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Entry Level Jobs in the Merchant Marine

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Choose Your Path from Deck, Engine and Steward Departments

Entry level jobs in the merchant marine – Part 1: Deck

By Capt. Benjamin Garman, Administrator of the Northwest Maritime Academy

On board ships there are essentially three departments:  Deck, Engine and Steward. As you acquire sea time in each of these departments you will move up the chain of command and work your way to the top in the respective department.

This week on Episode 4 of our “NWMA Weekly” podcast we talk about moving up from entry level in the Deck department.

entry level

In the deck department you start out as an Ordinary Seaman (OS). After you have acquired a year (360 days) of sea time working on vessels you are ready to work on getting your promotion to Able Body Seaman (AB).

  • As a side note: If you work on a ship that regularly has you working 12-hour days you can count each day as a day and a half, but only if it specifically says so in your sea service letter (Discharge).
  • As another side note: You can use time in another department for your upgrade from OS to AB, but only then and only three months of time. For instance, if Joe, OS, worked in the galley cleaning dishes for six months then switched jobs and worked on deck for six months he would still need to get three more months to have the time for promotion.
  •  As yet another side note: Instead of spending about two years working as an OS to get your sea time you could go to Seattle Maritime Academy and take their one-year AB program and walk away with your AB in hand.

The Northwest Maritime Academy can help you achieve your AB promotion with these two important course offerings:

  1. Take the one-week AB class offered monthly by the Northwest Maritime Academy in La Conner, Wash.
  2. Then, take the Personal Survival Craft (Lifeboatman) or Personal Survival Craft Limited class also offered every month by NWMA in Seattle.

Note: You get a price break on these two classes if combined at registration.

able seaman course in seattleAfter you have taken these classes you will be able to submit to the U.S. Coast Guard and get your upgrade to AB and start making around two and a half times more than the OS wage.


To keep moving up:

  • After three years of sea time, and lots of testing, you move up to the 3rd Mate position.
  • After a year working that position you move up to 2nd Mate, or Navigator.
  • After a year of time there and more testing, you move up to one of the hardest and highest paying jobs on the ship: Chief Mate.
  • After a year of that you will make it to Ships Master, or Captain, the highest rank on the ship.

Realistically, this would take you about 15 years if you figure that you will be shipping half the time and vacationing and studying for your upgrades the rest of the time. But, it is totally achievable by the average person with the right desire (and no felonies on their record).

A person who works his or her way up through the ranks from entry level unlicensed merchant seaman to ship’s officer is called a “hawsepiper.” Along this upward path, from the person cleaning the head to the ship’s master is a lot of studying and hard work. But here at the Northwest Maritime Academy we can ease the difficulty and confusion and help you on your way.

Call today for all of your upgrade questions and we will set you on the right course.

The NWMA offers Able Bodied Seaman (or known simply as AB) classes every month at its La Conner location, so keep checking our courses link on this website for dates and times.

For more information call Northwest Maritime Academy Administrator Capt. Ben Garman at (253) 358-2447

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