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Moving Up the Chain of Command

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NWMA Weekly Episode 5: More Tips on Moving Up the Chain of Command

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

This week on our NWMA Weekly podcast we continue to talk about how to work your way up the chain of command in the United States Merchant Marine. Most people work a variety of land jobs before ever setting foot on a ship and here are some huge differences that most landlubbers would never think of:

Everyone is a Firefighter/Emergency Responder:

In modern-day America you always have someone to call if things go wrong. Sink is clogged, call a plumber. Power is out, call the power company. Phone is out, well, you probably go buy a new one.

In the Merchant Marine you have to work with what you have on the ship, which includes your shipmates, as help is usually a long way out. For example, everyone has to be an emergency responder, so all crew are required to take BT (Basic Training) in order to get their MMC (Merchant Mariner Credential). Check out the Pacific Maritime Institute in Seattle to learn more about BT classes.

In this week-long course you will learn about First Aid and CPR, firefighting, personal survival techniques, personal safety and social responsibility. (Northwest Maritime Academy does not offer some of these classes at this time.)

Job Responsibilities are Very Clearly Defined:

commandOn land your employer can ask you to do lots of things that may or may not be in your initial job description, and you may report to multiple bosses. In the Merchant Marine every ship’s command structure is very clearly defined and your responsibilities are laid out for you when you sign on. (Upon joining a ship you must “sign on,” which means you sign your shipping articles and are given your responsibilities in case of emergency and you receive lifeboat and emergency squad assignments.)

On the ship you are very clearly made aware of the command structure and everyone reports to someone above them, including the captain. For example, if an engineer noticed that a head is dirty on the main deck, this would be an OS job. But even if the engineer knew and was on good terms with the OS he would not speak to him about it. He would tell his boss and they would send that information to the deck department. The deck department would give the job to the bosun and he would determine who the cleaning job goes to and, sure enough, the OS gets assigned the job.

Many would see this as inefficiency, but after spending lots of time on ships as a deckhand and as a bosun (leader of the deck gang) I now know that only getting your orders from one person is actually a blessing. It allows you to focus on your work or the work of your gang very clearly without being side-tracked by other people’s problems and jobs. On the ship, you just follow orders and focus on your assigned work. On land, the pile of work may just build and build, but on the ship you sign on and do what you can and when you sign off, it all gets handed to the next guy.

So in summary, when you first start on the ship, find your boss and make him/her happy by getting your work done. If anyone tries to pawn off work on you, just direct them to your boss and be on your merry way…unless it’s the captain, of course. Then do the job and tell your boss later that you got shanghaied by the captain. He will understand.

Salty First, Friendly Later:

commandOn land you want to start every first encounter with a smile, a firm handshake and a positive introduction. On a ship, that will get you into trouble. Many times on ships you will work with someone for four months and not know their name, but within four days you will know their rank. On the ship each person signs on and gets a billet number. This is essentially your new name/position.

When shipyards build new ships they determine, according to size and function, how many of each crew type will be needed to operate the vessel safely, and they form a billet list. For the rest of the ship’s life, for it to be underway it will need a full complement of that allotted crew. Since each crewman gets all his jobs from the boss above him, he will be upset if you ask him a question or say something to him if he does do not know you. First, you must make it clear what your billet is.

Here is an example of the right way and wrong way for a new OS to ask the steward a question:

Right way:

“Hello. I’m the new OS and I’m lost. I was looking for some new soap and linens for my room…and where my room is. Could you help me out?” Steward: “Oh, yeah. I think the rooms got switched. Let me show you. My name is Rocky, by the way. Welcome aboard. You need anything for your room, let me know.”

Wrong way:

command“Hey, I heard you were in charge of the linens and soap and there is none in my room. Could you get that fixed so I can shower and sleep tonight?” Steward:  “F*&% you. You know how hard I work on this ship and you are coming at me like this?! I’m going to talk to the captain about a (another expletive) like you interrupting my work.”

As you can see from this example it is very important when talking with any crew member besides your direct supervisor that you tell them your rank and acknowledge theirs before proceeding. Then, don’t be telling them to do anything (very, very bad). You are asking for their help.

Also, it is best to not say much for the first two weeks until you get a good feel for the crew dynamic. Remember, when you first sign on you will be the new guy and all eyes will be on you. It’s best to be seen as a quiet, non-disruptive crewmate who fits in.

Good luck and see you next week!


The NWMA offers Able Bodied Seaman (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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