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Life on board a Merchant Navy ship: With the benefits, come the risks

Life on board Merchant Navy ship: Benefits and risks

If one has a bucket list, sailing on a merchant ship should be on it. It gives you the perspective of what is it like to witness the spectacular grandeur of 3/4th of our planet in a ship’s setting. The experience is very humbling.

Whether it is treating your eyes to the most beautiful dawn and dusk over an open horizon or counting the diamonds spread on the ocean on a full moon night, the sound of ship’s hull sliding through the salt water or the soft rumbling of 4-storey engine heard on main deck. The list goes on.

Living on board a ship brings you its own tidbits of nostalgia back home. It has been 8 years since I joined my first ship. Still, every time I am at a port to climb the gangway (ship’s ladder), I feel in awe of her, the beautiful mega structure.

There is always the delightful greeting you hear once you step foot on deck – “Welcome On board”. The peculiar fragrance fills your lungs as soon as you step inside accommodation area. The first bird’s eye view from Bridge (nothing to do with playing cards) fetches a deep breath of wow in you.

However, along with the benefits of merchant navy, there are risks as well. The grass is not all green. We witness situations involving operational failures leading to business loss and personal injuries which might scar us for a lifetime and leave us unfit to be at sea again.

So, describing a typical day on board a ship ought to be a lively narrative. This is the story of one such eventful and gruesome day.

Location: Persian Gulf

It was the summer of 2011. I was on board a difficult ship. It had been 2 months since we were doing 6 hrs on and 6 hrs off shifts. The air was still and temperature soaring high. It was 56 degrees Celsius in the Engine Room (where almost all the ship’s machinery is). The heat was unbearable and it was becoming difficult to breathe.

The time was just past 9 am and we were toiling hard on a faulty oil purifier since last 3 days. Drenched in sweat, I had just gulped a salt tablet when a loud dying roar appeared and the ship went dark. A minute later, emergency lights lit up, and we were choking on the thick black smoke in the vicinity.

One of our electricity generators had burst open at one end and the stand by generator (there is always a ready to start, stand-by equipment for all critical machinery) did not kick in. Sensing the risk of fire, the fuel to the damaged generator was cut off.

As the smoke cleared, we sighted the damaged generator, dead, and charred at one end. We all rushed to Engine Control room. The lights were dim and faces tensed.  A quick situation analysis and next plan of action had to be decided upon. Priority was – the stand-by generator had to come alive.

Black Out i.e. the loss of electrical power, is an emergency on board. The minute the ship went dark, our prolusion engine had a crash shutdown. Now, a ship with no propulsion is somewhat like a guitar with no strings. It brings the crew on board in a state of frenzy.

Any Ship sails from Port A to B in a time bound manner. Any delays leads to fines in thousands of dollars plus gets dent in ship owner’s reputation. Hence, the frenzy part.

After 90 minutes of rigorous trouble shooting, the stand-by generator was put online. It took another hour and a half to get the propulsion up and running. The ship started back on its course.

We all sat for lunch at 1400 hrs discussing our morning ordeal. We had lost 5 hours in the morning. On top of that, Incident documentation and investigation had to be done for the damaged generator.

Fortunately, nobody was near the generator when the incident happened. The incident would have proved fatal.

While the conversation moved to a casual sarcasm about how Third Engineer (responsible for the upkeep of generators) should prepare for his sign off in the next port to go home, the steward came gasping into the mess room – “Captain, Second Cook has fallen off the stairs and is not moving.”

Captain jumped out of his chair and reached for the intercom. Second Mate (medical officer on board) received the call on Bridge – “A man is lying unconscious, Chief Mate is coming to relieve you on Bridge, come immediately to provision store with stretcher”.

Chief Mate left the mess and Captain and Chief Engineer rushed to second cook with the first aid kit. The man was lying on his back. The cloth, steward had put on second cook’s head to stop the bleeding was already soaked in blood.

Captain checked for breathing and pulse and gave a sigh of relief. The man was breathing though the pulse was a bit low. While, Second Mate was preparing the stretcher to take the man to the hospital, Captain was tending to his wound. He managed to arrest the bleeding with ice, ring pad dressing and antiseptic.

Second Cook, seemed to be gaining consciousness now but was barely able to move himself and seemed under nausea. He was moved to the ship’s hospital with Second Mate attending to him while Captain sought help from nearby port authorities.

A chopper pick was arranged for the next day to take him to nearest hospital in UAE. Second Cook, Francis had lost considerable blood and he seemed weak. Second Mate suspected a fracture on left foot as it had all bulged up and Francis could barely move it. He used bandages and splint to comfort him.

Francis finally spoke – “I was rushing down the stairs when my feet slipped. I was not holding hand rails so had no chance to control my fall. I am sorry.” We felt bad for him as he had joined the ship 15 days back and was planning his daughter’s wedding after this contract. He was on glucose for the night.

Chopper lift was scheduled for 1200 hrs. I was on Bridge assisting Electrical Officer with the faulty lights. It was the first time I saw a chopper medical rescue operation in motion. The Bridge watch officer was coordinating with Chief mate who was on deck for safe airlifting of our injured fellow crew member.

It took almost 30 minutes for the entire operation and Francis was on his way to better medical care. Hopefully, he will join us back when the ship reached Fujairah for bunkering (re-fuelling). At least, I wished for it.

Midnight snack was a routine me and fourth engineer religiously followed for last two months when the 6 on/off schedule started. Sipping beer and munching club sandwiches, we put our blank eyes to the dark open sea and the bright moon from my dear senior’s cabin porthole.

Senior blurted out – “Man, this is too much, first the generator then second cook, there is too much risk out here. This is my last contract, I am never going to sail again. I replied – “True Sir, it has been crazy. I just have my education loan to pay off. I will join you. Lets get back to land start something of our own”

After 5 years of that eventful day, I am working as third Engineer for a reputed company and my dear senior is on board sailing as Chief Engineer. We are still in touch and do share emails every now and then.

We have learnt to take care of ourselves and our fellow crew members in a perilous environment. We embrace the risks we are exposed to and keep safety as our top priority. After all, as William Shedd puts it – “A ship is safe in harbour, but that is not what ships are built for”.
Disclaimer: The narrative of the story is what I could recollect when I was on board an oil tanker ship as Junior Engineer. It may or may not fit exactly in the technicalities involved while situations involving damaged machinery and injured person on board a ship.

Related post:
What merchant navy officers do: Getting behind the job description

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Shubham Somani
About Shubham Somani
Shubham has been to the shores of 24 countries and worked with 14 nationalities. He enjoys fixing things and reading Oscar Wilde. He loves mountains and works as marine engineer on board merchant ships.

22 thoughts on “Life on board a Merchant Navy ship: With the benefits, come the risks”

  1. @ shubham Hlw sir i am in a marine engineering college (1st year) and i am finding it really difficult to be here.
    Are there too much problems onboard ships??
    I am thinking of quitting this career..
    Pls reply sir..

  2. Hi Reyansh,
    I am glad to hear you have joined the core marine engineering course. Congratulations. What motivated you to join this course? First year is a breeze. You would have been barely exposed to core marine engineering subjects. What is troubling you? Please specify.
    Moreover, Life onboard a ship is nothing like that in college. Whatever you learn in college gives you head start, a foundation and once onboard you get to apply what you learned. This is one of the very few sectors were you get to apply what you learn. troubleshoot stuff and watch with pride to see it work again.
    Also read –

    About your question – ‘..many problems onboard’
    No, That is what we are for onboard. To keep the ships seaworthy, trouble free, problem-free.

    • @ shubham Well, really i have always wanted to be a mechanical engineer but couldn’t get into a good college then i heard about Marine engineering. At that time i was not much aware of it. I joined it just because of the handsome salary that i would get and the adventurous life afterwards.
      But after i joined the college i came to know about the ragging activities. Moreover, half of the students fail in the semester exams here . And after reading the article on the myths i got scared. Have i done a mistake or what!!!
      Sir, i have already dropped a year for engineering entrance exams and now i am in a trouble. If i quit this college i would have no other option but to waste one more year and neither i am economically strong enough to get in a private college at present.
      Kindly reply sir..

      • Hi Reyansh,
        As you would know, Marine Engineering course is a specialization of Mechanical Engineering. Opting for this course is sensible alternative to Mechanical Course as long as you want to work in a field of hands-on.
        It is equally important to pursue this course from a well recognized and reputed Institute. The culture and curriculum at the Institute further motivates the individual to join the seafaring community.
        Ragging is a serious offence and punishable by law, however, a healthy know-how between juniors and seniors is still prevalent and desirable. If you are facing issues and discomfort, you should immediately seek help from your college warden, college counseller(ragging cell), faculty members.
        Semester exams – They are much easier than the ones in Mechanical Course. A marine engineering course is not academically tough. It is quite average.
        Moreover, there are plenty options open to marine engineering graduates. After completion of your graduation you could join M.Tech/MS/MBA programmes in India and in abroad, serve in Defense, administrative and engineering services and many more.
        A marine Engineer at sea earns a tax-free,(conditions apply) handsome salary. It will help you to support your dreams further. It will be a better option than spending another year preparing to start again from ground zero.
        However, If you are strongly feel that this field is a misfit for you, It will be sensible to pursue something that will keep you motivated rather disheartened. Check out the ‘Careerizma’ page for more career options.

        Good Luck!

  3. Hi Shubham,
    Interesting article and a well rounded perspective about your challenging profession. Apart from this I really appreciate your writing skills which can be termed no less than poetic especially when you wrote about counting the diamonds in the ocean on a full moon light. Seeing this mysticism I am not surprised why you enjoy reading Oscar Wilde. Keep writing and hope to read more creative articles from you.

    • Hey Yasmeen. Glad you reached out 🙂
      Sorry, I am coming late on this. I am onboard a ship right now. The work has been extraordinary lately plus the erratic internet.
      Really appreciate your kind words and happy you enjoyed the write-up. Would love to read more from you too.
      You too, do not put the pen down. Cheers!

    • Hi Aniket,
      Salary for an officer varies from 2500 USD/month to 16000 USD /month depending of you rank and type of ship and the shipping company you are working with. Not sure I understand what you mean by your second statement.
      Hope it helps.

  4. Hello shubam… I have completed my Mech engg… And I wanna do gme… And get into the sea… I wanna know which colleges in India were best suited for gme… And which are the best companies for sailing…

    • Hi Akshay,
      Sorry for late reply. I was at sea with erratic connectivity.
      You can start here –
      Th write up has embedded links to direct you to list of colleges offering GME program. Visit the institutes website to find out more. Good institutes will be offering placement opportunities.
      The website has link for approved(by Govt. of India) companies. Yoi will be able to gather the good and the bad during your GME course.

    • Hi Naveen,
      Sorry for coming late on this.
      Family life and holidays – While you are on board you can have regular communication with you family members using internet available on board/Satellite phones. Moreover, As an officer you can have your wife on board and when you climb up the hierarchy ladder, both your kid(after certain age) and wife can accompany you. This provision is there in almost all reputed companies.
      Once you are back home, you will have all the time in the world to spend with them.
      You will get enough holidays to unwind and do things you want to.

  5. sir me subham soni i want to join merchant navy with enough salary to afford bmw so what to do after 12th i want to be deck cadet officer may i do bsc(nautical science) or diploma in nautical science plz help me i am very thankful to you i am currently studying in class 12 with cbse board and plz suggest me some best colleges to do the course you prefer

  6. Hello sir,
    I have completed my diploma in mechanical engineering and now want to get into merchant navy . I want to do DME course . Which is the best college ? And what factors should be considered while selecting a good college . Please suggest me the best college.
    Thanking you in anticipation,
    Rajas K. Bahadkar

  7. Hello Shubham,
    How are you? I am praduman and I am currently studying marine engineering in MANET, Pune.
    There has always been a question in my head, that keeps me striking as a nightmare, the thing is that someone told me about this thing that you need to pay money somewhere around 2 lacs to 5 lacs to get a job in merchant navy. I guess they were talking about agents. Is that true and also what do you do after your contract with a company has ended?
    Thank you very much.

    • Hi Praduman,
      You will come across job opportunities as per institute’s repute and its industry connections. There is no involvement of agents whatsoever.
      Once onboard and when you have successfully completed the tenure of your contract, you will get some time to unwind and relax back at home. In the coming couple of weeks, your employer will ask for your next date of availability for your next contract.
      Please do not take services of any agents for employment for your own safety and well being.

  8. HI SIR
    Can you plz tell me what is the best choice to join merchant navy as an engineer or officer .. and which one has better scope ?


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