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How to Become a Merchant Seaman

Buzzle Staff
Anyone aboard a ship, right from trainee deckhands to experienced engineers working in the engine department, can be called a merchant seaman. This story will tell you how to become a merchant seaman.
"I went in for training to be a merchant seaman because I'd help build those ships. I wanted to go further." ― Clarence Coughenour, Merchant Marine, World War II
A merchant seaman works on cargo ships, tankers, and similar water vessels. He may be required to assume a variety of roles while he is on board, ranging from a deckhand to the captain. 
Experience is important to progress in this field; one needs to start at the bottom and work their way up. If you begin as a deckhand, a college education may or may not be required; however, while applying for engineering positions, you need to have a bachelor degree program in the related subjects.
That said, credentials are mandatory with every designation, i.e., irrespective of whether you are an engineer or a deckman, you will need to obtain the Merchant Mariner Credential (MMC). In the following paragraphs, you will understand how to become a merchant seaman.

Brief Background

  • A merchant naval ship consists of a little more than a dozen members.
  • There a few engineers, the captain, the deckhands, etc.
  • More often that not, these members have to know each other's responsibilities, i.e., a deckhand should have an idea of what the engineer does in the engine room and the engineer should know how to steer the ship when necessary.

Job Description

  • Merchant seamen take care of the cleaning and maintenance duties - cleaning the dirt, rust, grime, streaks, etc., on the deck and other parts of the ship, painting the interiors and exteriors of the ship, sweeping and mopping when necessary, etc.
  • They need to steer the ship carefully, keep a lookout for obstructions, direct ships away from the troubled waters, help in the loading and unloading of cargo, etc.
  • They also need to repair the complex equipment and machinery when necessary.
  • They have to understand the working of the engine department - in case there is an emergency and an engineer is unavailable due to some reason, the seaman should be able to grasp the situation and take the necessary steps.


  • Hard work
  • Team Spirit
  • Physical Strength
  • Good communication skills
  • Mechanical and social skills
  • Ability to understand complex equipment


  • To be a successful merchant seaman, you require work experience more than formal education.
  • That said, engineers just cannot go out and start off as one, they need to have completed their degree.
  • Generally, an apprenticeship is sufficient for starting out at the trainee level.
  • As for the qualifications, degree courses on subjects, like marine transportation, marine technology, marine operations, etc., will help.
  • Some of these courses have on-the-job training as well.
  • Another option is to join marine academies after high school. You will study related subjects here, and will be eligible to receive your credentials thereafter.
  • It is actually difficult to get into a marine academy - you will require a nomination from the U.S. Senator.
  • Along with that, you will be required to submit recommendation letters, a biographical essay, and undergo a fitness and medical test.


  • You will require merchant seaman credentials in order to begin working as one. You will need to fulfill the eligibility criteria for the same.
  • To begin with, gather the forms necessary. Go to the nearest Regional Examination Center to do so and collect all the required applications.
  • You can obtain the forms online as well, from the U.S. Coast Guard National Maritime Center.
  • Undergo the medical examination. Take a complete physical test, and report the results to the center.
  • You will be required to undergo a thorough background screening as well, conducted by the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security.
  • You will undergo a drug screen test and report the results on the concerned form.
  • Before applying for the MMC (Merchant Mariner Credential), you need to apply for the TWIC (Transportation Workers Identification Credentials). This card is valid for five years; you will receive it around 2 months after the application.
  • Then, fill up the application form for the MMC. You might even want to fill up the Small Vessel Sea Service Form, in case you have served time on a lifeboat or a tug boat.
  • There are certain other forms to be filled as well, depending on whether you have served in the military or the navy.
  • Generally, some people spend time working as a lifeboatman or as a coast guard and then apply to be a seaman. Your experience counts towards your credentials, so fill up the necessary forms very carefully and submit them to the center, with the necessary documentation.
  • After your forms are accepted and approved, and the necessary investigations are carried out, your credential is mailed to you.

Ranks According to Experience

  • Your ranks on the ship depend a great deal on your experience on the boat.
  • If you have six months of experience on any kind of boat, in fact, even if you have spent a great deal of time in training, you will be eligible to load and unload cargo, work on lifeboats, and help in the maintenance department.
  • A year of experience will raise your rank to an AB-Mobile Offshore Unit and get you promoted to larger vessels.
  • Once there, you will be standing on the bow of the ship, performing navigation duties, looking for obstructions, etc.
  • One and a half years of experience will raise you to the rank of AB-Limited, and you will be required to direct other staff and relay messages.
  • A good three years of experience will promote you to the highest rank - AB-Unlimited. You can now perform the most vital functions, like checking the ship while on autopilot.

Job Outlook

  • Merchant seaman jobs are very stressful and hectic, and require you to work very hard.
  • A great number of duties need to be performed while on board.
  • The BLS predicts a decent job growth for this field, yet, as technology improves, automation is reducing the dependence on humans.
  • Nevertheless, the work will be immensely satisfying for someone who loves his job.
Working in the merchant navy can be exciting and adventurous (of course, you need to be that kind of person). If you can hear the call of the sea, be assured that you have a thirst for this job. Buck up and get the required qualifications and credentials, and board the ship! Bon voyage!!