Ships, perhaps the most ancient mode of transport used by humans to explore the earth, still have a romance about them that is unmatched by even the fastest aircraft. Modern ships are to their early-dawn cousins what the moon rocket is to the Wright brothers’ glider. It is the marine engineer who manages the enormous propellant power and the intricate machinery of a ship, helping it cross an ocean within days.
“During the four years of training for a marine engineering degree, a student would be educated in all engineering aspects of the ship, including construction, running, operations and maintenance,” says JK Dhar, principal, Lal Bahadur Shastri College of Advanced Maritime Studies & Research, Mumbai. But this being a life on sea, there is more to learn than just about machinery. “More importantly,” says Dhar, “the student would be prepared for the career ahead, which is highly paying but hard at the same time. This career will keep him away from his family in the initial years, while he is sailing round the globe.”
On these long voyages, patience and diplomacy are as important as hardcore engineering skills. “You have to be flexible, as everybody is homesick, maybe frustrated,” says Sairam Mohan, a Bangalore-based third engineer with Bernhard Schulte Shipmanagement. After eight years of sailing, Mohan, an alumnus of Vel’s Academy of Maritime Studies in Chennai, is thinking of options closer home, now that he has a wife and a child. His choices are power plants or coastal ships that largely connect Indian ports.
Months and months of living surrounded by water means not many women choose this career or go far in it. However, there are compensations — substantial ones at that. First, there is the pay, which is very high even at the starting level and then rises steadily as the promotions come. Then, there is the time off, which is four to six months in a year. Third, as a sailor, one gets to see the world.
For those who are not called away from the sea by family commitments, the top rung of the ladder is the post of chief engineer. “A marine engineer becomes chief engineer but not captain,” says Dhar. “To become a captain, one has to do a three-year degree programme in nautical science after Plus Two, then take an all-India entrance exam and subsequent exams conducted by the government of India. However, both the paths are parallel with respect to salary and career progression.”
A marine engineer normally sails for 15-20 years. After the age of 40, people usually take up shore jobs, which may be in shipyards, maritime universities or in management of a shipping company. Other employment sectors are banks, hotels and power plants. With the opportunities and rewards that this line offers, for a marine engineer, it seems, the sea is the limit.
What’s it about?
Modern ships use the latest technology and equipment that the marine engineer has to understand, operate and maintain. The job demands a high degree of discipline, since a chief engineer will be in charge of a ship and cargo costing hundreds of millions of dollars. Machinery include the main propulsion plant, a power generating system, a freshwater generating system, boilers and turbines for pumping cargo and large cargo handling gears. This is different from the job of a deck officer, which involves navigation of the ship, receiving and discharging cargo and administrative work. A marine engineer can be assigned to a cargo ship, container ship, or oil and gas tanker. To work on a gas-carrying ship, one will be required to do a short certification course
On ship: Watch-keeping duty hours are in blocks of four hours round the clock
At port: The junior engineer keeps watch and other engineers carry out repair and maintenance from 8 am to 5 pm While the ship remains at the port, all engineers and crew members are allowed to go ashore and visit local places of interest
The salary of a marine engineer at operational level (first rung after the six-month training) is $1,000 to $2,000 a month (average Rs 70,000 for a junior engineer), going up to $8,000 with promotions. A chief engineer gets around $10,000 (about Rs 5 lakh) a month.
These figures could change depending on the size and the type of ship and flag of the ship
Mental strength, as a ship’s maintenance is literally a matter of life or death
Resolute ambition, since career progression depends on regular, tough exams
The ability to get along with people, since at sea, the crew is your family
Physical fitness, as it could make a difference to the number of sailing years
How do i get there?
The Lal Bahadur Shastri College of Advanced Maritime Studies & Research, Mumbai, a central university, offers a four-year BTech degree programme in marine engineering.
The entrance qualification is Plus Two with physics, chemistry and maths along with IIT-Joint Entrance Examination ranking.
Other institutions also have degree programmes with the same Plus Two requirements and with some national-level entrance examination. They are affiliated to reputable universities in the country. The Marine Engineering & Research Institute in Kolkata, the oldest such college in India, offers a four-year BMarE degree through affiliation to Jadavpur University. A graduate engineer joins the ship as a trainee
Institutes & urls
Indian Maritime University, Chennai
Lal Bahadur Shastri College of Advanced Maritime Studies & Research, Mumbai
Marine Engineering & Research Institute, Kolkata
.Haldia Institute of Maritime Studies & Research, West Bengal
Pros & Cons
. It is a very highly-paid job
. You acquire world-class skills
. You travel the world
. Post-sailing job options aplenty
. The sailing takes a toll on your body
. It is hard for people who are married
Wanted: More Indians
A professional gives insight into the making of a marine engineer
For a student finishing school and about to choose a career, what does marine engineering mean?
Marine engineering has very good job prospects with high pay and opportunities to travel. A trained engineer can work in ship building and maintenance, research, manufacture of navigating and engineering equipment, teaching, administration, plant management, project management, etc. A graduate marine engineer can also go for higher studies and do research or be involved in management without actually sailing.
Marine engineers can also join government service and classification societies.
In general, there is no scope for moving from deck responsibilities (administration, navigation, etc) to maintaining machinery or vice versa. However, a new course called a ‘Polyvalent course’ allows this changeover.
Can a marine engineer get into the Indian Navy?
Most marine engineers work on commercial vessels. Some who passed out from the Marine Engineering and Research Institute (formerly the Directorate of Marine Engineering Training) joined the Indian Navy as lieutenants.
How does one choose the right institute?
Research the institute’s reputation in terms of placement record and also how its alumni have fared. All institutes are graded by rating organisations and are regulated by Directorate General of Shipping. Institutes are also controlled by degree-awarding universities. Now, the Indian Maritime University has come into being, and all courses must satisfy STCW-95 (Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping) requirements.
Vessels with nuclear power have their own reactors, controlled by specialists in nuclear energy who have training other than marine engineering. There are specialisation courses for various tanker operations. Candidates may choose as per requirements.
Can an Indian marine engineer directly join a shipping line not based in Asia?
Marine engineers qualified in India are in demand worldwide . However, everybody must carry Panamanian and Liberian certificates while joining ships registered in those countries. Indian engineers can get equivalent certificates on application.
SK Sarkar Interviewed by Sanchita Guha