Deck or engine? Which department is right for you?

Deck or engine? Which department is right for you?

Joining the Merchant Marine is a big choice and one that should not be taken lightly. But once you decide you want to become a merchant mariner, you have another big choice to make: The choice between joining the deck department, or the engine department.

While every merchant vessel has workers that serve in each of these departments, they both demand a different set of skills. So depending on your particular skill set and interests, making the decision between the deck and engine department can have a huge bearing on the level of satisfaction you have with your job.

Inside the deck department

deck department

Photo Credit: MC1 Dustin Diaz, accessed on Wikimedia Commons

Licensed officers and unlicensed crew members of a ship’s deck department are collectively responsible for navigation, lashing and unlashing of cargo while the ship is in port and overall ship operations. They also make sure deck areas are clean and in proper working order. 

Everything from pay, to duties on board the ship are dependent on one’s rank within the deck department. The captain is responsible for keeping the ship running smoothly, as well as maintaining the cargo manifest – the documents that keep track of what cargo is on board.

Most ships also have a handful of mates, from 1st mate, down to 3rd mate. These licensed officers assist the captain with navigation and stand watch at assigned times throughout the day. They each have specific duties as well. Third mates are responsible for maintaining all safety equipment, while second mates are heavily involved in plotting a ship’s course. The first mate, or chief mate, takes on many responsibilities related to the general maintenance of a ship and must be an effective leader among a ship’s crew.

The unlicensed members of a ship’s deck department also have important jobs to do. The boatswain (or bosun) is the highest-ranking unlicensed crew member. He or she serves as the first line of communication between the licensed officers and the rest of the deck crew and is responsible for managing the unlicensed crew members and their duties.

Able-bodied seamen (AB) assist with docking and undocking of the vessel and often help the mates with navigation. They’re also tasked with keeping the bridge of the vessel clean and in good working order. Ordinary seamen (OS) will assist the AB in all his duties.

Most merchant vessels also have a deck cadet – a crew member studying under the guidance of a duty officer. Deck cadets are often responsible for logging ship information and gaining practice in navigation.

The best crew members of the deck department have good organizational skills and keen spatial awareness. All members of the deck department will stand watch during a certain time period, usually for four hours.

Inside the engine department

The engine department of a ship consists of licensed officers like the chief engineer, three ranks of engineering officers and an engine cadet. Unlicensed crew members include the electrician, QMED (Qualified Member of the Engine Department), oiler and wiper. This team is responsible for everything from the plumbing and electrical work on board a ship, to daily maintenance and repair of equipment in the ship’s engine room. 

engine room

Photo Credit: U.S. Navy Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Brian Goyak, accessed on Wikimedia Commons

The chief engineer is in charge of all machinery on board a ship, and his licensed officers (1st, 2nd and 3rd assistant engineers) help him maintain that machinery. 1st assistant engineers maintain all machinery in the engine room, while 2nd engineers check oil levels in the ship and perform chemical testing on the boiler, as well as the water used in the ship’s day-to-day operation. 3rd assistant engineers are tasked with maintaining the electrical and sewage equipment on a ship. If a vessel has a lot of electrical equipment, the electrician will often assist the 3rd engineer in his duties. The engine cadet studies under the guidance of the licensed engineers.

The QMED, a senior unlicensed position on a ship, will inspect equipment in the engine room and will carry out repair of equipment if it happens to break. The oiler will stand a regular watch and generally make sure the main engine and its auxiliaries are running properly. The wiper will perform manual labor like cleaning and painting in the engine room and may even assist with repairs if needed.

Depending on the size, many ships will also have a general vessel assistant (GVA) who goes between the two departments. This unlicensed crew member typically performs the duties of an ordinary seaman and a wiper.

Officers and unlicensed crew members who work in the engine department are very tech-savvy, analytical and good with their hands. The engine room contains the most critical components of a ship, from the main engines and ship’s generators to the salt and fresh water pumps. There’s also the compressed air systems (which supply all air-operated valves of a ship) and the 24-volt battery system.

There must also be constant communication between the engine department and the navigating crew on the bridge. This is especially true when a ship is coming into port and control of the engine must be turned over to the bridge.

While the engine department on a ship certainly has a difficult job, many of these crew members find their work incredibly rewarding.

We hope this blog post gave you a better idea of which department might be the right fit for you. We wish you the best of luck in making the final decision!

Interested in learning more about a career in the Merchant Marine? Sign up for Out2sea – it’s fast, and it’s free!

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