So, you want to become a merchant mariner?

So, you want to become a merchant mariner?

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There’s so much conflicting information out there on how to become a merchant mariner, and aspiring seamen deserve honest, straightforward answers. We at wanted to provide you with this information in one, easy-to-read blog post, in an effort to dispel some common misconceptions regarding the process.

The Merchant Marine is no ordinary career path. It’s an exciting lifestyle that comes with many benefits, including opportunities for advancement and plenty of travel. While we wish we could give you a simple, five-step process on how to become a merchant mariner, there is no strict path that applies to everybody. Most mariners learned their skills either by “climbing the hawsepipe,” attending a maritime academy or taking classes at a union-affiliated school.

Each of these routes has its own benefits. Below, we’ve made an honest assessment of each route to becoming a merchant mariner.

Climbing the hawsepipe

The only way to become a merchant mariner without formally attending school is to “climb the hawsepipe,” as they say in the business.

The first thing “hawsepipers” need is their Transportation Worker Identification Card (TWIC). To apply for one of these, visit a TSA enrollment center. And don’t forget, there is a criminal background check involved – we hope you’ve been following the law up until this point!

The TWIC card usually takes several weeks to arrive, but your next step is to obtain a Coast Guard physical. You can download the appropriate form, CG-719ke, online and take it to a doctor to fill out.

Some shipping companies require job applicants to have some Basic Safety Training (BST) under their belt. The Coast Guard offers these types of training courses. Once you’ve done a drug screening, in addition to the above steps, submit your application for a Merchant Mariner’s Credential (MMC). This involves sending your TWIC card, physical examination, and drug screening forms to a Coast Guard examination center.

When you receive your MMC card and everything is approved, you’re ready to apply for jobs! Most sailors begin as ordinary seamen, the most entry-level position in the deck department. But, depending on your preference, you may want to work in the engine room. In this case, you’d start out as a wiper. Either way, you will need 1,080 days of qualifying sea service, plus the passage of an exam, to advance to the next rank of able-bodied seaman.

 The academy route

Want to bypass the first few ranks in the Merchant Marine and enter the workforce as an officer? If you have the financial resources and the wherewithal, you can enroll in one of the nation’s seven maritime academies. Applicants must show strong aptitude in subjects like math and science, and, if applying to the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy at Kings Point, must provide a letter of recommendation from a U.S. Senator.

As an academy student, you’ll take safety training classes, participate in regimental exercises and obtain sea time during summers. Those who study to become deck officers take courses in shipping and marine transportation, while marine engineering majors take mathematics and physics-based courses. At a maritime academy, your life will be very regimented, with drills occurring nearly every morning, classes and training during the day, and studying in the evenings.

If you’re not scared away yet, do realize that there is light at the end of the tunnel. Academy graduates come out of school as maritime officers with bright futures. Job placement rates are extremely high, and it isn’t uncommon to see alumni making $75,000 or more their first year out of school.

Learning the trade

If you can’t afford to attend an academy, but still want some form of education, there is yet another way to become a merchant mariner. Certain unions, such as the Seafarers International Union (SIU), have their own schools where people with little to no maritime experience can gain the skills necessary to sail. Applicants must obtain a TWIC and an MMC card prior to attending. Fortunately, though, most union-oriented schools will cover your tuition and room and board through the entire program.

For the most part, graduates of union-affiliated programs do not immediately work as officers, but as ordinary seamen, or wipers. However, guaranteed employment on union-contracted vessels continues to draw people toward this path.

Programs vary in length, depending on the school. The SIU apprenticeship program takes just under a year to complete. If you attend, expect twelve weeks of vocational training, followed by the same amount of time working on a ship. The last phase involves department-specific training based on the area of the ship in which you desire to work.

It’s important for you to keep in mind, however, that not all apprenticeship programs are created equal. The American Maritime Officers (AMO) union, for instance, runs a two-year long program that certifies engineering officers.

As with many careers, the road doesn’t end when you’ve landed your first job. Mariners must constantly attend license renewal classes to keep their skills up-to-date. Each step up in rank also requires the passage of an exam. Becoming a merchant mariner is as much a lifestyle choice as it is a career path. But here at, we truly wouldn’t have it any other way!

If you’re interested in becoming a merchant mariner, be sure to read more over on The Board

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