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Toilers of the sea

If you can handle the rigours of a navigation job, you can earn big bucks and travel the world as a merchant navy officer. Here's all that you wanted to know about this career option.

education Updated: Nov 25, 2009 10:29 IST
Rahat Bano

The sugar in your tea, the petrol in your bike and umpteen other consumables reach you by sea, thanks to a tribe of hardworking people who spend months on end - away from their homes and loved ones - at sea. A major pillar of the merchant navy (the other being engineers), navigation or deck officers manoeuvre ships to transport about 90 per cent of the world's goods (as well as passengers) from one place to another.

One such person is Suneha Gadpande, 25, who has crisscrossed the entire world, barring Europe, sailing for a total of 44 months. A graduate of the public sector navratna Shipping Corporation of India's (SCI's) training institute in Powai, she is now chief officer, the second-in-command, on a ship. Officers like her, also called chief mate, oversee loading and unloading of cargo, ensure the vessel is in good shape, manage the crew and take care of the paperwork required for sea transportation.

Gadpande says she wanted to get into the Navy, for which she required a Bachelor's degree. So, when she got to know about the SCI training option, she quit the first year of her mechanical engineering programme at NIT Bhopal to be among the first group of women allowed into this still male-dominated bastion. Initially, says Gadpande, it was "pretty difficult" for the women as well as men not used to having the fair sex on board.

Hisar boy Vikrant Punia, 23, is third officer with SCI, a rank above the trainees. A BSc in nautical science from SCI's Maritime Training Institute, Punia is happy about taking a shortcut to a career. "I didn't have to do a four-year engineering course and then search for a job." This job promises lots of money and adventure - all at a very young age. You can become a captain, master in industry parlance, in about 12 to 15 years, including at least eight years of sailing time, depending on one's experience and vacancies on ships.

A seafarer's life is no bed of roses between the endless sky and sea but you can go places if you have what it takes. It's important to remember that this is a physically and emotionally demanding profession. Gadpande advises, "Join if you can survive alone…one has to be mentally prepared for the job."

"If you dock at Singapore, you wouldn't be out sightseeing. You have to carry out cargo duties," says Gadpande, who recently completed a two-week course on tankers in Delhi. Shipping is an expensive business and companies don't want their vessels docked idle for long. The time available to you will depend on the kind of cargo you handle, says Tushar Sharma, senior manager - personnel, Ebony Ship Management, Delhi. "With dry cargo, you will get two to three days and with tankers, one or two. If the ship is at anchor, and the agent says your turn will come after a week, you can take a boat to come ashore."

It's a lucrative career, no doubt. Job prospects are "very good because the number of officers is less," says Capt. Pankaj Sarin, Director, Applied Research International, New Delhi.

Foreign companies consider Indian officers and Filipino crew the ideal complement on a merchant ship. Higher pay and income tax exemption due to non-resident status make most professionals sign up for foreign-flag carriers. However, on the other hand, the tax rules and a law requiring Indian ships to hire crew from within the country have caused a shortage of quality manpower in domestic companies, whose combined share in the global sea-route business dipped from about 35 per cent in 1990-91 to under 14 per cent in 2004-05.

What's it about?
Not to be confused with a country's naval defence force, the merchant navy is made up of civilian officers and crew who transport cargo as well as passengers in non-combatant commercial ships. Merchant vessels move 90 per cent of the world's goods - from crude oil, LPG, LNG, kerosene, petrol, coal and mineral ore to wheat, vegetable oil, rice, crockery, shoes, cars, yachts and other products. The global industry boasts a combined fleet of about 40,000

Clock Work
Duties are divided into shifts as 4 am to 8 am called morning watch, 8 am to noon - forenoon watch (third officer's time), noon to 4 pm - afternoon watch (second officer), 4 pm to 8 pm, first dog watch (chief officer); 8 pm to midnight - second dog watch (third officer) and so on.
An average day in the life of a deck officer on board:
3.30 am: Get up and have a cup of coffee
4 am: Duty starts. Check that the ship is going in the right direction
8.30 am-9.30 am: Breakfast at officers' mess
9.30 am to 11.30 am: Oversee ship maintenance; do routine paperwork on fortnightly/ monthly maintenance. Log details of crew's overtime
11.30 am: Tea break
11.45 to noon: Resume work
12.30 to 1.30 pm: Have lunch
1.30 to 3.30 pm: Go back to sleep
4 pm: Resume navigational watch
6-7 pm: Dinner
7 to 8 pm: Get back to work. Finish any pending work
If you have time to spare you can watch movies on DVD players or listen to music on CDs in the officers' lounge (or on your laptop), work out at the gym, play table tennis, chess or read novels

The Payoff
Pay packets vary for different ships: the highest is for gas tankers, followed by chemical tankers, oil tankers, container ships and bulk carriers or general cargo vessels.
Monthly pay packages while on a foreign ship:
Deck cadet (trainee): $ 350-450 (Rs 16,284 to Rs 20,936)
Third officer: $ 2,000 to $3,000 (Rs 93,058 to Rs 1,39,577)
Second officer: $ 3,000 to $ 3,500 (Rs 1,39,577 to Rs 1,62,876); $ 4,000 (Rs 1,86,145) for tankers
Chief officer: $ 5,000 to $ 6,000 (Rs 2,32,636 to Rs 279,181); $ 9,000 (Rs 418,635) for tankers
Master (captain): $ 7,500 to $ 9,000 (Rs 348,789 to Rs 418,618) for bulk carriers; $ 10,000 to $ 14,000 for tankers
Average monthly pay on Indian ships:
Fresh deck officer: About Rs 1,25,000
2nd officer: Rs 1,50,000
Chief officer: Rs 2,20,000
Captain: Rs 3,00,000
Shipping companies hire officers on contract, generally of six to seven months

Be physically tough
Show leadership qualities
Aptitude for people and material management
Be adaptive and willing to live with different people in the same place for long spells
Be mentally strong as you are absent from home for long periods and face certain risks at sea (some officers are allowed to take spouses on ship)

How do I get there?
You should pass Class XII with physics, chemistry, maths and English, usually with at least 60 per cent marks (50 per cent in English. After this, opt for the three-year BSc nautical science programme by clearing (a) the IIT Joint Entrance Examination (followed by a medical exam and counselling) to enrol at one of the institutes offering the degree; (b) the common entrance test of Indian Maritime University, which has affiliated institutes and centres across the country; (c) entrance test of private institutes. To work as a deck officer on a merchant ship and for promotions, you need to clear exams held by the Ministry of Surface Transport. More details, including medical requirements, at Under government rules, women candidates are given age exemption and fee waivers

Institutes & Urls
Indian Maritime University, Chennai, (with affiliated institutes across India)
TS Chanakya, Mumbai
Tolani Maritime Institute, Pune,
Applied Research International, New Delhi
International Maritime Institute, Greater Noida

A list of approved, private institutes is given at

Pros & Cons

Well-paying, adventurous work

You get to travel the world

International exposure

The work is not for the squeamish

Not as many job options on shore, as there might be for engineers

Sailing for days can get a bit dull. It's tough being away from the family with limited access to news from land

Indian officers are in demand abroad

Sudhir S Rangnekar, CEO, Indian National Shipowners' Association, talks about the job scenario in merchant shipping

SS RangnekarIndian shipping companies' share in the global sea trade sector dropped from about 35 per cent in 1990-91 to under 14 per cent in 2004-05. What's the current situation? What impact has this dip had on the Indian shipping industry as an employer?

Indian shipping companies' share in India's exim trade was maximum 40.7 per cent in 1987-88. Thereafter, it gradually slid over the years and in 2007-08, it was about 9.5 per cent. However, this has not resulted in any dip in terms of employment of Indian seafarers. Shipping tonnage has actually grown over the last three or four years and currently stands at 9.45 million gross tonnage. However, the fact of the case is that the growth in tonnage has not been able to cope up with the growth in India's exim trade, which has on average grown at a CAGR of 7.75 per cent. Moreover, Indian ships participating in the cross trade, i.e. Trade between countries not involving India, increased substantially and continue to engage Indian officers and crew. Therefore, in Indian companies as an employer, there has never been a dip for employment opportunities for Indian seafarers. In fact, job options for Indian seafarers have gone up also in various sectors such as offshore, dredging etc. It may be pertinent to mention that around 75 per cent of Indian merchant navy officers and seamen work on foreign flag ships.

Tell us something about the evolution of merchant navy and the job profiles of deck officers. What should aspiring navigation officers keep in mind before taking the plunge into this line?
The ships are navigated, propelled and maintained by highly qualified, trained, and skilled navigating officers and marine engineers. Officers of both disciplines undergo maritime education, training, shipboard training, and other highly specialised training programmes for a period of between four to six years before getting their certificate of competency as officers. The ships today are totally mechanised, sophisticated machinery and equipment, and have a very high level of automation system. The communication systems on ships these days are very advanced and operate through the satellite systems. This profession requires hard work, an analytical mind, and adaptability to shipboard working and living conditions, which entails prolonged periods of working hours with very little rest at times. However, there are lean periods, too, when the ship is in open seas.

How many women Indian deck officers work in merchant shipping? Any measures to encourage them to join up?
At present, fewer than 10 women work on Indian ships as navigating officers and fewer than 20 work on Indian ships as marine engineers. There is an age relaxation of two years across the board at entry level for women and tuition fee for the induction courses is 50 per cent with a view to encourage them to enter into the marine profession.

The manpower demand and supply for deck officers expected in the next five years?
The demand for both navigating (deck) officers as well as marine engineers is growing. More and more foreign companies are sourcing Indian officers and seamen, or increasing the share of Indian officers and seamen in their fleet. This trend is likely to continue, irrespective of the recession or otherwise.

What are the growth prospects in merchant shipping?
After having sailed in the ships starting as a trainee, and going up the hierarchy slowly young officers can hope to become captain or chief engineers, depending upon selection of the branch. The officers can also opt for shore assignments as port pilots, surveyors, lecturers, safety auditors, shipping company management professional, technical shipping management organisations, and slowly rise up to secure top management positions, or can even show entrepreneurial skills to become a shipowner.