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Water Transportation Occupations - What They Do


The movement of huge amounts of cargo, as well as passengers, in and out of U.S. waters and sometimes over the oceans depends on workers in water transportation occupations, also known as merchant mariners. They operate and maintain civilian-owned deep-sea merchant ships, tugboats, towboats, ferries, barges, offshore supply vessels, cruise ships, and other waterborne craft on the oceans, the Great Lakes, rivers, canals, and other waterways, as well as in harbors.

Captains, mates, and pilots of water vessels operating on domestic waterways or on U.S.-flagged deep sea ships command or supervise the operations of these ships and water vessels. Captains or masters are in overall command of the operation of a vessel, and they supervise the work of all other officers and crew. Together with their department heads, captains ensure that proper procedures and safety practices are followed, check to make sure that machinery and equipment are in good working order, and oversee the loading and discharging of cargo or passengers. They also maintain logs and other records tracking the ships' movements, efforts at controlling pollution, and cargo and passengers carried.

Deck officers or mates direct the routine operation of the vessel for the captain during the shifts when they are on watch. On smaller vessels, there may be only one mate (called a pilot on some inland towing vessels), who alternates watches with the captain. The mate would assume command of the ship if the captain became incapacitated. When more than one mate is necessary aboard a ship, they typically are designated chief mate or first mate, second mate, third mate, etc. Mates also supervise and coordinate activities of the crew aboard the ship.

Captains and mates determine the course and speed of the vessel, maneuvering to avoid hazards and continuously monitoring the vessel's position with charts and navigational aids. Captains and mates oversee crew members who steer the vessel, determine its location, operate engines, communicate with other vessels, perform maintenance, handle lines, and operate equipment on the vessel. They inspect the cargo holds during loading to ensure that the load is stowed according to specifications and regulations. Captains and mates also supervise crew members engaged in maintenance and the primary upkeep of the vessel.

Pilots guide ships in and out of harbors, through straits, and on rivers and other confined waterways where a familiarity with local water depths, winds, tides, currents, and hazards such as reefs and shoals are of prime importance. Pilots on river and canal vessels usually are regular crew members, like mates. Harbor pilots are generally independent contractors who accompany vessels while they enter or leave port. Harbor pilots may pilot many ships in a single day.

Ship engineers operate, maintain, and repair propulsion engines, boilers, generators, pumps, and other machinery. Merchant marine vessels usually have four engineering officers: A chief engineer and a first, second, and third assistant engineer. Assistant engineers stand periodic watches, overseeing the safe operation of engines and machinery.

Marine oilers and more experienced qualified members of the engine department, or QMEDs, assist the engineers to maintain the vessel in proper running order in the engine spaces below decks. These workers lubricate gears, shafts, bearings, and other moving parts of engines and motors; read pressure and temperature gauges; record data; and sometimes assist with repairs and adjust machinery.

Sailors or deckhands operate the vessel and its deck equipment under the direction of the ship's officers and keep the nonengineering areas in good condition. They stand watch, looking out for other vessels and obstructions in the ship's path, as well as for navigational aids such as buoys and lighthouses. They also steer the ship, measure water depth in shallow water, and maintain and operate deck equipment such as lifeboats, anchors, and cargo-handling gear. When docking or departing, they handle lines. They also perform routine maintenance chores, such as repairing lines, chipping rust, and painting and cleaning decks or other areas. On vessels handling liquid cargo, mariners designated as pumpmen hook up hoses, operate pumps, and clean tanks; on tugboats or tow vessels, they tie barges together into tow units, inspect them periodically, and disconnect them when the destination is reached. Experienced sailors are designated able seamen on oceangoing vessels, but may be called simply deckhands on inland waters; larger vessels usually have a boatswain, or head seaman.

A typical deep-sea merchant ship has a captain, three deck officers or mates, a chief engineer and three assistant engineers, plus six or more seamen, such as able seamen, oilers, QMEDs, and a cook. The size and service of the ship determine the number of crewmembers for a particular voyage. Small vessels operating in harbors, on rivers, or along the coast may have a crew comprising only a captain and one deckhand. On smaller vessels the cooking responsibilities usually fall under the deckhands' duties.

On larger coastal ships, the crew may include a captain, a mate or pilot, an engineer, and seven or eight seamen. Unlicensed positions on a large ship may include a full-time cook, an electrician, and machinery mechanics. Some ships may have special unlicensed positions for entry-level apprentice trainees.

Motorboat operators operate small, motor-driven boats that carry six or fewer passengers. They may operate fishing charters, serve as liaisons between ships or between ship and shore, or perform area patrol.

Work Environment
Water transportation workers' schedules vary based upon the type of ship and length of voyage. While on the water, crews are normally on duty for half of the day, 7 days a week.

Merchant mariners on survey and long distance cargo vessels can spend extended periods at sea. Most deep-sea mariners are hired for one or more voyages that last for several months; there is no job security after that. The length of time between voyages varies depending on job availability and personal preference.

Workers on supply vessels transport workers, supplies (water, drilling mud, fuel, and food), and equipment to oil and gas drilling platforms mostly in the Gulf of Mexico. Their voyages can last a few hours to a couple of weeks. As oil and gas exploration pushes into deeper waters, these trips take more time.

Workers on tugs and barges operate on the rivers, lakes, inland waterways, and along the coast. Most tugs have two crews and operate constantly. The crews will alternate, each working for 2-3 weeks and then taking 2-3 weeks off.

Many of those employed on Great Lakes ships work 60 days and have 30 days off, but do not work in the winter when the lakes are frozen. Others work steadily for a week or a month and then have an extended period off. Those on smaller vessels, such as tugs, supply boats and Great Lakes ships, are normally assigned to one vessel and have steady employment.

Workers on ferries transporting commuters work on weekdays in the morning and evening. Other ferries make frequent trips lasting a few hours. Ferries servicing vacation destinations often operate on seasonal schedules. Workers in harbors generally have year-round work. Work in harbors and on ferries is highly sought after because workers return home every day.

People holding water transportation jobs work in all kinds of weather, except when frozen waters make travel impossible. Although merchant mariners try to avoid severe storms while at sea, working in damp and cold conditions often is inevitable. While it is uncommon for vessels to suffer disasters such as fire, explosion, or sinking, workers face the possibility that they may have to abandon their craft on short notice if it collides with another vessel or runs aground. They also risk injury or death from falling overboard and hazards associated with working with machinery, heavy loads, and dangerous cargo. However, modern safety management procedures, advanced emergency communications, and effective international rescue systems have greatly improved mariner safety.

Many companies are working to improve the living conditions on vessels to reduce employee turnover. Most of the Nation's newest vessels are air conditioned, soundproofed to reduce machinery noise, and equipped with comfortable living quarters. Some companies have added improved entertainment systems and hired full-time cooks. These amenities lessen the difficulty of spending long periods away from home. Advances in communications, particularly e-mail, better link mariners to their families. Nevertheless, some mariners dislike the long periods away from home and the confinement aboard ship and consequently leave the occupation.

Education & Training Required
Entry-level workers are classified as ordinary seamen or deckhands. Workers take some basic training, lasting a few days, in areas such as first aid and firefighting.

There are two paths of education and training for a deck officer or an engineer: applicants must either accumulate thousands of hours of experience while working as a deckhand, or graduate from one of seven merchant marine academies in the United States. In both cases, applicants must pass a written examination. It is difficult to pass the examination without substantial formal schooling or independent study. The academies offer a 4-year academic program leading to a bachelor-of-science degree, a MMC endorsement (issued only by the Coast Guard) as a third mate (deck officer) or third assistant engineer (engineering officer), and, if the person chooses, a commission as ensign in the U.S. Naval Reserve, Merchant Marine Reserve, or Coast Guard Reserve. With experience and additional training, third officers may qualify for higher rank. Generally officers on deep water vessels are academy graduates and those in supply boats, inland waterways, and rivers rose to their positions through years of experience.

Harbor pilot training usually consists of an extended apprenticeship with a towing company or a harbor pilots' association. Entrants may be able seamen or licensed officers.

In recent years, to generate interest in the maritime industry, 18 high schools have been designated “maritime high schools” with a curriculum created by the U.S. Maritime Administration. Graduation from one of these schools can help one’s entry in the academies or with jobs elsewhere in the industry.

Certifications Needed (Licensure)
All mariners that are required to obtain Coast Guard credentials are required to obtain a TWIC from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. This credential states that you are a U.S. citizen or a permanent resident and have passed a security screening.

In addition, with few exceptions, the Coast Guard requires that mariners applying for a credential after April 15, 2009, obtain a MMC. Entry level seamen or deckhands on vessels operating in harbors or on rivers or other waterways do not need a MMC. The MMC replaces the Merchant Mariner Document, the license, and Standards of Training, Certification, and Watchkeeping for Seafarers endorsement. The MMC incorporates the licenses into the credential, which varies by occupational specialty, type of vessel, and by body of water (river, inland waterway, Great Lakes, and oceans). Requirements for the credential increase as the skill level of the occupational specialty and the size of the vessel increase and applicants must pass a test in order qualify. Applicants for the credential must also pass a drug screen, take a medical exam, and meet the minimum age requirements. For more information on credentialing requirements see the Coast Guard's Web site listed in the sources of additional information.

Radio operators are licensed by the Federal Communications Commission.

Other Skills Required (Other qualifications)
Most positions require excellent health, good vision, and color perception. Good general physical condition is needed because many jobs require the ability to lift heavy objects, withstand heat and cold, stand or stoop for long periods of time, dexterity to maneuver through tight spaces, and good balance on uneven and wet surfaces and in rough water.

Water Transportation Occupations - What They Do - Page 2

Academic Programs of Interest

Marine Science
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