So you want to join the merchant navy as an officer? You’ve heard all those stories about being paid to visit foreign countries, haven’t you? What about the girl in every port stories? And you must have been told about the exciting life we sailors lead, right? Are these stories true? Do you think you have it in you to sail the high seas? Well, I am here to tell you about the REAL merchant navy – some of the stories you’ve heard are true, some are not. I have been sailing for the past 30 years including 13 years as Captain so I am giving you an inside view.
Before we begin, let me first clarify something, the merchant navy isn’t the same as the Indian navy. Merchant ships carry cargo as the name suggests, we are not the fighting navy. The cargo could be containers, oil, passengers, animals, bulk ore etc.
So what is the big attraction of the merchant navy? Usually two things come to mind – money and foreign travel. There are other benefits like tax free income, quick promotions and an exciting life. But the good salary is the main temptation. You get fat pay checks and you don’t pay tax (if you stay out of the country for more than 6 months in a financial year). You start earning a big salary at a very young age. To give you an example, the starting salary for a 22 year old 3rd officer or 4th engineer (junior most officers on board ships) on an oil tanker is more than 2000 $ per month (conservatively speaking). This amount depends on the type of ship and the company you join so don’t quote me! Officers normally work on a contract basis. Junior officers do 4-6 month contracts, while senior officers do 3 to 4 months on board. Some companies pay salaries round the year while others pay you only while you sail. However, your annual salary will remain the same. Why do ship owners pay you such high wages (relatively speaking)? There has to be a catch, right? The catch is, you stay away from home for extended periods of time. In fact you spend most of your time at sea rather than on land. Sure you get to visit foreign countries but things have changed now. Its not as if you reach a port and everyone goes ashore.
Work continues with every officer / crew member working in shifts (watches as we call them). You are free to go ashore once you have completed your watch but don’t forget that you have to come back from your shore leave and work again. So, you either sleep or you go ashore. Work on a ship, never stops. As long as the ship is doing something – sailing, loading / discharging cargo, it’s making money for the ship owner. Port stays have gone down considerably so the ship is in port for a short time. Of course, this depends on the type of ship you are on. Container ships are in port for a few hours (YES few hours), oil tankers for 24 hrs, cargo ships and bulk carriers stay longer in port. Watches in port are usually on a 6 on 6 off basis, 6 hours on duty, 6 hours off duty, and then you are back to work. Hence you cannot go ashore in every port because you need to rest sometime. The ship owner is paying you to stay on board, not to go ashore! Its not all bad news, you do get to go ashore and do some shopping and maybe sight seeing. Ports are normally far away from civilization. Travelling to and fro takes up time and is not cheap.
With visa restrictions post 9/11, many countries will not let you stay back for a holiday after you complete your tenure on your ship. So now you know why the ship owner pays you so much. You are being paid for staying away from family and home, you are being paid for long stints at sea and hardly any chance to go ashore. By the way, the girl in every port stories you have heard are pure myths!!! You will not get time to meet girls and if you do meet girls then they will be the wrong kind. On the positive side, some companies do allow officers (usually senior officers) to carry their family (wife / kids) with them but not girl friends!
No problem you say, I can handle everything, just as long as I get paid well. That’s just fine, as long as you are aware of what you are getting into. Expect to work with a multinational crew. Expect multinational cuisine. Expect cultural differences, your Captain could be from U.K. while the other officers / crew could be from Philippines, India, Croatia, Bangladesh or some other country. This variety means that you may not have much in common with them. You might have to spend time alone in your cabin. Can you handle being by yourself? Of course, it might be possible that you are lucky and you get along with everyone, in which case you will enjoy yourself soaking in the various cultures. Or you could be luckier and get to sail with a majority of your nationality. It all depends on the company you work for. During your leisure time you can watch movies, play indoor games (cards, carom etc), work out in the gym (most ships have one) or just relax in your cabin. Most companies allow officers to send emails home and receive them. Of course, there are restrictions on the number and size of emails after all, satellites are used for transmitting/receiving emails. You will get snail mail (conventional paper letters) when the ship touches port but usually not more than once a month. Lately, bigger companies offer internet facilities on board so sailors aren’t as isolated as before. Mobile phone sims can be picked up locally as well so you can call home whenever you are in a port.
Now we come to work. Each type of ship requires specialised crew. Each department on board a ship has different duties – the deck department looks after the navigation and loading / discharging of cargo while the engine department looks after maintenance of various machines. Life on board every ship is not the same. Some ships are old so you need to work harder to keep them running. Some ships are newer and are easier to work on. Oil tankers, gas carriers need special training and experience. Container ships and bulk carriers have similarly experienced crew. While at sea, officers generally do 4 on 8 off – 4 hours duty and 8 hours off. This does not mean that after you finish your 4 hours of duty, you can go to sleep. No, you might have to work on other things like maintenance of machinery/equipment. Normally officers and crew work 10 hour days. This is a general statement and is not a hard and fast rule. Work loads increase considerably, when ships are in port. Officers and crew are on watches throughout the day and night. There is no weekend for them – there is no such thing as a public holiday. If one officer falls sick, then the other officers on board share his duties until he is fit again. Normally ships do not carry doctors on board unless you are on a passenger ship. Ships carry medicines and all officers are trained for first aid / medical emergencies. Whenever ships touch port, medical treatment can be provided ashore.
Another aspect to think about is the weather. Ships do run into bad weather (read storms). Even the biggest ship is but a toy when up against the fury of the sea. Sea sickness is not something to be scoffed at. Before you take up a career at sea you had better make sure that you don’t get sea sick. Take a trip on a boat to get the feel of things.
Right…now you are aware of various aspects of the merchant navy, money, foreign travel, life on board, work and rest hours, medical facilities, weather etc. What? You still want to join the merchant navy? Bravo!! We need guys just like you – guys who join with their eyes open, guys who don’t have wrong ideas about a career at sea. So how do you go about joining the merchant navy? Information is available on the net. In addition, you can keep an eye out for advertisements in major newspapers.
A word of caution, don’t be in a hurry to hand over money to some agent who assures you of a job at sea. Check his credentials; check the credentials of the company or training institution you intend to join. Preferably, find someone who is already at sea and who can guide you. This is one profession where a mentor is always a good idea.
I have been sailing for the past 30 years including 13 years as Captain. To me the merchant navy is wonderful. It has given me everything I dreamed of and wanted in life. Life on board ships isn’t easy but its not as bad as it is made out to be sometimes. As there seem to be a lot of extreme views on this career, I have tried to give you the real picture. This is a serious profession where you have to work hard and your hard work pays (quite literally)!