorsement of third mate or third assistant engineer, depending on which department they are trained in.
To move up each step of the occupation ladder, from third mate/third assistant engineer, to second mate, to first mate, and then to captain or chief engineer, requires 365 days of experience at the previous level. A second mate or second assistant engineer who wants to move to first mate/first assistant engineer also must complete a 12-week training course and pass an exam.Work Experience in a Related Occupation
Many pilots have years of experience as a mate on a ship. The ship should be of the type they expect to pilot. For example, if they work at a deep-sea port, they should have experience on an oceangoing vessel.
Similarly, many motorboat operators must have several years of experience working on and driving a boat.Important Qualities
Customer-service skills. Many motorboat operators interact with passengers and must ensure that the passengers have a pleasant experience.
Hand-eye coordination. Officers and pilots who steer ships have to operate various controls while staying aware of their surroundings.
Hearing ability. Mariners must pass a hearing test to get an MMC.
Manual dexterity. Crewmembers need good balance to maneuver through tight spaces and on wet or uneven surfaces.
Mechanical skills. Members of the engine department keep complex machines working properly.
Physical strength. Sailors on freight ships load and unload cargo. While away at sea, most workers have to do some heavy lifting.
Visual ability. Mariners must pass a vision test to get an MMC.
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