Seafarer's professions and ranks

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Seafarers hold a variety of professions and ranks, and each of these roles carries unique responsibilities which are integral to the successful operation of a seafaring vessel. A ship's bridge, filled with sophisticated equipment, requires skills differing from those used on the deck, which houses berthing and cargo gear, which requires skills different from those used in a ship's engine room, and so on.

The following is only a partial listing of professions and ranks. Ship operators have understandably employed a wide variety of positions, given the vast array of technologies, missions, and circumstances that ships have been subjected to over the years. Usually, seafarers work on board a ship between three and six years. Afterwards they are well prepared for working in the European maritime industry ashore.[1] A ship's crew can generally be divided into four main categories: the deck department, the engineering department, the steward's department, and other. Generally, there are some differences between naval and civilian seafarers. One of them is that the seafarers on merchant vessels are usually not of the same nationality, so that special cross-cultural training is required, especially with regard to a lingua franca.[2] Moreover, administrative work has increased considerably on board, partly as an effect of increased focus on safety and security. A study shows that due to this development certain skills are missing and some are desired, so that a new degree of flexibility and job sharing has arisen, as the workload of each crew member also increases.[3]

Modern ship's complement[edit]


The captain or master is the ship's highest responsible officer, acting on behalf of the ship's owner. Whether the captain is a member of the deck department or not is a matter of some controversy, and generally depends on the opinion of an individual captain. When a ship has a third mate, the captain does not stand watch.

The captain is legally responsible for the day-to-day affairs of the ship as he is in command. It is his responsibility to ensure that all the departments under him perform legally to the requirements of the ship's owner.[clarification needed] The captain represents the owner and hence is called "master".

If the master of the ship is incapacitated or absent from the vessel, the chief officer is in charge of all the operations as he is the executive officer of the ship.[citation needed]

Further details are available from the documented Safety Management Systems (SMS) of shipping companies. If the SMS appoints the chief officer as second in command, he will assume command.[citation needed]

Deck department[edit]

Chief officer/Chief mate[edit]

Epaulettes worn by the chief officer on merchant ships (similar to those worn by a commander in the commonwealth navies)

The chief officer/first mate (often called the chief mate in the United States) is the head of the deck department on a merchant vessel, second-in-command after the ship's master. The chief mate's primary responsibilities are the vessel's cargo operations, its stability, and supervising the deck crew. The mate is responsible for the safety and security of the ship, as well as the welfare of the crew on board. The chief mate typically stands the 4-8 navigation watch. Additional duties include maintenance of the ship's hull, cargo gears, accommodations, the life saving appliances and the firefighting appliances. The chief mate also trains the crew and cadets on various aspects like safety, firefighting, search and rescue, and various other contingencies. The chief officer assumes command of the whole ship in the absence or incapacitation of the master.

Second officer/second mate[edit]

The second officer (or second mate) of a merchant vessel is usually in charge of navigation and is the next licensed position above third officer and below chief officer as third-in-command, after the captain and first/chief mate. The second mate typically stands the 12-4 navigation watch. That is, the second mate will stand watch from 1200 to 1600 at noon and again from 0000 to 0400 in the nights.[citation needed]

Third officer/third mate[edit]

The third officer (or third mate) of a merchant vessel is primarily charged with the safety of the ship and crew. The third mate is the next licensed position on board the vessel, as fourth-in-command after the captain, first/chief mate, and second mate. The third mate tends to take the 8-12 watch. The third mate also generally serves as the ship's chief safety officer.[citation needed]

Deck cadet[edit]

A deck cadet is an officer under training in much the same way as in a military context. Deck cadets train in the fields of navigation, ship handling and cargo handling as well as maritime law. A cadet reports to the chief officer. His or her role as a trainee is to observe and learn, while helping out where possible, mostly the chief officer. As they do not have Certificate of Competency, cadets cannot hold a watch, but will likely assist one of the qualified officers, often with the chief officer, with their watch.[citation needed]


A boatswain—often (at least since 1868) phonetically spelled and pronounced boat-Swain — is the most senior among the deck ratings. The boatswain is responsible for all deck works which includes ship maintenance, and repair of deck equipment.[citation needed]

Able seaman[edit]

In the modern merchant marine, an able seaman (AB) is a member of the deck department and must possess a merchant mariner's document.[citation needed]

Ordinary seaman[edit]

In the United States Merchant Marine, an ordinary seaman or OS is an entry-level position in a ship's deck department. An OS performs a variety of duties concerned with the operation and upkeep of deck department areas and equipment. Upkeep duties include scaling, buffing, and painting decks and superstructure; as well as sweeping and washing the deck. An OS may splice wire and rope; break out, rig, overhaul, and stow cargo-handling gear, stationary rigging, and running gear. Additionally, the OS secures cargo, as well as launches and recovers boats. The OS may rig and operate hydrographic and other specialty winches; handle and stow oceanographic explosives; and stage and stow beach support equipment.[citation needed]

Engineering department[edit]

The engineers are also called technical officers. They are responsible for keeping the ship and the machinery running. Today, ships are complex units that combine a lot of technology within a small space. This includes not only the engine and the propulsion system, but also for example, the electrical power supply, devices for loading and discharging, garbage incineration and fresh water generators.[4]

Chief engineer[edit]

The chief engineer on a merchant vessel is the official title of someone qualified to oversee the engine department. The qualification for this position is colloquially called a "Chief's Ticket".

The Chief Engineer, commonly referred to as "The chief", "cheng",[citation needed] or just "chief", is responsible for all operations and maintenance that have to do with all machinery and equipment throughout the ship. He may be paid on par with the captain, although he is never responsible for the action of ship. The chief engineer cannot assume command and the command always rests with the Captain of the ship, unless it is clearly mentioned within the safety management system.

Second engineer/first assistant engineer[edit]

The second engineer or first assistant engineer is the officer responsible for supervising the daily maintenance and operation of the engine department. He or she reports directly to the chief engineer.

On a merchant vessel, depending on term usage, "The First" or "The Second" is the marine engineer second in command of the engine department after the ship's chief engineer. The person holding this position is typically the busiest engineer aboard the ship, due to the supervisory role this engineer plays and the operations duties performed. Operational duties include responsibility for the refrigeration systems, main engines (steam/gas turbine, diesel), and any other equipment not assigned to the second assistant engineer/third engineer or the third assistant engineer/fourth engineer(s). If the engine room requires round the clock attendance and other junior engineers can cover the three watch rotations, this officer is usually a "day worker" from 0630-1830.[citation needed]

Third engineer/second assistant engineer[edit]

The third engineer or second assistant engineer is junior to the second engineer/first assistant engineer in the engine department and is usually in charge of boilers, fuel, auxiliary engines, condensate, and feed systems. This engineer is the third highest marine engineer in rank. Depending on usage, "The Second" or "The Third" is also typically in charge of fueling or bunkering, if the officer holds a valid Person In Charge (PIC) endorsement for fuel transfer operations.[citation needed]

Fourth engineer/third assistant engineer[edit]

The fourth engineer or third assistant engineer is junior to the second assistant engineer/third engineer in the engine department. The most junior marine engineer of the ship, he or she is usually responsible for electrical, sewage treatment, lube oil, bilge, and oily water separation systems. Depending on usage, this person is called "The Third", or "The Fourth", and usually stands a watch. Moreover, the fourth engineer may assist the third mate in maintaining proper operation of the lifeboats. In the U.S. fleet, it is not uncommon for the third engineer to carry the nickname "Turd Third" due to his/her sewage treatment responsibilities.

Engineering cadet[edit]

A trainee engineer officer normally reports to the second engineer. Their role as trainee is to observe and learn, while helping out where possible. As they have no 'ticket' a cadet can not hold a watch, but will likely assist one of the qualified engineers with their watch. Typical duties may include preparing the engine room log or preparing the tea and coffee at breaks (if asked) for the engineering team. The engineer cadets epaulette is purple, as with the other engineers, however has only one gold horizontal strip (UK system).[citation needed]

Electrical department[edit]

Electrotechnical Officer[edit]

The electrotechnical officer is in charge of all the electrical systems on the ship. Electrical engineer is one of the most vital positions in the technical hierarchy of a ship and engineer is responsible for their assigned work under the chief engineer’s instructions.

Some shipping companies do not carry electrical officers on their ship to cut down the manning cost and the electrical duties are carried by some one from the engineer’s side, normally third engineer. However, many companies realized that electrical and electronic system requires some extra attention and therefore require an expert to attend them.

As the technology is advancing, more and more automations and electronic circuit is replacing conventional and electrical systems. Hence the international Maritime Organisation (IMO) amended STCW 95 on 25 June 2010 known as Manila amendment, to introduce a certified position of Electro-technical officer in place of electrical officer.

Steward's department[edit]

Chief steward[edit]

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. The chief steward also plans menus; compiles supply, overtime, and cost control records. The steward may requisition or purchase stores and equipment. Additional duties may include baking bread, rolls, cakes, pies, and pastries. A chief steward's duties may overlap with those of the steward's assistant, the chief cook, and other steward's department crew members. Although he wears an officer's uniform and is an officer by courtesy in order to head a department, he is not a licensed Merchant Marine officer. He eats and lives with the unlicensed crew, and his insignia is different from that of the ship's officers and engineers.[citation needed]

Chief cook[edit]

The chief cook is the senior unlicensed crew member working in the steward's department of a ship. His position corresponds to that of the Bosun in the deck department, the pump man in an oil tanker, and the electrician in the engine department of a container ship or general cargo ship. He can be regarded as equivalent to a chief petty officer in the Navy.

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.


All other people without a certificate of competence are called ratings. They assist in all other tasks that can arise during a voyage. This includes for example, mooring, cleaning of the ship and its holds and repairing broken ropes. These are physically challenging jobs and have to be done regardless of the weather.[5]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Careers on board". Retrieved 13 December 2014. 
  2. ^ "Cross-cultural training needs of seafarers, shore-based personnel and industry stakeholders" (PDF). Retrieved 13 December 2014. 
  3. ^ Gesine Stueck. "2.1.Future demand of maritime professionals in the maritime and port industry". Retrieved 13 December 2014. 
  4. ^ "Careers on board". Retrieved 13 December 2014. 
  5. ^ "Careers on board". Retrieved 13 December 2014. 

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