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Merchant navy: A career on the high seas
Navin Kumar
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March 18, 2008

The Merchant Navy of a country refers to the non-combatant ships that are used to transport cargo during times of war and peace as well as the people who man them. Mariners spend much of their lives at sea. Conditions on a ships can be cramped, noisy and dangerous and yet they go, because of exceptional earning potential and the opportunity to see the world.

If you wish to live life which is free of the restraints of life ashore, a life which is full of adventure and exotic lands, then the merchant navy might be the right place for you.

There are three main departments on a ship:

The Deck department
The Deck department is an organisational and navigational unit aboard naval and merchant ships. An officer serving in the deck department is called a Deck Officer. The main function of the deck department is proper watchstanding and the maintenance of the ship's hull and accommodations as well as the ship's safety appliances.

The department may have the following:

Every ship has a Captain or Master who is in charge of the ship. He is responsible for the navigation, discipline and the safety of the passengers, crew and cargo. He must ensure the observance of national and international codes of conduct.

The First Mate oversees cargo planning, assists with navigation, allocates duties to Deck Cadets and crew and maintains discipline and order. The Second Mate is in charge of checking mail, the maintenance of navigational equipment and charts and assists in navigational and cargo watches.

The Third Mate is responsible for keeping the safety equipment -- lifeboats, firefighting apparatus, signaling equipment etc -- in proper condition. He acts as a signal officer and assists with cargo work.

Depending on the size and employment of the ship, a boatswain may be employed. If carried, the boatswain, generally a senior, able seaman will act as a foreman of the ship's deck crew and as the chief mate's representative on deck.

Engine department
The purpose of this department is to ensure the smooth functioning of the technical part of the ship. Marine engineers operate and maintain the propulsion and other systems aboard the vessel.

They also deal with the "hotel" facilities aboard, notably the lighting, air conditioning, sewage and water systems. They deal with bulk fuel transfers, and require training in firefighting and first aid, as well as in dealing with the ship's boats and other nautical tasks -- especially with cargo loading/ discharging gear and safety systems, though the specific cargo discharge function remains the responsibility of deck officers and deck workers.

Just as the Deck Officers report to the Master, Marine Engineers report to the Chief Engineer, who is assisted by the Second, Third, Fourth and Fifth Engineers and other junior personnel.

The Chief Engineer ensures safe and economic running of all engines, boilers, electrical, refrigerating and sanitary equipment, deck machinery and steam connections aboard the ship. He is the supervisor of the engine crew.

The Second Engineer looks after the day-to-day work in the engine room. The Third Engineer is in charge of the main engine, spare parts for the main engine, purifiers, boilers, compressors etc.

The Fourth Engineer (or engineers, some ships carry two) is in charge of the numerous generators on the ship as well as certain small pumps. There may also be Fifth Engineer(s) who are also known as Junior Engineers.

Other members of the Engineering crew include oilers and greasers (unlicensed 'ratings' or duties that require qualifications) and entry-level ratings like wiper, utilityman etc. Engine Cadets are trainee engineers who are completing sea time necessary before they can obtain a watchkeeping licence.

While some ships still carry specialised radio officers, especially passenger vessels, few ships have a standalone radio department with a chief radio officer and subordinate radio officers. Since the introduction of GMDSS (satellite communications) and the subsequent exemptions from carrying radio officers if the vessel is so equipped, this department has fallen away.

Service department
This is the department that preforms living and catering services for the crew. The Chief Steward directs, instructs, and assigns personnel performing such functions as preparing and serving meals; cleaning and maintaining officers' quarters and steward department areas; and receiving, issuing, and inventorying stores. He plans menus and additional duties may involve baking.

Another senior member of the service department is the Chief Cook. The Chief Cook directs and participates in the preparation and serving of meals; determines timing and sequence of operations required to meet serving times; inspects galley and equipment for cleanliness and proper storage and preparation of food. The cook may plan or assist in planning meals and taking inventory of stores and equipment.

A Steward's Assistant or SA is an entry-level crew member in the Steward's department of a ship. They are also known as Utilitymen and Messmen. The role of the SA consists mainly of cleaning and assisting with the preparation and serving of meals.

The duties of the officers in the Service Department may overlap.

Other professions at sea
A diver performs underwater surveys and recons. They are required for underwater examination of the heel, propellers, pipes etc. Light keepers operate light house signaling equipment to guide incoming and passing ships. Nautical surveyors prepare charts of regions of the sea containg information regarding topography and conditions.

The minimum eligibility for courses in Nautical science and Marine engineering is 10+2. Candidates who wish to enter the navigational and engineering fields of the Merchant Navy need to complete a bachelors degree in Nautical Science or Marine Engineering.

The entry level for a fresh Marine Engineer is at the rank of fifth engineer or junior engineer and a Nautical Science graduate is the rank of a Deck Cadet.

Direct entry into the Merchant Navy is also possible -- students who have completed their Class 12 exams with Physics, Chemistry and Mathematics (PCM) are eligible to join as Deck Cadets and a student holding a bachelor's degree in mechanical/ electrical engineering can also join the Merchant Navy as an Engine Cadet/ Fifth Engineer.

Direct entry Deck Cadets are required to undergo basic pre-sea training arranged by the recruiting company itself and the direct entry Engineering cadets are preferred who do a pre-sea course of nine months in Marine Engineering conducted by the MERI.

Candidates need to pass a medical fitness test for sea service under standard norms and with eyesight 6/6 and no colour blindness. They must be immune to sea sickness.

The Ministry of Surface Transport, Government of India, takes care of the training needs and conducts competency exam through the Directorate General of Shipping (DGS). 'Certificates of Competency' awarded by the DGS, are needed for promotion to the various respective classes.

~ Deck department: A Deck Cadet is eligible to appear for his Second Officer Foreign Going Examination after 36 months of sailing.

Besides physics and maths, a student is tested on Ship Stability and Construction, Meteorology, Principles and Practical Navigation and Chart work after 18 months of sailing time the Third Officer can appear for the Chief Officer Foreign Going Examination.

A further 18 months sailing time is required before a candidate can appear for Masters Foreign Going Exam. The process of rising from a deck cadet to master of a ship will take a minimum of 12 years.

~ Engineering department: An Engine Cadet is eligible to appear for Class IV examination for promotion to Fourth or in some cases Third Engineer.

After a further 18 months of sea time the candidate can appear for Class II examination for promotion to Third Engineer or Second Engineer. Another 18 months sailing allows the candidate to appear for Class I examination for promotion to Chief Engineering Officer.

The starting salary varies between Rs 15,000 to Rs 20,000 a month. Since the person gets benefits of food, accommodation, paid leave, two-way free passage and facilities for families, the entire salary can be saved while sailing. There are also bonuses, holiday travel and other annual benefits.

Seafarers face a hard life, living in harsh conditions and spending months and months away from their families, but if you're a person in whom the spirit of adventure overcomes all obstacles, a life riding the waves could be for you.

Part II: Tomorrow


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