Water transportation workers—known on commercial ships as merchant mariners—perform services that help provide mass local and international cargo and passenger transportation. Merchant mariners operate and maintain numerous types of watercraft, including tugboats, dredges, towboats, ferries, deep-sea merchant ships and excursion vessels. These vessels provide transportation services on rivers, canals, the Great Lakes, Oceans, within harbors and on other bodies of water.
Ships and water vessels on both domestic and international bodies of water are supervised or commanded by pilots, captains and mates. The chief commander and supervisor of a water vessel’s crew and operations are called a captain or master. A captain or master decides on the appropriate course and velocity for their vessel. They also monitor their craft’s position using navigational charts and instruments, and maneuver the ship to avoid potential hazards. Captains supervise crew members who perform basic operational tasks, which include steering the vessel, operating its engines, determining its location, performing maintenance, handling lines, operating equipment and communicating with other vessels. With the assistance of department heads, captains ensure the safe and proper operation of the vessel; verify the proper working order of equipment and machinery, and direct passenger and cargo loading procedures. In addition to these tasks, captains and department heads keep careful records of their ship’s movements, the cargo and passengers transported and efforts taken to control pollution.
Routine vessel operations are directed by deck officers or mates, who stand watch for defined periods that are typically 4 hours on and 8 hours off. In the case of some small vessels that have only one mate, the captain and the mate (sometimes called a pilot) alternate watches. If the captain becomes incapacitated, the mate takes full command of the vessel. On ships that operate with more than one mate, different mates are referred to as first (or chief) mate, second mate, third mate and so forth. Mates help direct the crew’s activities, such as maintenance and upkeep operations. Mates also ensure proper loading procedures by inspecting cargo holds during loading.
Pilots are responsible for steering ships through confined waterways, such as harbors, rivers and through straits. In such areas, pilots provide vital knowledge of local water conditions, including depths, currents, wind, tides and hazards, such as shoals and reefs. On river and canal watercrafts, pilots—like mates—are generally regular crew members. Harbor pilots normally work on an independent contract basis, often guiding numerous ships each day as they enter and exit port. Motorboat operators transport small groups of people (6 or less) on fishing charters. They operate small, motor-powered watercrafts. Motorboat operators also perform other tasks, such as taking depth soundings in turning basins and providing liaison services between ships, ships and shores, harbors and beaches or on area patrol.
Watercraft machinery such as pumps, boilers, generators and engines are maintained, repaired and operated by ship engineers. Most merchant marine vessels employ a chief engineer along with three assistant engineers, whose job it is to stand periodic watches to monitor the safety of engine and machinery operations.
Under the supervision of the ship’s engineering officers, marine oilers and more experienced qualified members of the engine department (QMEDs), work in the engine spaces below deck to maintain the craft’s proper running order. This work involves lubricating the numerous moving parts of the engines and motors, including bearings, gears and shafts. Marine oilers and QMEDs also read temperature and pressure gauges, record data and occasionally help with machinery repairs and adjustments.
The ships officers supervise sailors, who are responsible for maintaining the proper condition of non-engineering areas and for operating the vessel and its deck equipment. Sailors act as lookouts for possible hazards as well as for buoys, lighthouses and other navigational tools. Other sailor tasks include measuring water depth in shallow water, steering the shift and operating and maintaining such deck equipment as anchors, lifeboats and cargo-handling gear. Vessels that transport liquid freight employ pumpmen, who operate pumps, clean tanks and hook up hoses. Pumpmen also work on tugboats and other tow vessels, connecting, inspecting and ultimately disconnecting towed vessels. Pumpmen also handle lines at docking, and perform other general tasks, such as chipping rust, repairing lines and cleaning and painting various parts of the ship. Oceangoing vessels refer to experienced sailors as able seamen, while inland-waters vessels refer to them as deckhands. On large vessels, there is frequently a head seaman, called a boatswain.
The average deep-sea merchant ship crew consists of a captain, three mates or deck officers, a chief engineer with three assistants, a radio operator and at least six unlicensed seaman, such as cooks, oilers, QMEDs and able seamen. The exact number of crewmembers for each voyage depends on the ship’s size and the services it provides. Crews on some small harbor, river and coastal vessels consist only of a captain and a single deckhand. In such cases, the deckhand is generally responsible for cooking.
Crews on larger coastal ships may consist of a captain, a pilot or mate, an engineer and seven or eight seamen. Entry-level apprentice trainees sometimes receive special unlicensed positions, such as electrician, full-time cook or mechanic. Cruise ships employ bedroom stewards who clean passenger living quarters.
Merchant mariners are generally hired on a voyage to voyage basis, often remaining at sea for months at a time. There is no guarantee of continuous work, and the time merchant mariners spend between voyages depends both on personal preference and on job availability.
About 24 percent of merchant mariners belong to unions, a significantly higher proportion than the national average for all occupations. Because of the large union influence, merchant marine officers and seamen who are not hired directly by shipping companies are generally hired for voyages though union hiring halls. Union hiring halls cater to both beginning and veteran merchant mariners, and fill open positions according to who has been out of work the longest. Hiring halls are generally located at major seaports.
Marine mariners generally stand watch 7 days a week in 4-hours-on/8-hours-off shifts. Workers on Great Lakes ships do not work when the lakes are frozen in the winter, but work 60-days-on/30-days-off the rest of the year. Year-round routes are more common for those who work in harbors, on rivers and on canals. These workers may work regular 8-12 hour shifts, returning home daily. Other workers alternate steady periods (weeks or months) of work with extended off time. These workers alternate between 6 or 12 hours of on duty and 6 or 12 hours of off duty. Small vessels generally offer workers steady employment on one ship.
Water transportation workers work in all types of weather. Despite efforts to avoid severe storms during a voyage, it is impossible for merchant mariners to completely avoid working in cold, damp conditions. Although modern ships are rarely subject to major disasters (fires, explosions, sinking, etc.), workers must still be prepared to abandon shift in case of a collision or other emergency. Serious injury or death can also result from falling overboard or from dangers involved with operating machinery and handling heavy and hazardous cargo. Despite these risks, modern merchant mariners face significantly less danger than their predecessors due to advanced emergency communications, effective international rescue systems and modern safety management procedures.
The majority of new watercrafts are equipped with comfortable living quarters, air conditioning and soundproofing from loud machinery. These conveniences help reduce the strain of being away from home for long periods. Mariners also benefit from modern communications technology, such as email, which allows them to easily keep in touch with family. In spite of these amenities, however, the confinement of the ship and the long periods away from home cause some mariners to leave the industry for other occupations.