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If you are contacting me because you are looking to ship out on a containership, please first read through the lengthy text below the image. I've done my best to answer some of the typical questions I've gotten.
So you want to ship out.... Over the years I've gotten a staggering amount of emails from folks who want to work on big ships at sea. Although I've always done my best to reply with good advice to each person, it can be overwhelming and difficult to help each person. The bottom line is its extremely difficult to get through all of the red-tape and if you aren't focused to the near point of insanity, you'll never be able to ship out. Even once you do get all of the required credentials and endorsements, you still have to compete with a lot of eager sailors to find actual work. That said, it is possible, and I don't want to completely discourage folks to give it a shot. So here is my rough guide to trying to ship out, if after reading it you still would like to send me a note about something feel free, but hopefully this will answer most questions you have. I'll start broad and narrow it down, to weed out those who I really can't help.
1. If you are from a country other than the US, I really do not have much knowledge about how things work in your country or how to ship on foreign ships. All of my big-ship experience has been on US flagged vessels and I can't be of much help to you. My best guess is to contact your nations coast guard or whoever might handle your shipping credentials, I believe most foreign sailors get work through an agency, or possibly to contact individual shipping companies that you might like to work for and see what is required.
2. If you are a US citizen or have a green card, you can possibly ship out with US flagged ships. The US coast guard regulates all of our endorsements and licensing, get very used to working with them and get used to being confused. Start with this national maritime center website (link) Look around, start to understand the positions available on ships and how to get them. All the credential advancements are based on the number of days spent at sea, whether that time is deemed inland, near coastal or offshore, and the tonnage of the vessels you've worked on. In addition to coast guard credentials you need a homeland security i.d. (TWIC) and a passport.
3. The three departments for jobs on ships are Engine, Deck and Stewards. Each department has entry level positions and department heads known as "officers". You can work your way up from the entry level positions to the higher ups, or go to maritime school to get your deck or engine officers license . Obviously the engine department works to maintain the engine and the propulsion of the ship. They also handle many of the mechanical systems onboard and have some "unlicensed" positions for junior engineers as well as for "reefer" (the person in charge of refrigeration of containers on containerships) and "electrician". The stewards department handles the food and certain cleaning requirements, such as washing the officers clothes and linens for some reason. This seems to be tied to the traditions of sea faring, and in my opinion is one of the outdated ones, but what the hell do I know. On many ships there are also still segregated areas for officers to eat and the "unlicensed". Sorry to ramble, back to it... I will focus on the deck department, because that is what I am in and know best. Keep in mind I have mostly worked on containerships and therefore my knowledge is focused on that. Every ship is different and may carry additional or less positions.
4. Deck Department- Handles the navigation of the ship, maintenance of most things outside the engine room, and the officers also help organize the loading of the cargo. Made up of "licensed" officers (Captain, 1st or Chief Mate, 2nd and 3rd mate) and about 6 "unlicensed" deckhands (1 bosun, 5 able-bodied seaman, and sometimes an ordinary seaman ). It is possible to work your way from a lowly OS (ordinary seaman) to the Captain or "Master" of the ship. This is called being a "hawse-piper (as in someone who climbed up the ship from the hawsepipe on up) and in some ways is a traditional way of producing quality officers that are conscious of all of the crew. You can also go to maritime school in order to become an officer more quickly and skip working as a lowly deckhand. Although the coast guard still requires the sea time and tonnage in addition to passing the necessary tests in order to get the officers license, maritime school students speed this process up by getting some breaks such as time and a half for their days at sea on training ships. I personally was tired of school and aimed to ship out as an unlicensed deckhand instead of going to maritime school. I skipped working as an OS by getting my AB endorsement by using seatime from smaller vessels in the SF Bay and elsewhere. Even after I got my AB, it was still another year of random jobs and hoops to jump through before I could ship out, and this was after about 10 years of working on smaller boats. If you are thinking strongly of a career as a merchant marine you should consider the school route. Or just plan on many years shipping out constantly before advancing up. The coast guard does not make it easy to ship as an unlicensed crew, there are all sorts of catch-22's with getting the requirements. But with a lot of determination and some luck it is possible. To ship as an OS you will need your STCW and OSTS, look these up on the NMC website listed above. To ship as AB you will need your STCW and RFPNW. For most ships it does not seem to matter if you have an AB "special" or "limited" or "unlimited". Obviously you get paid more as an AB than an OS, also there are more AB positions on ships than OS's if they have any at all. You can find jobs on smaller ships to help get these endorsements, you might need to volunteer at times, or work on really random vessels, ALWAYS GET A LETTER FROM THE CAPTAIN from everything you work on. Even small boat time from sailboats or commercial fishing can help you. Visit a coast guard center if you need advice, stay organized, and see what you can get.
5. Unions... they can be a great help while you are trying to get your credentials together to ship out, and of course can find you work when you do. But unions are made up of individuals, so if you happen to get the cold shoulder from someone in the office there, take it with a grain of salt, come back and try to get advice on shipping from someone else on another day, or perhaps ask a sailor for some tips. The two US sailors unions for unlicensed deckhands are SIU and SUP. The basic gist is that SIU has more jobs for less pay and less benefits, while SUP has the opposite. I work with SUP and have found it to be pretty great, its hard to start out with them but we have some great contracts and lots of loyal hardworking people behind it. Back in the day unions really saved sailors lives, it was not too long ago that sailors had basically no rights at all, they could be beaten, overworked, and paid little or actually end up owing the shipping companies after a voyage. Today unions often seem to get a bad rap, but I still feel that in this particular industry it is really important to have some people on your side. Shipping companies are such powerful entities with so much capital, and working in international waters, it is not hard for certain companies to take advantage of the sailors. That said, if you do ship out under a union, don't hide behind every code and formality, support your shipmates but think for yourself, work safe and do good work take take pride in it. Ok ranting again... Unions make up a major part of the available work, they have them for Engine and Steward departments and for the officers as well. It takes some getting used to the politics and figuring out just how to get work, but once you do, it can be pretty nice to show up and find work when you need it. There is also a union for Inland deck work called the IBU "inland boatman's union". As a deckhand you can work for both, but keep in mind that the coastguard designates certain work as inland or offshore and you will need to get time offshore somehow to be able to ship international offshore (one of those catch 22's I spoke of). There is work on ships outside of unions and some of it is quite good, but others start to cut some of the sailors privileges. You might find yourself having to share a room with two other deckhands, and on a job that might last 4-6 months, it might be a little rough.
Ok I think that's about all I have for now. I'd like to add that you can pretty much strip all of the romantic notions you might have about the industry away. There are moments at sea that in my opinion are wonderful, the sights, and sense of freedom. But the work is very industrial, the port stays are very brief, and you might not get ashore at all. I wish things were different, but this is the world we live in now. Lastly there is a website called GCaptain that has a bunch of maritime industry nerd talk, you can use their forum for getting info and search for jobs. Also, I have no pull whatsoever with any shipping companies, or unions, or the coast guard, so PLEASE don't ask for my help in setting you up with a ship, I wish I could, but sometimes it still takes me months to get a ship myself. Good luck! - Martin