If you’re interested in the idea of working on the water, becoming a deckhand is the best way to enter the maritime industry — it’s a unique career path that offers exciting and rewarding opportunities. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that the demand for water transportation workers will only grow over the coming years.
Throughout this article, we’ll cover everything you’ll want to know about:
- How to Become a Deckhand on a Boat or Large Ship
- Merchant Mariner Positions and Duties
- Types of Jobs You Can Have as a Deckhand
- Average Salary of a Deckhand
- Benefits and Disadvantages of Being a Deckhand
- MITAGS for Maritime Training
There are several different types of jobs that fall under the ‘deckhand’ category, and your duties and experience as a crew member will vary greatly depending on what kind of vessel you work aboard.
In this quick guide, we’ll 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.
How to Become a Deckhand on a Boat or Large Ship
Do you have a good work ethic and are interested in working on boats or large ships — but you don’t know where to begin? How do you become a deckhand with no experience?
You can either apply for entry-level unqualified deckhand positions or attend a maritime training school.
Apply for Unqualified Positions
Many people get into the maritime industry by applying for jobs as deckhands that don’t require any specialized training or licenses. These jobs are usually aboard inland vessels — meaning those that don’t operate in the ocean.
Getting a deckhand job that doesn’t require certifications or a license is a great way to explore what it’s like to work in the marine industry. Just because you aren’t working aboard a large ship doesn’t mean you’re wasting your time — you can document your hours of work aboard any vessel and use that sea time to earn licenses and certifications that will advance your career. Also, you’ll gain valuable basic knowledge of vessel operations.
What if you know for sure that you want a career in the maritime industry, though?
If you know that a career on the water is for you and you want to work aboard large ships, then there’s no better way to get a job and enter the industry than maritime training.
Enroll in a Maritime Training Program
Maritime training programs teach you the skills and the knowledge you need to start a career on a large merchant vessel, as well as a good understanding of maritime safety practices.
When you go through these programs, you fast-track your maritime career and can start to climb the professional ladder more quickly.
Training programs are best for those who want to work aboard large vessels like cruise or container ships and work their way up to eventually become a senior 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.
Merchant Mariner Positions and Duties
On a day-to-day basis, a deckhand’s role can be very different — depending on the type of vessel you work aboard and what your position on that vessel is.
In general, deckhands are responsible for maintaining the cleanliness of a vessel and its mechanical, on-deck equipment. To do this, they must have a basic understanding of vessel operations and best practices to protect passengers, cargo and the environment.
Let’s get into the different duties deckhands may have in various positions in the maritime industry, as well as jobs you could work your way up to.
Deckhands operate and maintain equipment on the deck of a vessel and assist with docking and other operations. The deckhands together make up the deck crew and are responsible for maintaining the ship — other than the engine and other systems that are the responsibility of onboard engineers.
The lowest level of certified deckhand on large ships is called an Ordinary Seaman, or OS. Some large ships have a Chief Officer in charge of deckhand supervision called the boatswain.
The duties of deckhands will vary greatly depending on the size and function of the vessel, but some of their general duties include the following:
- Stand watch and look for other boats and dangerous obstructions in the water, as well as navigational aids like buoys or markers.
- Operate and maintain onboard equipment
- Maintain deck surfaces — resurfacing and painting
- Handle lines and assist with berthing and unberthing
- Secure cargo on deck and towing
- Help unload and load cargo
- Follow the Captain’s orders and help senior deck officers
- Ensure the safety of passengers and crew members
- Ensure best environmental practices while working
- Help steer the vessel and monitor water depth — this is more common on smaller vessels
- Clean the inside crew quarters of the ship — unless on a large vessel with stewards
If you earn maritime certifications through a training school, you can begin to work your way up in the ranks to higher positions. The first of these you may strive for is a deck officer, also known as a mate.
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 do the following:
- Keep a navigational watch alongside other crew members and the captain
- Supervise and direct deck crew for different operations
- Supervise and assist with the docking of the ship
- Monitor navigational equipment, navigational aids and plot safe courses
- Determine and control the speed of the vessel
- Inspect cargo and ensure it is correctly stowed by crew members
- Make announcements to crew and passengers
- Ensure environmental compliance and safety
- Supervise and maintain safety equipment and practices
After you gain some experience as a deckhand, another path you may choose to pursue is becoming a ship’s engineer. If you love practical work with engines and mechanical systems, this could be an excellent opportunity.
Ship engineers are responsible for maintaining a vessel’s propulsion system — in other words, the engine, boilers, pumps, 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 sector of a ship has a hierarchy, with a chief engineer and lower-level officers.
As an engineer aboard a ship, you may be responsible for the following:
- Maintenance of propulsion, electrical, refrigeration and ventilation systems
- Operation of the ship’s engine according to the captain’s orders
- Recording mechanical information like services and routine inspections
- Daily maintenance checks
- Calculating and monitoring fueling and fluid changes as well as maintenance needs
Types of Jobs You Can Have as a Deckhand
As we mentioned before, there are several different types of vessels you can work aboard as a deckhand, and the right one for you will depend on your personality. It’s best to explore the different types and determine your ideal path before you try to enter the maritime industry to ensure your experience lines up with your career goals.
When you know the type of work you’ll be doing aboard certain vessels and what your schedule will be like, you can make a more informed decision as to which one is right for you.
There are two broad categories in the maritime world — near coastal/inland vessels and offshore vessels. Here’s a look at the two types and what jobs they offer.
1. Inland and Near Coastal Vessels
If you want to join the maritime industry but don’t like the idea of being away for months at a time, working aboard a vessel that stays near shore might be the best choice for you. There are several types of inland/near coastal vessels with deckhand jobs in this category, and these are some of the popular ones:
- Ferries: You can work as a deckhand collecting money from passengers and transporting them and their cars across waterways.
- 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 fuels larger vessels in a harbor or marina.
- 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. You typically will be away for a few days to a few weeks.
- Barges: There are several different barge operations and jobs for the deckhands who work aboard them. Barges can be used for dredging, salvage, the transport of marine cranes and other construction equipment, and support purposes.
- 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/near coastal maritime careers can still offer good salaries. It’s merely a matter of preference in career style.
2. Offshore Vessels
If you like the idea of traveling long distances and seeing the world on a ship, then offshore vessels might be the better choice for you. People can spend months at a time at sea, followed by long periods of time off and competitive salaries. 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 offshore vessels.
These are a few of the most popular kinds of offshore ships you can work aboard:
- Cargo ship: Perhaps the most common option for offshore 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 salary in a condensed work schedule.
- 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: 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
Payscale reports the average annual salary for a deckhand to be between $27,503 and $60,432.
The average salary of a deckhand varies significantly based on the job you get. Some of the lower-level jobs that don’t take any prior experience or training are obviously on the lower end of the pay scale and can be minimum wage.
On the other hand, if you go through maritime training programs and become a deckhand on a large ship or specialized vessel like a tugboat, your salary will be significantly higher. You’ll also have the opportunity to work your way up the ranks for significant pay increases.
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, and you either have to choose a ship that doesn’t go on extended trips or be alright with this type of work schedule.
- Manual labor: Being a deckhand means getting your hands dirty. You have to do the ‘nitty gritty’ aboard your vessel. But, once you pay your dues and work your way up the ranks, you’ll do less and less of that kind of work and focus more on crew supervision.
- Extended hours: With an alternative schedule, it can sometimes mean you’ll have to work long hours. However, it can mean earning overtime and getting more of your weekly work out of the way all at once, instead of dragging it out.
If these points seem doable for you, the benefits of working at sea can far outweigh the cons. 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 you’re serious about becoming a deckhand and starting your career at sea, then we at MITAGS know how to get you started.
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 and at-sea training that gives you real-world experience and readies you to become a qualified officer. There’s no better way to kick-start your maritime job training and prepare yourself for an exciting and rewarding career.