A look inside the steward department

A look inside the steward department

If you work in the engine or deck departments, you may not have a lot of direct interaction with those who cook and clean for you every single day. But without the hard-working folks in the steward department, all productive work on board the ship would stop.

ship galley

A member of the steward department cooks pancakes in the ship’s galley.

No merchant mariner can work on an empty stomach, and working on a dirty vessel would lead to sickness and low morale. In this Out2Sea blog post, we’re taking a look inside the steward department, to honor those who make merchant ships feel like home.

Life in the steward department

Just like any licensed or unlicensed member of the deck or engine department, members of the steward department must obtain a proper Merchant Mariner’s Document (MMD). Mariners embark on this career path in many different ways, since the educational requirements aren’t quite as defined as they are for other departments.

Some start off by shipping out and working their way up by gaining the necessary sea time as a messman, the lowest-ranking member of the steward department. There are also classes offered through organizations like the Seafarers International Union that can help a mariner advance in the steward department. The goal, of course, is to advance all the way up to the rank of chief steward, the highest-ranking member in the department.

Chief steward

Although the chief steward is often an expert chef, as the main authority in the department, part of their role involves supervising both the galley (where the food is cooked) and the living quarters of the ship’s crew. Both these areas must be kept clean and functioning properly. The chief steward must also have pretty solid accounting skills, since the job requires one to order and keep track of food and other supplies that staff may use throughout the course of a voyage. He or she will often plan meals, with the input of staff.

If a chief steward wants to further their education, unions do offer programs for becoming a recertified chief steward, an even higher distinction. By taking a three-week-long residence program focused on galley operations and leadership skills, chief stewards can climb even higher in their careers.  

Chief cook

The chief cook serves as second-in-command of the steward department. A chief cook’s responsibilities include supervising other crew members working in the galley and preparing the main course for every meal. He or she maintains order and cleanliness in the kitchen area and will often assist the chief steward with meal planning.

Second cook

The chief cook is assisted by at least one other cook, depending on the size of the ship. The second cook, who works closely with the chief cook, will handle many of the more complex cooking duties aside from the main course. Most second cooks do a lot of baking, which includes preparing desserts and dinner rolls. The second cook will also mix ingredients when the chief cook is occupied. On many ships, second cooks are responsible for preparing breakfast.

Third cook

The third cook provides further assistance to the other crew members in the galley. The position is quite similar to that of a “prep cook,” as they say on land. Third cooks do a lot of work to keep the equipment in the kitchen clean, while also chopping and washing vegetables before they’re added to a recipe.


The messman has to be willing to lend a hand anywhere the chief steward needs him. A messman may be called to clean up after a meal in the kitchen or set the table before a meal. His or her set duties involve getting the dining room ready, preparing coffee and serving meals to other crew members.

Messmen also clean the officers’ quarters and make their beds. A good messman must be service-minded and have adequate people skills. Out of all the members of the steward department, people in this role probably interact with the most crew members on the vessel.

The steward department might not get the recognition that the other departments get sometimes, but anyone who’s ever sailed on a ship knows that the person operating the stove and doing the cleaning really makes a world of difference.

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