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Careers at sea

The British Shipping industry can offer you an adventurous lifestyle packed with exciting career prospects.

Sailing the world’s oceans  is not a job for the faint hearted. To succeed  you’ll need to combine technical skill with a range of robust personal qualities.

To become a merchant seafarer in the UK you need to embark upon an education and training course to achieve professional seafaring certification and educational qualifications. This takes place at sea – onboard shipping companies’ vessels – and in specialist colleges and universities throughout the UK. All programmes are sponsored, with course fees paid, living costs and other allowances provided. 

Ships are a ‘University of the Sea’, and during your course you will develop your seafaring skills and knowledge to enable you to fulfill your potential. You can enjoy a full career on board commercial ships, or you can move ashore and put your skills to use in the maritime sector. If you’re keen to gain academic and professional qualifications, experience a unique lifestyle – and satisfy your taste for adventure – a career in British shipping could be just what you’re looking for.

Ships carry over 80% of world trade and sea-borne trade is forecast to increase substantially by 2015. The ‘Merchant Navy’ is the collective term for the commercial shipping industry. 
The British merchant fleet operates worldwide and includes: 

  • Some of the most prestigious cruise companies in the world 
  • Containerships carrying a variety of cargo 
  • Modern and high-tech ferries carrying 40 million passengers per year 
  • High-quality oil, gas and chemical tankers of all sizes 
  • Modern bulk carriers carrying ores, grain and coal 
  • Specialised vessels, including support for the offshore oil and gas industry. 


Navigation (desk ) officer
As a deck officer you’ll be a vital member of the ship’s management team, and with the prospect of sophisticated and expensive vessels, valuable cargo or passengers in your charge, it’s a big responsibility. While on duty (called a ‘watch’), it will be down to you to make decisions on steering and manoeuvering the ship, controlling navigation and communications. Using the latest technological systems, you’ll have control at your fingertips. In port you’ll be responsible for cargo handling and ship stability. As a senior navigation (deck) officer, you’ll be a leading member of a small team of skilled, professional seafarers. You’ll direct and supervise the work of your team – maintaining the ship and its equipment at optimum efficiency. 

What qualities will you need? 
You’ll need to be decisive, calm and able to inspire confidence in others. You’ll be a good team member with an interest in technology, mathematical ability and good written and verbal communication skills. Beyond this, confidence, enthusiasm an and  self-reliance are essential attributes.

Engineering Officer
As an engineer officer, you’ll operate and maintain all the mechanical and electrical equipment throughout the ship. You’ll be responsible for power generation and distribution systems and for other equipment such as lifts, refrigeration plant and pumping and ventilation systems. Via a bank of high-tech instrumentation, you’ll monitor mechanical, electrical, hydraulic and control 
equipment, and have charge of computer controlled engine management systems. You’ll overhaul and maintain equipment throughout the ship, where your engineering problem-solving skills will be your greatest asset. At sea, if equipment goes wrong you can’t just pull in to the nearest garage! It will be up to you to diagnose the fault, get the equipment dismantled, repaired and reassembled and back into operation. As a senior engineer officer, you’ll lead a team of professional engineering personnel and supervise their work at sea and in port. 

What qualities will you need? 
You’ll need to be practical, resourceful and have a real interest in mechanical, electrical and electronic systems. Like deck officers, you’ll be decisive, calm and able to inspire confidence in others. Good written and verbal communication skills are required. Beyond this you’ll need to be prepared to learn about new technology and adapt your skills to its use

Electro-Technical Officer
As Electro-Technical Officer (ETO) you’ll ensure that the wide range of electronic and electrical equipment onboard is maintained and in optimum working order.This role will ensure your problem solving skills will be utilised on equipment as diverse as the main propulsion motors and communication systems. The complexity and variety on vessels with various electronic equipment will ensure a fresh technical challenge each week.As well as your maintenance skills, this role will require you to monitor all electrical equipment on board to maximise the operational safety and efficiency of the vessel.

What qualities will you need?
You’ll need to be practical, resourceful and have an interest in electrical and electronic control and power systems. Good mathematical, written and verbal communication skills are required along with practical trouble shooting and good team working skills.


Trainee Officers
All Officer candidates should apply direct to shipping companies for details of recruitment and training and for the availability of sponsorship. Please see the accompanying list of sponsoring companies. The list is also available at 

You may apply to more than one company to check out different offers and seek sponsorship. You do not need to wait for your academic results before applying as recruitment may be possible anything up to one year in advance of your beginning the course and there are usually two entry dates August/September and January.

The sponsoring company will arrange your college or university admission and you do not need to apply for your degree course through UCAS. If you do gain entry through UCAS you will then need to apply to the shipping and training companies for sponsorship. 


All courses start with a residential phase at a nautical college or university. This is designed to enable you to work safely at sea. The next phase is at sea. As a trainee navigation (deck) officer, you’ll be developing practical navigation, seamanship and other ship operation skills. In the engineering department, qualified engineering officers will help you put your college theory into practice. After this, you will alternate between shore-based studies and work at sea, where you’ll be given greater responsibility as your course progresses. The course typically lasts between three/four years. Further training and experience as a qualified deck or engineer officer will enable you to achieve the qualifications needed to sail as Captain (i.e. Master, in overall command) or as Chief Engineer Officer (in overall charge of engineering and technical services). Typically these top-level qualifications take around a further five to six years to achieve, although promotion will depend upon the company you work for and the types of ship it operates.

Ratings are the support staff on board who work under the guidance of the officers in operating the ship. They are skilled seafarers who work in both the deck and engine departments and form an important part of the team. Other ratings work in the catering department involved in a variety of catering services onboard, including preparing and serving food for the crew or, in passenger ships, for both passengers and crew. Some ships also employ ratings in communications jobs on board.

As a Deck rating you’ll assist with the operation and maintenance of the deck equipment such as the winches for the mooring ropes and the cargo cranes. You’ll undertake the “fabric maintenance”  of the ship ensuring that it not only looks smart but is also protected against the wear and tear effects of the weather. In port you’ll be involved with the cargo operations – loading and unloading the ship. As a Deck rating you are also part of the mooring operations team. Once at sea as a suitably qualified rating you will steer the ship and also act as look out on the bridge.

As an Engineering rating you’ll work on the day to day monitoring and maintenance of the equipment in the engine room and also anywhere else on the ship, such as the steering gear. You’ll be involved in cleaning, lubricating and assisting with stripping, repairing and fitting new or refurbished parts under direction by engineer officers. 

As a Catering rating you’ll perform a variety of jobs as well as being cook or cook/steward – such as forming part of emergency response teams involved in firefighting, security and passenger control or rescue duties.

What do I need to do to become a rating? 
To train as a rating you will need to be over 16, in good health and able to meet the seafarers medical and eyesight requirements. There are no set minimum academic requirements for entry, however to progress in your career you will need to have the potential to obtain your professional rating qualifications and would be expected to have 3 GCSE’s/Scottish Standard Grades. 

If you have the ambition and ability it is possible to progress from rating to officer rank by undertaking further training.Only a small number of companies offer places for rating training so there are relatively fewer opportunities to use this as a route of entry to the industry. 

Which qualifications will I get? 
Deck Ratings

To become a Deck rating Grade 2 you will need to undertake safety and professional training, serve the required seatime and obtain your Navigational Watch Rating certificate. With further seatime you may then sail as a Deck rating Grade 1. Once you have sufficient sea service you may also take the Efficient Deck Hand examination and the Certificate of Proficiency in Survival Craft and Rescue Boats and may then be awarded an Able Seaman Certificate.

Engineer Ratings
Engineer ratings can obtain the Engine-Room Watch Rating Certificate after undertaking the required seatime, professional and safety training.

Catering Ratings
Cooks can obtain the MCA Certificate of Competency as Ship’s Cook. Other qualifications are non marine and are those associated with the preparation, cooking and serving of food as issued by the catering industry in general.

Hotel and Cartering, hospitality and support services
Modern cruise ships and passenger ferries are run on the lines of a large hotel, so a whole range of hotel and catering, hospitality and support services is needed on board. There are jobs for pursers/receptionists, restaurant and bar staff, housekeepers, cruise directors, entertainers, hairdressers, beauticians, photographers, retail and childcare staff, to name just a few. 

In all these functions you’ll be providing services to passengers on a daily basis. You’ll need a bright personality, an efficient manner and a sincere commitment to providing top quality customer service. 

Specific roles vary from company to company but generally prior qualifications and experience in the hotel, catering or hospitality industry are necessary. 

You will need to contact the individual cruise or ferry companies direct for further details on entry requirements and application procedures. There is a range of useful books about working on cruise ships in particular – check out your local library or do an internet search.


All Ratings candidates should apply direct to shipping companies for details of recruitment and  training, however the opportunities for Ratings are limited. 

All candidates must be at least 16 years old. 

All seafarers are required by law to meet standards of medical fitness and eyesight laid down by the Department for Transport (DfT) and must pass a medical examination carried out by a doctor approved by the DfT in order to obtain a certificate attesting to their fitness. Details of the medical examination and a list of approved doctors can be found on the MCA website:

Hotel and catering, Hospitality and Support Services
You will need to contact individual cruise or ferry companies direct for further details on entry requirements and application procedures. Specific roles vary from company to company but generally prior qualifications and experience in hotel, catering or hospitality work are necessary


Initial training will enable you to operate safely on board. Then you’ll join your first ship to gain practical sea-going experience. Allowing for leave, it will take some 12 to 18 months to complete the training and achieve ratings’ qualifications. You can progress from rating to officer status through a “conversion” course to gain the Officer of the Watch Certificate of Competency

Opportunatlies Ashore

British seafarer standards are highly regarded throughout the world and your qualifications are internationally recognised, so there need be no limit to your ambitions. Many seafarers spend their whole career at sea whilst others choose to advance their career ashore either in shipping companies or in a host of other marine industries or sectors where their skills and experience are in great demand. 

Typical shore-based work includes: 

  • ship management and fleet operations 
  • surveying ships to check seaworthiness 
  • ports and harbour management, and pilotage 
  • lecturers in colleges - training the seafarers of the future 
  • maritime regulatory authorities 
  • ship repair and marine equipment production management 
  • marine insurance 
  • ship broking and finance 
  • ship classification 
  • maritime law and arbitration 
  • a range of opportunities in offshore exploration.


Sponsorship for the courses is widely available from shipping and training companies. Your course fees will be paid and you will receive a training allowance. You’ll need to apply direct to shipping companies or training organisations for details of recruitment and the availability of sponsorship.See for the list of sponsoring organisations.

Lifestyle at Sea
The first thing to realise is that you’re about to embark on a world-class programme. You will develop professional and management skills that will be of value throughout your working life. No matter what kind of vessel you join you’re about to experience life in a completely different way. So where could you work?

The British shipping industry comprises some 1500 ships that trade worldwide. Once qualified you could work aboard any type of ship, anywhere in the world, from a small coastal vessel to a huge passenger ship, roll-on roll-off ferry, cargo vessel, offshore support vessel or supertanker, or aboard a Royal Fleet Auxiliary vessel supporting the Royal Navy at sea.

Ships operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week. On board your daily working routine will usually be four hours on duty (which is called being ‘on watch’) and eight hours ‘off.’ Your lifestyle at sea will depend on the type and trading pattern of your ship. But whatever type of ship you are on, you’ll have the opportunity to study, pursue leisure interests and socialise with your colleagues on board. Your living conditions are clearly very important.

You’ll find the food and accommodation on board is excellent, and some ships have single cabins and en-suite facilities. Off duty activities vary depending on the type of vessel, but many ships have various leisure facilities – and they’re all free. Holidays, pay, welfare and benefits vary from company to company, but are generally very good. For example, after a voyage lasting four months, you could get two months holiday or more

  • Date published: 27th November 2015