OfficerCadet.com - What is the Merchant Navy?

  • What is the Merchant Navy?

    When most people hear of the “Merchant Navy” they think of big grey warships and guys running around with guns. They're thinking of the “Royal Navy”, part of the military and completely separate from the British Merchant Navy.

    If it’s the Royal Navy you’re interested in then you should probably head over to their web site located here.

    So what is the Merchant Navy? In simple terms it is the name given to every other type of commercial ship sailing the seven seas. It encompasses a wide range of companies and is a truly international industry which provides some great opportunities, if you want to take them!

    The Merchant Navy is made up of various companies and ship types which trade all over the world;

    Container Ships - Range from small feeder ships trading between islands to some of the biggest ships in the world, containerisation revolutionised the shipping industry and it’s thanks to the container industry that we have so many goods in our high street shops.

    Did you know that more than 90% of the goods we have in our shops will have travelled in a container at some point on their journey to the store?

    Tankers - Carry oil, fuel, gas and chemicals around the world. Without these vessels the cost of filling up your car would be sky high!

    Bulk Carriers - Bring coal, grain, ores and other powdered substances to our shores.

    Ferries - From the small inter island ferries providing a vital transportation link to our island communities to the massive sea going ferries providing links to the continent for cars, trucks and passengers.

    Cruise Ships - The age old days of crossing the atlantic or traveling to the other side of the world on ships was wiped out over night by the advent of air travel. The industry was quick to change into traveling for pleasure and the cruise industry continues to grow carrying holiday makers to distant shores around the world.

    Off Shore Support - We have a large oil field close to home in the North Sea which is supported by a fleet of vessels, providing survey, construction and crew / supply transfers to the oil and gas industry. Many of these companies also supply similar services to oil fields around the world in exotic locations such as Brazil, Caribbean & Australia.

    Other - There’s also many other types of vessel out there from cable and pipe line laying to survey and fishery protection vessels.

    Opportunities Available?

    The types of jobs available onboard vary by ship type, on cruise ships and ferries there are a lot of “hotel positions” however as this site is primarily for Deck & Engine cadets / officers we shall concentrate on these;

    Deck Officers
    Deck Officers (aka. Navigation Officers) hold watches on the bridge, during which time they are the masters representative and are responsible for the safe navigation of the vessel & her cargo. You’ll also have vital emergency duties should the worst happen and may be responsible for training crew in emergency procedures. During a watch you’ll be the one making the decisions to avoid traffic and “conning” the vessel (steering). You’ll also be responsible for ensuring publications are up to date - including the ships nautical charts and complying with all local and international laws and regulations.

    As a senior deck officer you will move away from the watch keeping side of the job and take on responsibility for the vessels stability, cargo loading, supervising the junior deck officers, maintenance of all parts of the vessel except the engine room as well as other more ship specific duties.

    Ultimately if you choose to stay at sea, the top position you can reach within the deck department is the Master (the official name for Captain). As Master you will be responsible for everything and everyone onboard the vessel.

    Engineering Officers
    Engineers are responsible for operating and maintaining all the mechanical equipment onboard the vessel. As well as maintaining the ships engines, generators, pumps and hotel services you will also assist the deck officers with maintenance of deck and safety equipment.

    As you progress through the ranks you will be responsible for more sophisticated equipment with the ultimate goal of reaching Chief Engineer where you are responsible for the entire department and work with the master to ensure the voyages are a success.

    Electro-Technical Officers
    Some vessels may also carry Electro-Technical officers (ETO) who are normally part of the Engineering team. As an ETO you would be responsible for the electronic equipment onboard, including all the navigation and engine room systems.

    What is a “Cadet”?

    “Cadet” is the title used within the industry for a trainee officer, it’s one of the main starting points in a career as an officer at sea. Cadets attend one of the nautical colleges located throughout the UK and spend their time split between learning academic subjects at college and putting what they’ve learned into practice at sea in the “real world”. It’s a bit like an apprenticeship in that your training costs tend to be paid by your sponsor company and they even give you a small salary to live on while you’re training.

    What does a Cadet do onboard?

    Cadets should join the vessel as an additional member of the crew. In most cases you will spend your first “trip” working with either the deck or engine ratings. This provides an excellent base for what they do onboard and get you introduced to the variety of tasks that need to be done onboard.

    Deck Cadets can expect to spend their first trip doing a lot of “chipping and painting” - banging rust off the decks and repainting it, assisting with mooring operations (tying the ship up to the dock), helping with cargo loading / unloading, helping the officers with their paperwork and other non watch keeping tasks. They may also spend a little time on the bridge but this is unusual during the first trip.

    As a first trip Engineering Cadet you can expect to spend the first few days and weeks learning about how each piece of machinery within the engine room works and tracing out each and every pipe within the ship. No matter how prepared you are or how much you think you know about Engineering, nothing will prepare you for your first few days in an engine room. You'll spend a lot of time learning how to sound tanks, take ullages, transfer fuel, transfer water, transfer faeces and look like you're enjoying it! The Main Engine is the most important part of the ship, and nearly everything within the engine room is dedicated to ensure that the Engine will work so you will learn how to prepare, stop and secure the main engine and you will expected to be able to do it on your lonesome by the end of the trip. You will also learn how to start and stop generator engines and how to parallel them on the switchboard so that the ship has the electricity it needs to operate.

    Once you reach your second, third or fourth trip as a cadet you can expect to be spending more and more time understudying one of the officers. This provides you with an opportunity to learn what they do and put into practice all the academic stuff you learned at college. The general idea being that by the end of your cadetship you should be capable of doing the junior officers job on your own.

    Some of our members write blogs detailing their experience at sea, to have a look at them visit our blog section.

    Onboard Life

    Generally you will work every day that you are onboard for a minimum of 8 hours (watch keeping). As an officer you will be “available” 24/7 during your time onboard incase there is an emergency, unusual occurrence such as another officer becoming ill or for stations (arriving / departing port). Some ships allow alcohol onboard, others don’t. Trip lengths range from a few weeks to a few months depending upon the type of ship you are on. Generally the more you are paid and further you travel, the longer you will spend onboard.

    Opportunities?

    Depending on ship type you can get the opportunity to travel to some exotic and exciting places - however if your sole motivation for joining the Merchant Navy is to travel - then I suggest you look elsewhere as in many cases ships spend very little time in port and the time they do spend tends to be very busy!

    How do I apply?

    Your first step, if you are sure its what you want to do, is to apply to one of the many sponsoring companies. They all operate different types of ships so its a good idea if you apply to the types you are interested in, although ultimately it doesn’t matter as the academic training is the same regardless and you can always change types once you gain your licence.

    Further Information

    If you are interested in becoming part of the Merchant Navy we encourage you to have a look at some of our members blogs which cover their time as cadets and after qualifying. You might also want to have a look at the resources below;




    Images of the Red Ensign and Maersk container ship by L2F1 from Flickr. Kindly licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons BY 2.0 licence. Images of ship's bridge and cadet painting by Christopher Doyle, with permission (all rights reserved). Image of engine room telegraph by Steven Depolo, kindly licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons BY 2.0 licence.
    Comments 24 Comments
    1. Steve's Avatar
      Steve -
      The Merchant Navy is not restricted to "commercial" shipping. All government owned non-commercial vessels not directly operated by the Royal Navy are also part of the Merchant Navy.

      The confusion between Merchant Navy and Royal Navy could have been avoided if King George V had not renamed the Merchant Marine after WWI. The general public would still not understand "Merchant Marine", but would at least not confuse it with "Royal Navy".
    1. Matey's Avatar
      Matey -
      Quote Originally Posted by Steve View Post
      The Merchant Navy is not restricted to "commercial" shipping. All government owned non-commercial vessels not directly operated by the Royal Navy are also part of the Merchant Navy.

      The confusion between Merchant Navy and Royal Navy could have been avoided if King George V had not renamed the Merchant Marine after WWI. The general public would still not understand "Merchant Marine", but would at least not confuse it with "Royal Navy".
      Im confused, how could a non commercial ship be part of he merchant navy? Surly the clues in the name? How can a coast guard cutter be a merchant ship?
    1. GuinnessMan's Avatar
      GuinnessMan -
      Quote Originally Posted by Matey View Post
      Im confused, how could a non commercial ship be part of he merchant navy? Surly the clues in the name? How can a coast guard cutter be a merchant ship?
      Coast Guard is not a part of the Merchant Navy. They are a part of the UK Emergency Services and Border Agency.
    1. size4riggerboots's Avatar
      size4riggerboots -
      However, the officers and crew still need to be trained and certified to STCW etc standards. ANY ship over 500GT and any tanker over 150GT is required to follow SOLAS and the rest of it, apart from the actual Royal Navy who have their own rules, regs and are generally a law unto themselves. Therefore, whether a ship is involved in "commercial trading" or has some other function, for the purposes of our understanding, they all come under the bracket of Merchant Navy, which basically means "Anything that floats that isn't grey and doesn't carry guns".
    1. Steve's Avatar
      Steve -
      Quote Originally Posted by Matey View Post
      Im confused, how could a non commercial ship be part of he merchant navy? Surly the clues in the name? How can a coast guard cutter be a merchant ship?
      Fair point on the UKBA (we don't have Coast Guard cutters), there are some government vessels that would not reasonably be considered Merchant Navy, but many are.

      Quote Originally Posted by size4riggerboots View Post
      "Anything that floats that isn't grey and doesn't carry guns".
      *cough* RFA *cough*
    1. GuinnessMan's Avatar
      GuinnessMan -
      They carry guns....
    1. Steve's Avatar
      Steve -
      Precisely.

      PNTL might be amusingly confusing - not grey but do carry guns, albeit to be operated by CNC at Master's direction(-ish). Anyone sailed on PNTL? I'd love to hear how it works in more detail. I've spoken to the CNC guys but not anyone from the ship side.
    1. size4riggerboots's Avatar
      size4riggerboots -
      Pedants.
    1. Steve's Avatar
      Steve -
      Quote Originally Posted by Steve View Post
      All government owned non-commercial vessels not directly operated by the Royal Navy are also part of the Merchant Navy.
      That was a bit of a broad brush saying "All", I must have been posting late at night . For "All" read "Many". I failed to consider vessels operated by the Army and the likes of UKBA and other "enforcement" agencies. Not sure where SFPA would sit, since the crews are Merchant Navy but the role is law enforcement. An interesting list covering some types of state owned vessel, many of which are blue ensign Merchant Navy can be found at: http://www.marine.gov.uk/ships2.html
    1. Matey's Avatar
      Matey -
      Quote Originally Posted by Steve View Post
      Fair point on the UKBA (we don't have Coast Guard cutters), there are some government vessels that would not reasonably be considered Merchant Navy, but many are.



      *cough* RFA *cough*
      Isn't the RFA apart of the naval service alongside the royal navy, royal marines and reserve forces. (that's aparently what the queens regulations states (according to wikipedia)
    1. GuinnessMan's Avatar
      GuinnessMan -
      PNTL, CSC?

      Alphabet soup anyone?
    1. Steve's Avatar
      Steve -
      Quote Originally Posted by GuinnessMan View Post
      PNTL, CSC?

      Alphabet soup anyone?
      Nonono, CSC is a Company Service Contract. but that hasn't been mentioned yet.
    1. Steve's Avatar
      Steve -
      Quote Originally Posted by Matey View Post
      Isn't the RFA apart of the naval service alongside the royal navy, royal marines and reserve forces. (that's aparently what the queens regulations states (according to wikipedia)
      I don't have a copy of BR2 to hand, but the status of the RFA is rather complicated and even if part of the Naval Service that does not necessarily exclude it from the Merchant Navy.
    1. electrolytic_coffee's Avatar
      electrolytic_coffee -
      The Coastguard and the Boarder Agency are two separate organisations. The Coastguard is part of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, this agency is a branch within Department for Transport (DFT).

      The Border Agency is encompassed by the Home Office and is not affiliated with the Coastguard in anyway other than it is a government agency.

      Tertiary to this, Customs Cutters do exist and the belong to HM Revenue & Customs which is separate again. Thats not to say there arent inter-agency actions because there are but at an organisational level they all deal with different things.

      I could go on, with Fisheries protection (DEFRA), SFPA (Executive Agency of the Scottish Govt.)....but hopefully the pattern is clear..

      The RFA is an organisation within the Ministry of Defence but its personnell are not military, they are Civilian just like all the other agencies and organisations I have mentioned. SO yes they are part of the MOD but they are not military.

      Similarly, you have organisations such as Trinity House, Northern Lighthouse board etc.... They all are ships employed by the UK government in some function or another but are part of the Merchant Navy by the same token, this must be then true of the RFA.

      I could be wrong, it is late and this was a nice distraction from my horrible project work.
    1. Steve's Avatar
      Steve -
      Quote Originally Posted by electrolytic_coffee View Post
      Tertiary to this, Customs Cutters do exist and the belong to HM Revenue & Customs which is separate again. Thats not to say there arent inter-agency actions because there are but at an organisational level they all deal with different things.
      Customs cutters are no more, that part of HMCE was moved over to UKBA and not HMRC.



    1. Clanky's Avatar
      Clanky -
      Quote Originally Posted by size4riggerboots View Post
      Pedants.
      I think you will find that the correct term is precisionist :P
    1. gadget123's Avatar
      gadget123 -
      What about the average merchant ship which most of us work on.

      If I am on a container ship/tanker/ bulk carrier which is foreign owned and registered am I in the British Merchant Nay or the Panama/Bahamas/Singapore Merchant Navy?

      I know it dosnt really matter but its an interesting idea.
    1. Steve's Avatar
      Steve -
      You are a British merchant mariner employed in a foreign merchant marine/navy.
    1. GuinnessMan's Avatar
      GuinnessMan -
      Merchant Navy isn't actually a navy, just the old name of the industry...
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