Merchant Mariners


Education and Training Requirements

High School

Mathematics and physics courses are good training for a number of nautical activities. Computer science will prepare you for the increasing use of high technology at sea, and physical education will get you in shape for the sometimes strenuous work on a ship.

Postsecondary Training

Most deck officers and engineers have a bachelor's degree from a merchant marine academy. Non-officers do not typically have baccalaureate degrees. These workers prepare for the field by participating in on-the-job training that lasts from several months to a year.

A good way to fulfill educational requirements and also learn about the various types of shipboard work is to attend one of the following maritime schools that are recognized by the U.S. Maritime Administration:

  • California Maritime Academy (https://www.csum.edu)
  • Great Lakes Maritime Academy (https://www.nmc.edu/maritime)
  • Maine Maritime Academy (https://mainemaritime.edu)
  • Maritime College at the State University of New York (http://www.sunymaritime.edu)
  • Massachusetts Maritime Academy (https://www.maritime.edu)
  • Texas A&M Maritime Academy (https://www.tamug.edu/corps)
  • U.S. Merchant Marine Academy (https://www.usmma.edu)

Unions such as American Maritime Officers and the Seafarers International Union-Atlantic, Gulf, Lakes and Inland Waters, AFL-CIO also offer training.

Most students at these schools are required to take courses in computer science, English, history, math, biological sciences, and social sciences. To be accepted to a maritime academy, a good scholastic achievement record and test scores are important. Also considered are extracurricular activities, character and personality, and leadership potential. To attend the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, students must be nominated by a U.S. congressperson.

Certification, Licensing, and Special Requirements

Certification or Licensing

Mariners on board most ships must have two credentials: a Transportation Worker Identification Credential (TWIC, issued by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security) and a Merchant Mariner Credential (MMC, issued only by the Coast Guard). Mariners who work on ships that are traveling on the open ocean must have the Standards of Training, Certification, and Watchkeeping (STWC) endorsement, which is training that the reginoal offices of the U.S. Coast Guard provides. All officers and captains must be licensed by the U.S. Coast Guard. To obtain the rank of captain, chief mate, or second mate, an applicant must hold documentary evidence of being a U.S. citizen. All must pass certain U.S. Public Health Service physical exams, a written examination, and U.S. Coast Guard regulations regarding years of service and size of vessel on which the applicant served. Deck officers must have full knowledge of navigation, cargo handling, and all deck department operations. The captain must have good judgment and must know admiralty law, foreign pilots' rules, and trends in world trade.

Applicants for positions of chief engineer and first, second, and third assistant must show evidence of citizenship and pass health and written exams. To fulfill experience requirements, an applicant must have graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy, U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, or U.S. Coast Guard Academy or have combined education with experience in very specified areas. Engineers must have full knowledge of diesel engines and marine boilers. Chief engineers usually have college engineer training or the equivalent.

Unlicensed crew in the deck department must show proof of a job to obtain a merchant mariner's document from the U.S. Coast Guard. They may not sail without this document. After a required one-year minimum period of service, ordinary seamen may apply to the Coast Guard for a license as an able seaman. After three years they may secure unlimited endorsement as able seamen. An able seaman must hold an endorsed merchant mariner document, pass a physical exam, and pass either an oral or a written exam of knowledge of shipping and seamanship. Crew working in the steward's department must carry a certificate from a medical officer of the U.S. Public Health Service.

To be eligible to serve as a deck, engine, or radio officer, a seaman must have a license issued by the U.S. Coast Guard. Radio operators must have a first- or second-class radiotelegraph operator's license issued by the Federal Communications Commission. Further, they must pass a written exam on such subjects as laws regulating communications at sea, radio and telegraph operating practices, message traffic routing, and radio navigational aids.

Other Requirements

Depending on the certification, candidates may be required to show proof of citizenship and to pass physical and health examinations. Research and explore the different jobs available to merchant mariners to learn what requirements you must fulfill to qualify for these positions.

Experience, Skills, and Personality Traits

No experience is needed for many non-officer positions, but those with prior work experience will increase their chances of landing a job, getting promoted, and possibly earning higher pay. Captains and other officers must obtain experience by attending a maritime academy or by working as a member of the deck crew for at least three years.

Ultimately, merchant mariners must like to work on board water vessels. If you have ambitions of becoming a captain or an officer, you'll need a sense of leadership, good academic standing, and determination, as competition for jobs is strong. Engineers must have a desire to work with the vessel's operating machinery. Alternatively, deckhands and steward crew should be willing to do more general work. Naturally, the cooks and bakers should enjoy working in the kitchen. Newly hired deckhands usually learn their skills on the job.