Do you have a good work ethic?

Are you interested in working on boats or large ships, but don’t know how to begin?

How do you get started with no experience?

The answer is you can:

  1. apply for entry-level, unqualified Deckhand positions or
  2. attend a maritime training school.

The federal government predicts the demand for water transportation workers will grow over the coming years. The maritime world offers unique and exciting opportunities. If you’re interested in working on the water, becoming a Deckhand is a good place to start. In this quick guide, we take you through how to get into the maritime industry, what it’s like to work as a Deckhand and some of the benefits and disadvantages of working on the water.

There are several tasks that Deckhands must perform depending on the type of vessel.

Throughout this article, we’ll cover everything you’ll want to know about:

How to Become a Deckhand on a Boat or Large Ship

Apply for Entry-Level, Unqualified Positions


Many people start out in the maritime industry by applying for jobs as Deckhands that don’t require any special qualifications (unqualified). These jobs are usually aboard tugboats and other types of vessels that do their work on inland waters and not on the open ocean.

What if you are not sure if you want a career in the maritime industry?

A job as an Unqualified Deckhand is a great way to explore what it’s like to work in the maritime industry. Then, if you want to go further, you can use your experience to earn qualifications that will advance your career and help you to earn more pay.

What if you know for sure that you want a career in the maritime industry?

If you know that a career on the water is right for you, you may choose to work your way up on small vessels on inland waters or you may choose to work aboard large ships that do sail out on the open ocean.

For a career on large ships, there’s no better way to start than enrolling in a formal maritime training program.

An advisor at MITAGS schools in Baltimore or Seattle can help. Contact an advisor today.

Questions? Contact a School Advisor


Enrolling in a Maritime Training Program

In a maritime training program, you will learn the skills, knowledge, and safety practices you will need to start a career on a large merchant ship.

Maritime training programs help you fast-track your career and allow you to climb the professional ladder more quickly, eventually becoming a Deck Officer, Engineer, or Captain.

There are several different career paths open to you if you want to work aboard large ships, and there are specialized education paths to help you reach each of them. To learn more about these possible paths to your future in the maritime industry, contact a MITAGS advisor today.

Merchant Mariner Positions and Duties

What exactly is a Deckhand and what do they do?

Deckhands and the other crewmembers must perform a variety of tasks to operate their vessels. Depending on the type of vessel, the vessel’s cargo, and the areas in which the vessel operates, the tasks can vary widely.

In general, Deckhands maintain the vessel and its mechanical equipment. To do this, they must have a basic understanding of vessel operations, machinery and deck maintenance, and know best practices to protect passengers, cargo and the environment.

Let’s take a look at the different duties Deckhands may be required to perform.

Deckhand Duties, Job Description and Positions

Deckhands work under the supervision of the vessel’s Deck Officers to:

  • Stand watches underway and in port.
  • Operate and maintain equipment and machinery.
  • Maintain the vessel’s deck surfaces and interior spaces.
  • Assist in operations like docking and undocking.
  • Secure cargo and rig towing gear.
  • Assist Deck Officers.
  • Help ensure the safety of passengers and other crew members.

The lowest level of certified Deckhand on large ships is called an Ordinary Seaman, or OS.

As you gain experience as a Deckhand, you may want to earn certifications by attending a training school so that you can work your way into positions of greater responsibility and pay. The first of these you may strive for is a Deck officer, also known as a Mate.

Deck Officers Duties and Positions

Deck officers help direct the operation of a ship alongside the Captain. There are typically three levels in this particular maritime career path, and each is assigned their own duties:

  • The chief mate generally is in charge of cargo management operations.
  • The second mate is in charge of navigation and watchkeeping.
  • The third mate is in charge of vessel and passenger safety.

Mate positions are what most deckhands aboard large ships strive to become — they are prestigious achievements and come with a significant increase in salary. With maritime training programs, deckhands can rise through the ranks quickly to higher positions.

Deck officers are expected to:

  • Keep watches underway and in port.
  • Supervise and direct deck crew.
  • Supervise docking and undocking operations.
  • Navigate and maneuver the vessel.
  • Inspect cargo and ensure it is correctly stowed.
  • Manage other crew and passengers.
  • Ensure environmental compliance and safety.

Marine Engineers: Duties and Positions

After you gain some experience as a Deckhand, another path you may choose to pursue is becoming a Marine Engineer. If you love practical work with engines and mechanical systems, this could be an excellent opportunity.

Marine Engineers are responsible for maintaining a vessel’s main propulsion engines, electrical systems and other machinery. Small vessels may have one or even no engineer, but large ships will have several. Like the deck department, the engineering department of a ship has a hierarchy, with a Chief Engineer, a First Assistant Engineer, SEcond Assistant Engineer and Third Assistant Engineers.

Marine Engineers will:

  • Maintain propulsion, electrical, refrigeration and ventilation systems
  • Operate and troubleshoot ship’s machinery
  • Ensure proper maintenance of the vessel’s systems
  • Monitor the performance of the vessel’s machinery
  • Manage any crew that make up the Engine Department

Questions? Contact a school advisor now.

Questions? Contact a School Advisor


Types of Jobs You Can Have as a Deckhand

There are several different types of vessels you can work aboard as a Deckhand. The right job for you will depend on your preference. It’s best to explore the different types of vessels and the work they do.

Would you like to work with passengers?

Are you interested in working in some specific area of the country or taking a vessel that is going overseas?

Are you interested in working on vessels that service oil rigs or wind farms?

Perhaps you would enjoy moving from one type of vessel to another.

There are two broad categories in the maritime world — Inland and Near Coastal vessels and Ocean-going Vessels. Here’s a look at the two types and what Deckhand jobs and associated job descriptions they offer.

1. Inland and Near Coastal Vessels

Inland vessels work on the rivers, coastal waterways, bays and lakes. Near coastal vessels work out to 200 miles from shore.

So if you want to work in the maritime industry but don’t like the idea of being away from home, working aboard an inland or near coastal vessel might be best for you. There are several types of inland and near coastal vessels with Deckhand jobs. Here are some popular ones:

  • Ferries: You can work as a Deckhand collecting money from passengers and transporting them and their cars across waterways.
  • Offshore Support Vessels: You can work as a Deckhand on these vessels that carry supplies, crew, machinery and other equipment to oil rigs.
  • Tour boats: If your harbor or lake has an interesting background or sights that draw tourists, you may be able to work aboard a tour boat to gain your first boating experience.
  • Service vessels: You may be able to get a job aboard a vessel that offers a cleaning service, pump out service or delivers fuel to larger vessels.
  • Sport fishing boats: If you love to fish and want to help other enthusiasts on angling adventures, working on a fishing boat may be an exciting path for you.
  • Barges: There are several different barge operations and jobs for the Deckhands who work aboard them. Barges can be used for dredging, salvage, transporting marine machinery and construction equipment.
  • Tugboats: Becoming a tugboat Deckhand is no small task. Those who commit to this industry must undergo years of training to understand the skilled and complex functions of these important vessels. However, tugboat crew members and captains are known to make handsome salaries once they put in their time in the sector.

Inland and near coastal maritime careers can offer good salaries.

2. Ocean-going Vessels

If you like the idea of traveling long distances and seeing the world on a ship, then ocean-going vessels might be for you. Ocean-going vessels go on voyages that last weeks or months. This career offers an alternative schedule to the traditional nine-to-five, good pay and the opportunity to travel and work on the water — just a few of the reasons people love working aboard large ocean-going vessels.

These are a few of the most popular kinds of ocean-going ships you can work aboard:

  • Cargo ship: Perhaps the most common option for ocean-going vessels, cargo ships transport goods across the world. These vessels have several crew members that live aboard the ship for months at a time while they work and earn their salaries and vacations.
  • Research vessel: These vessels lead expeditions across the world’s oceans to advance science and gain knowledge. You may travel to remote locations and help your team with interesting and vital oceanographic research.
  • Cruise ship: What exactly does a Deckhand do on a cruise ship? These guest-oriented vessels offer a more social environment than cargo ships and a different working experience. If you decide to work aboard a cruise ship, you’ll get to see exotic locales around the world and get paid as you go.

Average Salary of a Deckhand

Average Salary of a Deckhand

The website, Payscale, reports that Deckhand salaries can vary widely but the average annual salary for a Deckhand falls between $24,000 to $54,000 a year. The unqualified Deckhand jobs are at the lower end of the pay scale.

However, if you go through maritime training programs, achieve certain qualifications and become a Deckhand on a large ship or specialized vessel like a tugboat, your salary can be significantly higher. You will also have the opportunity to work your way up the ranks more quickly toward significant pay increases.

Working on certain types of ships with varying environments and demands will also affect your Deckhand wages. On average, cargo ships tend to offer lower salaries, while tugboats provide higher ones. Here are the typical salaries for Deckhand jobs on different ship types:

  • Cargo ship: On a cargo ship, the average salary for a Deckhand is a little below $39,700 yearly, or $19 an hour. The salary of cargo ship crew members typically ranges from $19,000 to $47,000, with top earners making $58,000 a year.
  • Barge: The average salary for a barge Deckhand is just over $47,000, or $23 an hour. A Deckhand barge salary typically ranges from $27,000 to $47,500, but top earners make $69,000.
  • Tugboat: Tugboat Deckhand pay averages just over $52,000 per year. This is one of the higher-earning placements for Deckhands. Salaries typically range from $47,000 to $57,000.

A great way to improve your chances of a higher salary is to gain certifications. If you jump right into an unqualified position working on an inland vessel, you may not need any extra training. Taking classes can improve your skillset and qualify you to work on different types of vessels, like large merchant and container ships. These ships often come with more career opportunities, but even if you stay inland, certifications can add to your skillset.

A Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping (STCW) certification is necessary for Deckhands who want to work on any ship besides an inland vessel. It must be renewed yearly. The courses cover the basics of deck work, like laws, regulations and safety. The certification is recognized internationally and creates the foundation for further maritime training. Other topics covered include basic firefighting, survival techniques, social responsibility and first aid.

STCW is necessary for many Deckhands, but you can also give yourself an edge with technical or advanced certifications. You can build up your skills in specific topics, such as crew endurance, meteorology or navigation systems. You could also take advanced courses to work your way up to Master status. This is the highest rank in maritime and can help you increase your salary as a Deckhand. Another option is to take classes to eventually become a captain, mate or pilot of water vessels, which offer significantly higher average salaries.

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Benefits and Disadvantages of Being a Deckhand

Just like any traditional job, working at sea comes with its own drawbacks. Here are few:

  • Being away from home: Long periods away from home on larger vessels isn’t for everyone.
  • Manual labor: Being a Deckhand means getting your hands dirty. You have to do the ‘nitty gritty’ work aboard your vessel. However, once you work your way up to become a Mate or an Engineer, you’ll do less and less of that kind of work and focus more on supervising operations and managing the crew.
  • Extended hours: With an alternative schedule, it can sometimes mean you’ll have to work long hours. You will also be working outside, sometimes in extreme weather. So, you will need the right gear be comfortable under any conditions.

If you feel you can overcome these drawbacks then a career in the maritime industry might be for you. Here are a few reasons why people love maritime careers:

  • Being on the water: Not many jobs have a better setting. When you work as a Deckhand, you get to be outside and work where many people hope to go on the weekend.
  • Alternative schedule: Many people are trying to figure out a way to avoid a nine-to-five schedule and find a career that lets them work non-traditional hours. Many maritime career paths offer unique work schedules and sometimes months or entire seasons off.
  • The potential for good pay: While the pay ranges greatly depending on the sector of the maritime industry, many vessels offer Deckhands and officers good pay.
  • Respect: Working aboard a large vessel and working your way up the ranks is recognized internationally as a respectful and interesting career path. You learn valuable leadership and practical skills that can be applied to other areas of your life.
  • Career mobility: Starting as a Deckhand opens the door for you to move up the ranks, no matter where you start. You start earning sea time experience and can achieve the level of officer, engineer or captain with training and dedication.

Questions? Contact a School Advisor


MITAGS for Maritime Training


If a maritime career is for you, then MITAGS is a great place to start!

We can help you navigate your way toward becoming a Deckhand and help steer you throughout your career.

We offer an all-inclusive program that takes you from an inexperienced student to a professional mariner. Our program is a mixture of in-class course instruction and at-sea training that gives you real-world experience and readies you to become a Deck Officer or Engineer. There’s no better way to kick-start your maritime job training and prepare yourself for an exciting and rewarding career.

Check out our Maritime Apprenticeship Program, which instills the knowledge, skills and confidence to take on the duties and responsibilities of a deck officer. And if you have any other questions or would like more information about our courses, please contact us today.

Learn More about Maritime Apprenticeship Programs