The Merchant Navy FAQ

I’ve been in various sectors of the merchant navy since 1996, in places ranging from Australia to Russia to the Caribbean, and ranks from trainee and deckhand through to Chief Officer.

When I’m ashore, people often ask me about life at sea. This is a collection of answers to the most common questions. The answers are generalisations and include some tongue-in-cheek elements. Because the term “merchant navy” includes a huge variety of ship types, flags and nationalities, there are multiple exceptions to just about every answer.

Landlubber Questions

Is the Merchant Navy the same as the Navy?

No. The merchant navy has colourful ships which carry lots of cargo and very few crew; the crew usually wear overalls, jeans and t-shirts and call each other by first names.

The navy has grey ships which carry lots of lots of people in uniforms who like to salute, and lots of guns. The merchant navy carries cargo, the navy fights wars.

How many crew on your current ship?

17 crew, usually 4–5 riding gang, and sometimes a cadet, if we’re lucky. Riding gang are contractors, in my ship’s case from the Philippines, who come along to do specialised maintenance jobs (professional welders, fitters, electricians, etc.).

Can you access the internet at sea?

Sort of. On the Aussie coast, I use mobile broadband when we’re in mobile range of the coast; at sea we have a satellite internet connection which drops out on certain courses, in certain locations, and in certain weather conditions.

In Chinese ports I can sometimes get a local sim card if I’m willing to put it in my phone.

What exactly is “mobile range of the coast”?

Mobile broadband range is the same as mobile phone range: 10–12 nautical miles from a mobile phone tower with a 3G/4G signal on the appropriate network.

What’s a nautical mile?

1 minute of latitude, 1/60 of a degree, or 1852 metres.

What’s your home port?

Auckland, New Zealand. Oh, you mean the ship. Well, it kind of depends on what you mean by “home port”. It can get a bit complicated.

My previous ship is a good example of how complicated it can get. She was registered (flagged) in Antwerp, Belgium. The ship was owned by a Belgian company operating out of Luxemburg; she was managed by an Indian company, manned by the Australian arm of a Canadian company, and chartered by an Australian company to take ore to China. Does that answer the question?

Which Merchant Navy do you belong to?

Good question. I’ve just spent three hours trying to work out the answer and I’m still struggling.

My employment contract complies with the requirements of Australian law, but I don’t think I’m in the Aussie Merchant Navy. I guess that you could say I’m in the Maltese Merchant Navy, as my current ship is Maltese flagged and the ship complies with Maltese maritime law. I hold a British qualification and I’m in the British union, but that doesn’t mean that I’m in the British Merchant Navy. There aren’t really separate ones for each country — it’s just, “The Merchant Navy,” and it’s international.

Saying, “I’m in the Merchant Navy,” is like saying, “I’m in the medical profession.” If someone were to ask, “Which medical profession?” it’s difficult to formulate a meaningful short answer.

Do you work shifts? What are your hours like?

Yes, we work shifts, although we call them watches. At sea, the day is split into eight watches, each four hours long (known as 4&8). I work 0000–0400 and 1200–1600. Outside of watches, deck officers usually do two to four hours of other work a day, which means that I actually work 0000–0400 and 1030/1130–1800.

In harbour at the loading port, the third mate and I normally work 6 hours on, 6 hours off (known as 6&6) and try to get as much sleep as possible outside our watches, while the chief mate works as required and doesn’t really sleep. At the discharge port, it’s great: we work 8 hours on, 16 hours off, so even with a few drills and some off-watch work, it’s a chance to catch up on sleep every month or two.

Shipping is an interesting industry as our working hours actually aren’t regulated, but our rest hours are: we’re entitled to 10 hours or rest a day during which no scheduled work can be undertaken. Those 10 hours can be split into no more than two periods, one of which must be at least 6 hours in length. That means that we’re allowed to work 98 hours a week of scheduled work. Unscheduled work, on the other hand…

Note: yes, I’m aware it’s more complicated than that. I’m not going to explain the whole thing. Refer to the STCW Code and ITF Rules for the long explanation.

How often do you get to go ashore?

Apart from when I’m on leave (obviously), I generally don’t go ashore. Shore leave for seafarers has been restricted in most ports since 9/11 as we’re considered a terrorist risk; since we’re working 6&6 in harbour, I’m usually too tired to bother even when shore leave is permitted.

No-one in their right mind goes ashore in China, but I can usually find an excuse to get up the road to the supermarket in Wollongong (Australia) the day after I join the ship, to stock up on essentials like soap, toothpaste, vitamin supplements, chocolate and coke for the next few months. There’s nothing worse than running out of soap, toothpaste or chocolate halfway across the Pacific.

What happens if you get sick or injured on board?

Don’t get sick or injured on board. Really, just don’t. Or at least don’t report it to the officers.

We carry a book called, “The Ship Master’s Medical Guide,” which the medical professionals ashore think is good for a laugh but not much else. Armed with that, a radio or satellite phone (to try to talk to a doctor ashore), Dr Google, and four or five days’ training, the captain and deck officers try to fix the crew when they get broken.

If you think you had a bad time at the dentist or doctor, imagine how it would feel if the doctor kept on referring to an instruction book and asking his assistant, “Do you think it looks more like the picture on page 10 or page 11? It says to cut a 2 inch hole just to the right of the belly button. An inch is about 3cm isn’t it? I can’t find the right dosage: just inject him with 1ml, and if he still can’t breathe after that, give him a bit more until he starts breathing again.”

No, I am in no way joking. On-board tooth extractions and appendix removals are the stuff of seafarer nightmares.

How long are you away for?

That varies according to the ship and route. My longest trip away was 36 months; my shortest was 18 hours.

On my current ship, we work a round-trip on and a round-trip off. A round trip takes somewhere between 8 and 22 weeks, but averages out at about 10–14 weeks.

Are there many other women on board?

Er… no. I sailed with a female steward a few years ago, but she quit. I sailed with a female cadet in Ireland in about 2005, but she showed remarkably good judgement and quit too. Most women have more sense than to hang around this sector of the industry. Other industry sectors such as ferries, cruise ships and research vessels have more women.

What’s your favourite thing about your job?

The leave. Seriously, the leave is awesome.

Oh, you mean at sea? Night watch on a moonless night on a sailing ship in the trade winds. Moving quietly through the water under topsails and topgallants, stars down to the horizon, a good sailing breeze about force four or five, two points aft of the beam… I really should get back to the sailing ships sometime.

What’s the food like?

It depends on the company, the cook and the operating area. My current company’s pretty good, although we tend to start running out of fresh stuff after about 6–8 weeks.

I was on one ship where we ended up with scurvy and malnutrition after about 4 months at sea in a war zone, and another where for nine months we lived off pot noodles that we cooked in the engine room because we generally got food poisoning if we ate anything that came out of the galley.

What sort of ship are you on?

At the moment, I’m on what’s known as a capesize bulk carrier. That’s a ship about 300m long that carries about 170 000t of dry bulk cargo. Dry bulk cargo is cargo that is basically dust or lumps (think of ore, coal, grain, etc.)

I have previously worked on sailing ships, ro-pax ferries, container ships, fisheries protection vessels, sailing cruise ships, yachts, coastal tramp ships (dry cargo) and probably a few other categories that slip my mind at the moment.

I’d like to hear about your time under sail — was it paid or volunteer-type?

I’ve done both, at different times. I actually prefer volunteering, but it’s a bit difficult to make a living that way. I tended to volunteer on the youth sail-training ships, and get paid jobs on the passenger ships and those geared towards adults.

On sailing ships, youth tend to give their energy freely, which makes the work seem easy even when it’s not; adults and passengers tend to take energy, which leaves the crew drained at the end of the day. If I’m going to work with energy vampires, I’m going to at least get paid for it!

Do you get your own cabin?

Depends on the ship, but on most cargo ships, it’s common for everyone to have their own cabin; on sailing ships, the lower-ranking crew, trainees and volunteers tend to share cabins.

Where do you go?

My current ship runs from Australia to China.

China? Awesome! I’ve always wanted to go there!

Er…. let’s discuss that face-to-face.

Are you ever scared?

Yes. Of pirates and the crew. Oh, and the port officials and shore workers some countries. Lock your cabin door, sleep with a knife and carry a hatch bar.

That must be exciting!

No, when it’s done right it involves days and days of boredom. It’s only exciting when it goes wrong, and that’s rarely a good thing.

Do you ever get bad weather?

Yes. To preclude the next question, what it’s like depends on the weather, the direction we’re trying to go and whether we’re loaded or in ballast.

Driving the ship into it is worse than running downwind. Large bulk carriers have a nasty record for breaking in half in bad weather, so we usually try not to pound into it too much.

On sailing ships, storms are a great buzz right up to the time the rogue wave smashes the side of your ship in, washes the deckhouse overboard and starts a fire, then it becomes mildly annoying. When you hear a funny noise and wake up to see your work boots floating just below the level of your mattress, then it’s more than mildly annoying.

Do you get seasick?

Yes, but it goes away after a few days as long as I keep working.

What exactly do you do when you’re working?

  • Short answer: I drive.
  • Longer answer: I’m the 2nd mate, so I keep watch (ie. stare out of the window) for 8 hours a day.
  • Longest answer:

There are three main departments on board: deck; engineering; and catering. The deck department is the largest and is responsible for navigation, maintenance of things that aren’t in the engine room, and cargo work. Engineering and catering are pretty self-explanatory, and just as important.

Each deck officer stands a navigational watch, which basically means we’re responsible for not crashing during our watches. That’s mostly achieved by keeping a lookout (yes, we really do get paid to stare out of the window). On top of that, we each have our own specific duties.

As 2nd mate, I’m the navigation officer. That means that I’m responsible for passage planning, everything to do with maintenance of charts, navigational publications and navigational equipment. Since I’m inside a lot more than the 3rd mate (who’s in charge of maintaining all the safety equipment), I tend to get all of the “extra” jobs like safety officer, medical officer, stationery, ship’s money, harbour paperwork, etc. just to stop me from getting bored.

The chief officer is responsible for running the deck department and coordinating the maintenance and cargo operations (he’s the one with all of the headaches).

When are you going to be a captain?

Hopefully never. At my current rank, I can only be punished (ie. gaoled) for my own screw-ups. That seems fair to me. The chief mate, master and chief engineer are considered legally responsible for everyone else’s screw-ups, including those of other ships and the harbour authorities.

I don’t need the extra money, and I definitely don’t need the extra headaches that come with promotion. If you don’t believe me, search the internet for “criminalisation/criminalization of seafarers” for numerous examples.

Do you navigate by the sun and stars and stuff, or do you just use GPS?

Me, or deck officers in general? I do, partly because I’m paranoid and don’t trust the US government (who have been known to turn the signal off when they’re planning to bomb someone — check out the Gulf Wars), partly because I’ve always enjoyed celestial navigation, and partly because I’ve been involved in a few incidents when the ship’s complete electrical system has packed it in for several days at a time (which means that the GPS stops working). Unfortunately, a lot of deck officers can’t be bothered and the maritime colleges in some countries are starting to take celestial navigation out of the curriculum.

Technical Questions

What time source do you rely on for celestial navigation? How accurate does it have to be?

I use a good-quality digital watch, set the time once a month against either a decent GPS or the radio time signal. I know that it loses 1.5 seconds per fortnight, so I allow for that in calculations.

The more accurate the better, in general, but it also depends what you’re doing. For a noon sun sight (meridian passage), +/- 1 minute is fine; for longitude by chronometer, +/- 1s can be a measurable error; for longitude by lunar distance (which I only do when I’m really, really, really bored), I use a stopwatch and try for less than 0.5s error. That method takes two people to do, and usually doesn’t work anyway.

I’m a yachtsman, and merchant ships are supposed to give way to us, but they sail around with no-one on the bridge and that’s why they keep on hitting yachts.

This is one of those comments. I’ll break it down into sections.

Power gives way to sail
Sometimes. If you read the International Regulations for the Prevention of Collisions at Sea (known as the colregs), power-driven vessels do indeed have to give way to sailing vessels. Except:

  • In a narrow channel or fairway (rule 9a);
  • In a traffic lane (rule 10j);
  • If the power-driven vessel is not under command, restricted in her ability to manoeuvre, engaged in fishing or constrained by her draught (rule 18b).

They sail around with no-one on the bridge
Actually, the majority of them don’t. Apart from all of the obvious safety considerations, navigation officers have put a lot of time and effort into getting our qualifications: we’d have to be pretty stupid to risk them just for a couple of extra hours’ sleep. On every ship I’ve worked on, leaving the bridge unattended or sleeping on watch is cause for immediate dismissal.

Unfortunately for all of us, there are a few idiots in every industry, so every vessel out there (yes, including yachts) needs to be aware of that and keep a proper lookout (rule 5 — it’s important, so go and reread it).

That’s why they keep on hitting yachts
This is a biggie. On watch in open water, there are only two things I need in order to give way to a yacht.

  • First, I have to see it or detect it by radar. That means that the yacht needs to have its lights on at night, and have a radar reflector or transponder. In a rough sea, even that sometimes doesn’t work, as yachts aren’t that big and become invisible among the sea clutter. To make yourself more visible, consider shining your Aldis lamp (you remember, that’s the really bright signalling lamp you’re supposed to carry) towards the bridge of the ship to get my attention.
  • Second, I need to work out which way it’s going. That means that you (ie. the yacht) need to go in a fairly straight line until I’m safely past and clear (rule 17). If you start tacking back and forth, you’re almost impossible to dodge, especially if I’ve already altered and you turn back across my bow. Remember that I have up to a one-mile blind spot ahead of me, and a minimum of a half-mile turning circle. Don’t even think about me slowing down or stopping — I can try, but it takes a lot longer, and if you’ve decided to cut back across my bow after I give way, you’re probably already too close.

Apart from that, all I normally need to do is turn a knob on the autopilot. Easy! You do your bit, and I’ll do mine. But do remember that rule about “Lookout,” and the epitaph for poor John: “Here lies the body of John O’Day, who died defending his right of way.”

Every near-miss I’ve had with yachts and other small vessels comes down to a few points:

  • Yacht not displaying navigation lights at night, or navigation lights not visible due to heavy swell or rough sea;
  • Yacht performing erratic and unpredictable course alterations at close-range;
  • Yacht doing either one or both of the above, AND not keeping a proper lookout.

How big is your ship?

There are different ways of measuring size. They are split into length and weight. I’ve rounded my ship’s figures off.

Length:

  • Length Overall (LOA): The maximum total length of the ship. 290m
  • Length Between Perpendiculars (LBP): The length between the rudder post and the point where the bow meets the summer waterline. 280m

Weight:

  • Gross Tonnage (GT)/Gross Registered Tonnage (GRT): A measure of the internal volume of the ship. 86000 GT
  • Net tonnage (NT)/Net Registered Tonnage (NRT): A measure of the cargo-carrying capacity (volume) of the ship. 56000 NT
  • Lightship: The weight of the ship when it’s more-or-less empty. I’m not going to get into the more-or-less part. 22000T
  • Deadweight: The amount of cargo that the ship can carry. Maximum 170 000T
  • Displacement: The total weight of the ship. This varies according to how much cargo, etc. is in the ship. Maximum 190000T

Other Questions

Why did the Rena run aground?

They screwed up. Go and read the report (you can download it here). Before you judge them too harshly, remember what I said about working hours and ask yourself what your judgement would be like after working a minimum of 98 hours a week for several months.

Why did you go to sea?

It seemed like a good idea at the time. I guess the judgement of the average teenager leaves something to be desired. That’s something else I’m happy to discuss face-to-face.

Do you like your job?

I love my job. Like every job, it has its moments, but I can’t imagine doing anything else.

Would you recommend it as a career?

It honestly depends on the person. I think it suits independent introverts who can cope with isolation, have a high tolerance for living in close quarters with groups of strangers, the ability to work in a team when necessary, a sense of adventure, a high tolerance for uncertainty, the ability to deal with stress, and a need for structure.

In my experience, the people who struggle are extroverts with strong family ties and active social lives ashore. The isolation can eat away at them, and the improved communication between seafarers and friends/family ashore can actually increase the stress of separation.

If you (or someone you know) is considering a career at sea, my book Merchant Navy Survival Guide: Survive & thrive on your first ship goes into more detail about the practical aspects of a career at sea.

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