Have you ever dreamed of a life at sea, seeing nothing but the ocean in all directions and visiting exotic ports at the end of your journey?
Merchant mariners experience these sights every day when they’re on the job. When working on a merchant vessel, life becomes very different from what it is on land. Tasks are always waiting, safety is paramount and delivering cargo on time is the ultimate goal.
If you’ve ever wondered what life on a merchant vessel looks like, keep reading. We’ll give you a glimpse into the day-to-day operations aboard a cargo ship and help you decide if a seafarer’s demanding yet exciting life is right for you.
The History of Maritime Transport
About 8,000 years ago, early humans cut down large trees and hollowed out the centers. These rudimentary dugout canoes allowed them to move people and goods along rivers and across smaller bodies of water like lakes. The creation of the boat predates the wheel by about 3,000 years.
Credited with some of the best early navigation skills, the Polynesian people built double-hulled canoes that allowed them to journey across the Pacific Ocean as early as 3,000 years ago. They set out from areas like Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands and explored what is now known as the Polynesian Triangle.
Using celestial navigation, Polynesian sailors explored the areas of Fiji and Tonga. By the beginning of the Common Era, Polynesians had journeyed as far east as Rapa Nui (Easter Island) and as far north as Hawai’i. New Zealand was the last land mass discovered, closing the Polynesian Triangle.
Due to the sheer size of the Pacific Ocean, many Polynesian explorers carried only necessities for survival. It was on later journies that they brought staples like seeds, pigs, chickens, and dogs to allow them a better chance of survival on these new islands.
Today, Hawaiian seafarers still use celestial navigation pioneered by early Polynesians.
When most people think of intrepid seafarers, they often think of the Europeans. When narrowed down, it was the Vikings from Scandinavia who were the first to explore and settle new territories along the western coast of Europe.
Many historians believe the Vikings made it as far as Newfoundland on Canada’s northeast coast. However, the bulk of their travels remained in European waters.
The Portuguese traveled and colonized en masse in the 1400s. In 1488, Bartolomeu Dias first sailed around the Cape of Good Hope in Africa. His countryman Vasco de Gama made the same trip ten years later, finally landing in India.
Later, Ferdinand Magellan would take on the first recorded circumnavigation of the globe.
However, it was in 1492 that the most recognizable seafaring voyage began. Despite making grave errors while interpreting the maps of the time, Columbus, traveling under the Spanish flag, headed west in search of a shorter route to India. Instead, he landed in the Caribbean islands, and the rest is history.
Despite their history of colonization, European sailors made significant contributions to the mechanics of sailing. The concept of the sextant was introduced by Sir Isaac Newton and carried out by John Hadley and Thomas Godfrey.
The Europeans also popularized the lateen sail system, the implementation of longitude and latitude, and went on to build steam and fuel engines in the late 1800s.
The Rise of Oceangoing Transport
From the moment humans perfected the art of boatbuilding, moving people and cargo became a priority. In fact, our world might look very different today without the advent of vessels that could navigate rivers, lakes, and oceans.
Sailing ships weren’t the best vessels to move items over long distances.
Without refrigeration, fresh foods were spoiled. Livestock often perished for lack of fresh water. The ship’s crew members often got sick with communicable diseases or vitamin deficiencies like scurvy.
However, when the 19th century ended and the industrial revolution ramped up, the shipping industry allowed the movement of goods and people over long distances and in shorter amounts of time. The steam engine and the internal combustion engine would change the face of shipping forever.
The Marine Steam Engine
If you’ve seen the movie Titanic, you may recall the scenes in the engine room. Dozens of men were throwing coal into large burners. You didn’t see how that coal powered the ship’s propellers.
Thomas Newcomen developed the first steam engine in 1712. Engineers and inventors like James Watt further developed Newcomen’s technology and created more compact steam engines. However, it wasn’t until 1802 that the steam engine was applied to marine vessels.
A steam engine works by heating water to the boiling point. Once the water turns to steam, the force of the steam exerts massive amounts of pressure. In the case of a marine steam engine, that pressure pushes a piston back and forth inside a cylinder.
With the connection of a crank system, the piston then turns a paddle wheel or a propeller which pushes the ship forward. Propellers are also located on the sides of the ship to create sideways movement when necessary.
In 1812, the first transatlantic steamship set sail from Savannah, Georgia, heading for Liverpool, England. Often steamship names had the ship prefix SS before the name and these early steamships had wooden hulls which were susceptible to damage from salt water. By the end of the 19th century, advancements in engine technology went hand in hand with improvements in shipbuilding.
By 1900 most large ships had steel hulls. The weight and length of these ships required an onboard power plant. For instance, the Titanic burned 850 tons of coal per day.
However, the shipping industry had to adapt as different fuel sources became available.
The Marine Internal Combustion Engine
When automobiles entered the market, it was clear that the steam engine was impractical for use in a car. Several engineers worked to create an internal combustion engine that would eliminate the need for the heavy equipment used to generate steam power.
Carl Benz was the first to introduce an internal combustion engine for an automobile. Yet Etienne Lenoir won the patent for this type of engine in 1858. Future engines would follow his design.
The shipping industry was also in need of a more efficient engine system. Ships needed to carry immense amounts of coal, adding significant weight and lessening efficiency. Additionally, ship owners were concerned about the amount of soot left behind by the coal dust.
By the 1900s, expert shipbuilders began moving away from coal and toward fuel-powered engines. These new engines were more powerful, quieter, and required less manpower. By World War l, military ships almost always relied on heavy fuel oil to power their engines.
The Modern Shipping Industry
Today we rely on ships to move goods around the world. About 90% of the world’s consumer goods travel by ship, totaling 11 billion tons. In places like Hawai’i, 80% of all goods arrive by ship, and 85% of those goods are food.
Today approximately 5,500 container ships are operating all over the world. It’s a logistically complex operation as each shipping company needs to ensure their vessels are safe from severe weather, the threat of piracy, and political conflicts that can restrict movement.
Important Ports Around the World
The shipping industry would be nothing without the ports needed to handle the cargo. Modern shipping ports are true feats of modern engineering, with some ports capable of handling thousands of containers per day.
For instance, the Port of Long Beach in California processed 9 million containers in 2021.
However, Long Beach is far from the busiest port in the world.
As you might expect, China’s port cities top the list of the 50 busiest ports in the world. Shanghai comes in at number one, with Shenzen, Guangzhou, Qingdao, Xiamen, and others making the list. Busan, South Korea, Rotterdam, Netherlands, Antwerp, Belgium, Kaohsiung, Taiwan, Los Angeles, California, and Savannah, Georgia are all vital ports.
As you can expect, cargo shipping requires a cooperative effort from teams at the port and on the ship.
The Different Roles of a Merchant Vessel Crew
Merchant vessels are essentially floating cities. In addition to the standard jobs directly related to the ship’s function, additional crew members execute tasks that aid in the well-being of all aboard.
A ship’s crew is often divided into departments. The deck department includes the captain and other officers responsible for the ship’s navigation. The engine department controls the ship’s engine and other mechanical operations. The electro-engineering department handles the electrical components of the ship’s operations.
Lastly, the steward’s department takes care of ordering provisions and feeding the crew.
While most passenger ships require a medical officer on board, merchant vessels aren’t always mandated to meet that requirement. Instead, many crew members have advanced paramedical training and can handle most illnesses and injuries.
The captain is the individual tasked with maintaining operations, order, and safety for the entire ship and her crew. The captain acts under the direct supervision of the owner.
Most of the captain’s duties take place at the helm. They are responsible for plotting the course, making adjustments to it, and managing the chief officer’s responsibilities.
The captain must also have in-depth knowledge of port rules and regulations, be responsible for emergency protocols, and delegate tasks as necessary.
Most cargo ship captains have a military background and a certified merchant mariner school degree. They must also have extensive experience in other roles before becoming eligible for the captain role.
Sometimes called the first mate or first officer, the chief officer is responsible for overseeing the entire crew and other department heads. They are responsible for training crew members in fire safety protocols, search and rescue missions, and delegation of duties.
In some cases, the chief officer also acts as a cargo officer. This position requires the cargo containers’ management, ensuring their safety and security, and overseeing onboarding and offloading at the port.
Chief officers also monitor ship traffic and relay instructions to the captain in the event a course change is needed. They may also plot the ship’s course under the captain’s direction.
Depending on the hierarchy of the ship’s crew, the chief officer may be tasked with night watch.
While the second officer takes on many roles, their primary job is navigation. They’re responsible for plotting the course, consulting the chief officer regarding ship traffic, and meeting with the captain regarding course changes.
The second officer also plots and creates course maps and updates them as necessary.
The second officer might also be in charge of the anchor watch and is often tasked with training new crew members.
One of the third officer’s primary duties is safety. They inspect and maintain lifeboats, ensure each crew member’s safety gear is in good working order and conduct periodic safety drills. The third officer usually takes charge during actual emergencies.
The third officer also assists the second officer with navigational duties.
The entire crew must eat nutritious meals so they can perform their duties at full capacity. The chief cook is responsible for preparing meals, ordering provisions when necessary, meal planning, and maintaining cleanliness and sanitation standards.
The chief cook is also tasked with knowing crew members’ dietary restrictions and food allergies.
The boatswain is something of a jack of all trades. They report to the lead of the deck department and are responsible for maintaining the ship’s integrity and taking on responsibilities outside of the engineers’ tasks.
The boatswain and their team clean the ship, ensure all equipment is free from corrosion and in good working order and maintain the integrity of the anchor.
A boatswain generally has several deckhands working under him. If interested in learning more about boatswain duties and responsibilities, please, check this article, but we can move to the engine department.
Like other means of mechanized transport, a cargo ship is nothing without finely tuned engines. This is the primary job of the chief engineer. This role required the engineer to ensure that the engines a properly maintained and that tools, spare parts, and other necessary equipment are requisitioned prior to the voyage.
The chief engineer is also tasked with adhering to environmental regulations. Safe containment and disposal of fuel oil is a top priority for the chief engineer. Regular equipment inspection and updating the logbook is also a significant part of this role.
The chief engineer is in charge of the entire engine room team or engine department.
A cargo ship’s second engineer reports directly to the chief engineer. They assist the chief with daily tasks related to the engine system but also have more hands-on duties.
For instance, the second engineer is tasked with checking fluid levels and assisting with repairs. They also focus on equipment aside from the engines. These types of equipment include winches, refrigeration units, boilers, cranes, and waste management.
While the third engineer takes direction from higher-ranking engineers, they also have specific tasks related to the type of merchant vessel they’re aboard.
Generally, the third engineer takes on tasks related to fueling and maintenance of the fuel systems. These may include work on fuel pumps and air compressors and maintaining fuel pumps and fuel purification systems.
As you may guess, the oiler is responsible for lubricating the moving parts of all machinery on board the merchant vessel. And oiler used to be an integral part of industries like manufacturing, the railroad, and mining. Even though much of the machinery in use today is self-lubricating, an oiler is still a vital member of the cargo ship crew.
The oiler’s job is crucial. Without proper lubrication and maintenance, the working parts of a ship can seize and stop working, leaving the ship dead in the water. A good oiler makes certain that the moving parts of the engine and other machinery work smoothly.
Many jobs aboard a cargo vessel are entry-level positions. These jobs are a great way for those interested in the life of a merchant marine to get their feet wet.
A wiper is a jack of all trades. They assist other crew members with any necessary tasks, allowing them to become familiar with each department. However, the primary role of the wiper is to maintain order and cleanliness in the engine room, and the boiler rooms and to keep watch when needed.
Life on a Merchant Vessel
Most cargo ships complete their voyages within 40 to 60 days. However, some cargo ships that circumnavigate the globe undertake voyages that can take 100 days or more.
There is always work on cargo ships, but crew morale is also important. Many ship crews organize activities outside of regular work to bring a little fun to the job and make life as a seafarer as comfortable as possible.
Crew members also tend to have comfortable living quarters and onboard recreational activities.
While the captain and high-ranking officers have the most luxurious living spaces, lower-ranking crew members also have comfortable spaces to rest and store their personal belongings.
Lower-ranking crew members may have to share living quarters with a coworker. Some crew cabins have private bathrooms, and some don’t. The good news is that most crew only use their cabins for sleeping. The chances are good that a bunkmate works opposite hours, so private time may be frequent.
The work of a merchant mariner is very physically demanding, but many crew members still enjoy hitting the gym. Most ships have exercise facilities that include free weights, treadmills, stationary bicycles, and other fitness equipment.
Some newer ships even offer saunas and lap pools, both of which are a welcome sight after a long day of work in the blistering sun or frigid winds.
Special Meals and Celebrations
In many cases, a cargo ship’s schedule necessitates them being at sea during holidays like Christmas, Thanksgiving, and the Fourth of July. Additionally, since many crew members are multinational, celebrations like Diwali and Ramadan might be spent at sea.
The chief cook usually provisions holiday food before the ship embarks, ensuring they have the ingredients to create delicious holiday feasts. The galley is also stocked with ingredients to make birthday cakes and other treats for a variety of special events.
Getting a wifi signal in the middle of the ocean isn’t always guaranteed. However, many newer cargo ships are equipped with satellite internet. Not only does this allow crew members to stay in touch with friends and family, but it also offers the chance to watch satellite television.
After all, what’s a Thanksgiving dinner without American football?
Cargo ships also offer books, video games, ping pong tables, poker nights, and other fun activities to keep the crew engaged and mentally healthy.
Ports of Call
When a cargo ship docks to onboard or offload cargo, some of the crew members have the chance to go ashore. They may have a few hours, or they may have a few days. Either way, time on dry land is always welcomed.
Some popular ports of call are Singapore, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Hamburg, Ho Chi Minh City, Manila, Tokyo, and Colon, Panama.
How to Land a Job on a Merchant Vessel
As mentioned earlier, many people take jobs on cargo ships after they complete military service. Navy and Coast Guard veterans often have skills that make them well-suited to life aboard a merchant vessel.
Other people interested in a nautical career attend specialized schools and colleges geared toward preparing graduates for the job market.
People with diesel mechanic skills, electrical engineering backgrounds, and marine diving certifications are also in high demand in this field. Bilingual skills can also give you a leg up when applying for maritime jobs.
But the most desirable qualities among marine applicants are the ability to take orders, complete tasks independently, work well with a team, and stay calm under pressure.
Contact Us Today to Learn More About Joining the Merchant Mariners
If you’re ready to take on a challenge that’s both rewarding and lucrative, the experts at Working Harbor would like to hear from you. We help educate interested candidates on the ins and outs of life on a merchant vessel.
Contact us today to learn more about sailing, nautical engineering, shipping, and how you can prepare for one of these exciting careers. Or have a look at our many blog articles covering all aspects of maritime life.