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What do Merchant Navy officers do? A peek inside the job description

Merchant Navy Officer - Job Description

It’s the happy hours. I was early and excited, after all, I was meeting Rishi and Ashima after 2 years. The ambience of the pub reminded me of a place I had been to, near the port of Rotterdam. The last voyage at sea was a long one with so many cheerful memories. My finishing gulp of Mojito was disrupted by a hard tap on my shoulder. Off came the burst of mint drink through my lips and lay on the table.

“Who is that! @#$%# ”. Rishi and Ashima had their burst of laughter. “ Sorry Mate, Did not mean to. Are you alright? “. “Of course, you did not. @#$“, I replied and hugged them.

“Sorry, we are so late. I tell you, these bosses should be sent to the Himalayas at least for an year. They can have their peace of mind and pass on at least a fraction of that to us.”Ashima grunted.

I grinned back and said, “You could always switch to this side. Work on contract basis for four to six months. Every new contract has a new boss. Problem solved.”She sulked more.

“However”, I said, “For those four to six months there is a good possibility you will be spending the same amount of time with your boss you would have spent here at your office”.I was grinning more already.

“You have been at sea for so long. You must be having so many stories to tell. Tell me, how did it all start? how did it feel when you joined the ship for your first voyage ever? How were your days at sea? Tell me, I always wanted to hear those stories”asked Rishi.

I shifted my eyes and started scanning back to good old days when it all began.“

Well, I started off as a junior engineer. My first was a container ship. It was on this ship that I sailed across the Pacific Ocean for the first time from Japan to Panama. A good thirteen days voyage including crossing the International Date Line which makes you skip a day in your life. Rishi was feeling amused already.

I used to wake up every day around 0600 hrs. Drag myself off the bed, slide the curtain, watch the sun and the sea, a deep breath and get ready in that uniform of mine. White shirt with epaulettes and dark blue trousers.

It is mandatory for juniors to be in uniform once they step out of their cabin. Paratha or scrambled eggs were the choices for breakfast. One can’t be too choosy on a vessel with multinational crew in open waters. On ship the meal timings are fixed. It is an expected decorum of things. However, you can visit the pantry day and night for those noodles and ice creams.

By 0715H, I used to be in the officer’s changing room to put on the yellow boiler suit and other safety gears. Being in the engine department, donning the boiler suit, safety – helmet, gloves, goggles, shoes and ear muffs is the basic safety standard.

I used to reach the Engine Control Room by 0730H for the Work Planning Meeting. Usually Second Engineer (second in command in Engine department) heads it. We would discuss the day’s work to be undertaken. What motor has burnt and needs repair, what cooler needs cleaning, what pump needs overhaul. Stuff like that.

Also, who is going to take which job, who will need an extra hand was decided upon. The safe work permits, transfer checklist were discussed with the involved personnel.

Next sign offs, promotions and shore recreational visits were also given their due 5 minutes. I was usually asked to be with a fourth Engineer, to assist and learn as it was my next rank to be.

Other than the regular and break down jobs, there is the concept of Watch-keeping on board ships. Watch-keeping applies to both, the engine and navigation department.

Watch keepers are people who ensure safe voyage amid the precarious weather and sea traffic in open waters, people who ensure uninterrupted power, propulsion, water, etc to fuel the ship, its cargo and its people safely from port A to port B.


In the engine department, out of the four engineers namely – Chief, Second, Third, Fourth – the latter three do watch keeping on board.

Coming back to work planning meeting. Out of the three engineers at least one is on watch keeping. He will ensure safe, efficient operation and readiness of the machinery. The other two will be engaged in planned and break down maintenance jobs as discussed during the work planning.

The temperature in the engine room used to be soaring at 45+ deg. C and the noise will be at its usual roaring level. I assisted in organising the tools and spares, cleaning and other odd jobs as required.

A tea break used to appear between 1000H – 1030H and a lunch break between 1200H – 1300H. The break timings were seldom consumed by the work at hand. There was another tea break between 1500H-1530H which served the purpose of reviewing the day’s work and decide upon the next day’s job. Headed by the Captain, the review meeting had senior officers, safety officers and senior ratings as participants.

1700H the work used to end for the day, however, the watch keeping officer was on continuous duty for the day and following night and keeps a check on running machinery. He used to do two thorough inspections of the Engine room and essential ship’s safety/fire fighting equipment at 1600H and 2100H.

Thereafter, he switched the Engine Room to Unmanned Machinery Space (UMS) mode. This is an electronic setting( with accessible panels in all important public places) available on most merchant ship these days which lets the watch keeping engineer have the engine room remotely under his supervision.

In case of any fault/abnormality in the engine room, the UMS electronic panel raises an audible alarm alerting the engineer of the problem. He even has a panel in his personal cabin letting him acknowledge the fault in the night hours and reach the Engine Room to address the problem.

As the second engineer was my assigned mentor on board, on his watch keeping days, I used to go for inspections with him, learning from him as much as I can.

Weekdays were hectic and tiring. Work hours used to get extended more often. It was a solid learning experience. After getting off from work somewhere between 1700H to 1800H (on a good day), I used to rush to my cabin, clean up, put on the uniform with epaulettes and reach for dinner.

Dinner is early on a ship, between 1800H to 1900H. A customary stroll to the Crew smoke room followed. This is was the best hour or two I got to interact with the people on board. We had a multinational setup, a total of 4 nationalities on board at that time. I used to hear their stories, their culture. I reciprocated with mine.

It used to get amusingly embarrassing sometimes as they used to pull my leg for I was the most junior one around – the one with the least sea experience. A sailor has abundant wit and humour, I found out in those interactions.

By 2100H, I would be lingering around the computer / satellite phone room. More than often, the third Engineer used to be on phone with his girlfriend. He was really nice and would let me call home from his calling card. A calling card used to cost US$ 50 and lasted for 55 minutes.  Thus, on most days, I would stick to emails.

2200H to 0000H was the time I was already in my cabin, finishing a bit of training book and dozing myself off to sleep listening to Coldplay.

Weekends were different. Actually, we had the luxury of do-as-we-like weekends only at open sea. Safety checks, alarms and emergency equipment checks were rigorously done, which was not possible during the week.

Drills were held to prepare us against the dangers a ship at sea faces – Fire, Piracy, Man overboard, Oil Spill to name a few. This was all the day’s work and the evenings were to make merry. Saturday evenings beamed with recreation and leisure activities – dips in the swimming pool, karaoke, cakes, dancing, bingo bets, poker and so on. Sundays were off (except for watch keepers of the day).

An amusing fact – There is an unsaid practice I found out which crudely applies to any merchant ship with an Indian Captain. Biryani for Lunch on Sundays. No matter what ship, what company or what part of the world you are in. More so, my count-down included the number of biryanis left before I will sign off from the ship.

Well, Rishi, I guess you would have got the idea by now.” with a sly smile I looked back at him. He smiled back.

“Dude, it feels like a different setup. A different world out there. Though, I would want more details on the weekend ‘leisure’ activities part. Port visits, you missed out on the port visits. What are they like, what all you get to see and…?” Ashima spoke this time with a streak of excitement.

“Well, it is truly a different world. More on leisure activities and port visits some other time. I am starving and you guys didn’t let me finish my drink either. Let us order something”, I said.

“How about lamb Biriyani?” Rishi smirked. We all did.
Related post: Merchant Navy problems: Life of a Marine Engineer
Image credit: Shubham Somani

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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.

17 thoughts on “What do Merchant Navy officers do? A peek inside the job description”

  1. Thank you for writing about your experience . I read both of your articles and they were both good .I really liked the fact that you respond to all questions.
    I had few doubts related to this which I think many men will be having.
    I’m Currently in 12th standard and I’m a good in academics as in I can score 70 -80 easily in 12th .I want to get into TMI and as you said earlier you were once in TMI ,I would like to know is getting into TMI hard ? There are no sample papers as it is conducted online so my best shot would be asking you. I’m going for bsc nautical science, Can you tell me this also that what is the exact course duration , I think its 3 year college degree then 1 year training on ship right, When you were in TMI how were the placements ? Did most students got placements in most of the years . I couldn’t get all this information anywhere I hope you’ll understand as I have to build my career . And at last I would like your opinion in the question,Is this career worth right now , Cause I don’t want to end up unemployed at all . Thank you

    • Hi Ashish, Sorry for the delayed response. TMI is one of the best private institutes to pursue a degree course in marine engineering or nautical science. As you are food in academics, I am sure you must be gearing up to prepare for other entrance exams too. The entrance test to TMI is not hard as such and your preparation for other possible academic aptitude test should prepare you well for the test. I have noticed there has been some administrative changes feom this year in the selection procedure and the type of degree awarded. the Institute is accepting IMUCET scores too now. B Sc. Nautical Science used to be B.S. in Nautical Technology. It is a 3 year programme + 1 year at sea ( owing to the recent changes would strongly suggest drop a email to the institute for further clarification). Instiute’s FAQ page does spread the word about placements/internships and expected incumbent salary. A word from an alumnus – Institute has a solid reputation in the shipping industry. Keep your grades good, get involved in the ever going projects at the Institute. You will never have difficulty finding a job through Campus recruitment.

  2. Hi sir, I have completed my degree in computer science and engineering. Now I have planned to do one year diploma in nautical science. Because I’m very much interested to work in onboard ship. But I’m 26 years old. Is it possible to do the course?

  3. Sir
    I want to take admission in b-tech marine engineering for join merchant navy .
    I do enquiry for this course in all 30 dg shipping approved institutes which conducts this programme .
    And all the colleges asked me for a placement charges around 2-3 lack for placement after completing the course.
    Without paying money we can’t get the placement by the college !!
    So what is this all rubbish – donation and all things
    Please comment??
    And sir if actual fee of b tech is 2 lac per year then for sponsored b tech programme fee is 2.5+ lac pet year .
    So we pay 2lac more fee .
    This 2 lac also a placement charge.
    Please comment your views and experience with us ..
    Thank you

    • Hi Shubham,
      What is your source of list of DG approved institutes ?
      The institutes you reached out to, Did they share the information about the unscrupulous placement charge officially?
      Please beware of these institutes.
      To choose a B.Tech. in Marine Engineering course. Look for colleges which are affiliated to Indian Maritime University or a reputed private university and AICTE + DG shipping approved.
      Taking up course merely on DG shipping approval will hurt your future prospects of pursuing higher studies in India and abroad.
      About the placement fee – It is a legal practice. Institutes are allowed to charge a reasonable percentage of tution fees as placement fee. This is applicable to at least all AICTE approved institutes. In general, the fee amount runs into couple of thousands(as per latest National Fee committee report it is 1% of tution fee or Rs. 1000/- , whichever is higher)
      Hope this helps.

  4. Honestly shubham sir , it’s an fabulous and inspiring article i was always fascinated about a career in merchant Navy and my more interest had been developed now well it’s my 12th this year and soon I be going for an IMU CET well sir wanna know is it a good idea to go for it and could u please suggest what I can do further I have a bit knowledge but I want expert advise too to have a complete successful career in this field.

    • Hi Swati,
      Glad you liked the write-up. Working on high seas is quite fascinating, Indeed. IMU CET is the right way to go. There has been a flood of training institutes in India now. Choose your institute carefully. Check my earlier comments for more details on that. You could opt for either Engineering or Navigation course based on your interests. The question you might ponder over is – how?.. how to figure your interest as this a very
      un-contemporary career choice and not much has been written and told to give you a feel of what its like to be an engineer or a navigator.
      What I can tell you is – engineering side is more physically challenging than Navigation department. To get more information is reach out to friends and family and their acquaintances. That should be your best source. At least 4-5 people maybe more from sailing(as officers) background… For all the information you get put in on that scratch pad of yours and make the pros and cons list. It will help. Hope it helps.
      PS: More coming up on Careerizma on how to set your career boat to sail.

    • Hi Ankit,
      It is DG shipping approved and reputed. I have sailed with a fellow engineer from there. Not having a sponsorship should not deter you from taking the course from IMS, Goa, However, once you are at the institute for interview, do interact with students there to find out more. Social media might help too.
      Hope it helps. Good Luck

  5. It’s quite a fascinating life along with great risks but that’s what life is all about…afterall we can’t solve a problem with the same mindset we had while creating them. We need to change and adapt at the end of the day. It’s an admirable career and I wish to join it after I clear off TMISAT as well as IMUCET. It’s all about passion and dedication. 🙂
    Thanks for the write up and sharing your story! 🙂

  6. @ shubham is getting sponsorship easy task ? for dns ?
    and thanks for the valuable time u r giving to enlighten lads like me,.respect n appreciation 🙂

    • Getting Sponsorship is like appearing in an entrance exam. You will have a written test, personal interview and a medical test. It is not that difficult but there can be a lot of competition.

  7. Hi sir
    I completed master degree in digital electronics and communication, having 5 experience as a assistant professor in one of the reputed university. I am really interesting and exiting to join ship job my age is 31. I tried when graduation completed but i dint find good path. please guide me to join ship and enjoy the life with good things.


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