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10 Unwritten merchant navy rules for seafarers sailing for the first time

What to include in the checklist before joining your first shipThere is a list. A list of treasured ‘Primeros’ – the firsts. Everybody has one. For example- A new born child’s first is his ‘cry’. A woman first’s child bestows her with motherhood. An Olympian cherishes his first gold – First love, First job, first wife (hopefully last too) and more. There are plenty of them. I intend to concentrate on the ‘job’ part. A seafarer’s job.

A sailor’s job isn’t like any other job. It is tricky to draw an analogy to explain the work we do and to describe the time we spent on board a ship. You have to see it yourself, do it first hand to understand our work.

Even if one gets all the training available ashore, nothing prepares one more than an actual trip on board. The first ship one joins as a trainee gives him/her an opportunity for abundant learning and an experience that etches for a lifetime.

It isn’t that life ashore is distasteful to me. But life at sea is better.”
– Sir Francis Drake

These pointers are not part of a checklist which you are ‘required’ to follow. These are from solid ‘experience’. These will help you get a good start and settled in. The rest is of course up to you. How you take it from there.

10 things to do on your first ship


  1. Smile and Greet
  2. Documentation and safety gears
  3. By the clock
  4. Safety First. Follow rules.
  5. Listen and understand instructions carefully, any doubt – Ask | Reporting after job
  6. Offer help to others
  7. Socializing after work hours – different nationalities, different gender
  8. Shore leave
  9. Careful with drug and alcohol policy and sexual harassment policy
  10. Productive in free time

Let’s deep dive into each of these.

1. Smile and Greet

I must say – the first walk up the gangway is quite intimidating. Leaving your home far away, reaching a foreign shore and seeing that ‘giant’ docked right in front of you. Well, who would not be nervous?

I would urge you to have all those cold thoughts in your head and smother them with a warm smile when you meet people on board for the first time. Greet them. In fact, make it a habit. It will help you a long way in your career.

2. Documentation and Safety gears

Once you are on board, your first ‘person to go to’ will be Captain/Chief Officer. He will guide you through all paper work needed to officially sign-you-on the ship.

Next, you will receive you safety gears such as – boiler suits, safety shoes, safety helmet, gloves, goggles, ear protectors. You need to don safety gears whenever you are in your workspace. It is mandatory and is meant for your own safety.

Further, a designated officer will carry out your shipboard safety familiarization which will include but not limited to – locating and learning use of emergency and lifesaving equipment.

You are not authorized to take up any work on board unless you have completed your documentation, have the safety gears needed to take up on board tasks and have completed your familiarization.

3. By the clock

Discipline is synonymous with sailors. We strongly value time and always work by the clock. The work hours and meal timings are fixed. We have a pre-worked out schedule for ‘At sea’ days and ‘Port’ days and we value it. Thumb Rule – always reach 5-10 minutes early – wherever you need to be.

That being said, there can always be emergencies such as – injury to personnel, equipment break-down, etc. Our primary job is to contribute towards keeping the ship sea-worthy without compromising the safety aspects. Hence, we improvise on the schedule accordingly.

4. Safety First. Follow rules.

Your pre-sea training must have sufficiently equipped you with the knowledge of all the rules and regulations that govern the shipping industry. Now that you are at sea, its time to make sense of these rules. What rule is applied where and how. The safety aspects from these rules (SOLAS, MARPOL, etc) should be your primary learning.

Hone it further with the rest of the details (design, operation, maintenance). As a cadet / trainee, it is expected that you are curious, hard-working, and have a ‘safety first’ attitude.

5. Listen and understand instructions carefully, any doubt –Ask; Reporting after job

This is something to do with habit. Ship is a new environment for you. You are young, excited and trying to learn all you can. On the contrary, you may be home sick and your head is wandering away- a dangerous situation.

Please understand, the ship has a hazardous environment and you have to be careful with your assigned tasks. Your mistakes can not only hurt you but also put your fellow crew members at risk.

Most people do not listen with the intent to understand, they listen with the intent to reply.
– Stephen R. Covey

Always listen and understand the work instructions carefully. The work plan, safety aspects, emergency procedure in case of any anomaly – all these should be well understood before starting any job. Any doubt you have before starting the job or during the job must be addressed by the supervisor. Take it up with him.

Further, once the job is finished or work hours for the day have ended, always report back to the supervisor on the status of the job. This will earn you credibility. People will see that you have a sense of responsibility for a task undertaken.

6. Offer help to others

It is not something that needs to be told. We all are or work towards being good samaritans. However, it is necessary that I put in my two cents on this attribute.

Ships are always on tight schedules and by minimal number of people. Every rank on board has a specific job to do. We do not interfere in each other’s work but we do assist and help out each other. Due to constraint on the number people on board, we cannot really afford to spoil or fail in our tasks.

If human failure happens, someone else has to take up the job and complete it successfully. This person now has 2 jobs – his and the failed one. He has to do this extra work and is not feeling good.

As you will realize in days to come, life at sea is really hectic and all that solitude can turn you really grumpy. On top of that, if one has to do other’s work – it becomes a fine recipe for social discord. Hence, I strongly advice you – avoid creating jobs for others.

Moreover, actually, try to take burden off other’s shoulders. You will be surprised to see the warm and friendly gestures you will get in return. Even your learning curve will see a bump of wisdom arising from all the hands on skills the old timers will teach you from their years of experience.

7. Socializing after work hours – different nationalities, different gender

Ship is your bureau and your BnB. The work is not going anywhere and so are the people. Socialize with your fellow crew members. There are many items provided on board by ship owner for welfare of the crew. Items, such as- ping pong, dart board, karaoke, gymnasium, flat screen television with a stereo system and good collection of movies and more.

Based on your interest, choose an activity and indulge. These rendezvous will also serve as an opportunity to share stories with people from different geography and culture. It will give a good sense of worldliness.

Fun fact: Iranians are really friendly people and Croatians are amazing people to party with. I learned this when I was sailing on board with them.

8. Shore leave

The fantasy of every wannabe sailor. In fact, most of the time it is the second objective (after the ‘dough’ of course) behind taking up this profession- ‘Join merchant navy and travel the world’ – even friends and family go by this perception.

Well, you might not always get to live your fantasy. It depends on ship type, volume of work on a ship, mentality of your superiors on board, country you are visiting and other factors. Nevertheless, as a trainee, you still have better chance of visiting different places as the ship moves around, see the world. A few tips to follow while visiting a foreign country –

  1. Always ask for your boss’s (person direct in-charge) permission before you leave.
  2. As a trainee, never go to a shore leave alone. At least have one person with you.
  3. Always have your passport (at least photo copy), shore leave pass, ship’s contact number and designated local agent contact number on you when you leave the ship.
  4. Consumption of alcohol ashore and carriage of alcohol back to the ship is prohibited. Stay away from that mess, else you will lose your job.
  5. Remember to ask the jetty number/reference number of the spot where your ship is docked and name of the area you are at while you sign out and leave the terminal.
  6. Bring some local food item for the gangway watch, engine room and deck if you can. You were able to enjoy some off time ashore because someone was watching out on board on your behalf. Have that sense of belonging and bring them something (food is the best option).


9. Careful with drug and alcohol policy and sexual harassment policy.

This is a standard practice in every company. With frequent accidents and commercial losses and tighter international regulations coming into picture, most standard companies have brought the alcohol consumption on board to nada.

Prescription drugs are accepted with doctor’s decree and there is limitation of type of over the counter medicines you can carry (India is more liberal, the international acceptance on these is what counts). Any other form of drug is strictly prohibited on board.

Sexual harassment policy is there to protect all gender on board. Sexual harassment includes but is not limited to – passing sexual remarks, asking for sexual favours, inappropriate touching, forcing oneself on another, etc.

Incidents like these are lesser heard of but the policy is there for a reason. Be alert and don’t be afraid. If you feel anything out of line, inform your superior or your Captain or your employer onshore immediately, depending on who is the culprit. Your safety is of utmost importance on board. No compromises on that.

10. Productive in free time.

As a trainee, you would lucky to find free time on board. If that is the case, I would advise to not let that time slip away. Here are a few suggestions.

Reading is a good habit you can inculcate in your free time. Every ship has a library to help you with technical and regulatory material on how the ship does everything it does.

If ship textbooks saturate you, there are fiction and non-fiction books available in ship’s recreation room. Even your fellow crew members carry volumes of data on their hard drives with lots and lots of e-books. Ask them. Then there is the fun of learning new language. Here again, your fellow crew members from different nationalities will be of assistance.

Further, there are more activities like learning karaoke or setting physical fitness goals and exercising hard to achieve them. There so much you can do. Of course, sleeping and binge-watching is what your heart will tell you to do.

Find a balance between your heart and your mind and get on with it.

I wanted freedom, open air, adventure. I found it on the sea.
― Alain Gerbault, Sailor

P.S. The contents of this write up are applicable to first timers and serving sailors alike. Veteran merchant sailors! Did you find the list exhaustive? Help the community by adding your views and any more pointers in the comments below.

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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.

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