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On course

Navigation officers earn big bucks, and learn to master material and manpower management at a young age, writes Rahat Bano

education Updated: Sep 22, 2011 11:54 IST
Rahat Bano
Rahat Bano
Hindustan Times

Aview from a ship: some lush green mountains in the distance blurred by grey mist.

A career in the merchant navy is similar – the grass is really green but the profession also wakes you up to many grey realities.

Delhiite Teena Joey jumped on the bandwagon because she would earn a degree (from the Indira Gandhi National Open University), get paid well and sail around the world.

“It’s a promising career. We knew we would get a job for sure,” said Joey, 24, a second officer with Wallem Shipping Management.

Navigation officers like her look after the safe navigation of a ship, loading and offloading of cargo, radio communication, as well as the crew and passengers.

“It’s as good as it gets,” chipped in her classmate, Aakriti Barthwal, second officer with the Shipping Corporation of India. “We slog for only six-seven months in a year. Others slog for (all) 12,” she adds.

Indeed, when you are on leave, you are totally disconnected from work. Second officer Aman Khurana, a freelance officer, talked about a couple who work in a service industry “who barely see each other during the week”. In the merchant navy, in contrast, he said, “When I’m home, I’m home.”

The profession pays rich dividends – you become independent, and learn manpower and material management at a very young age.

“In 90 per cent of top-notch companies, the salaries come to the same (whether you are freelancing or on contract),” said Khurana at his institute, Applied Research International, in Delhi.

Big salaries in the initial years themselves mean “you can build your house” much earlier in life, added Puneet Vajpayee, freelance second officer with containership company, MSC, Italy.
Even later, say at the age of 40, there are a slew of onshore jobs one can take up.

Sounds tempting? Remember the grey mist?

Sailing requires a tough mental and physical constitution. “You get mentally exhausted,” said Barthwal.

Moreover, being a woman sailor means having to contend with some resistance in this overwhelmingly male-dominated field.

There’s also a social taboo. A ship on which you are the lone lass in a complement (industry speak for team) of anywhere between 20 and 40 is “not the safest of places but it’s upon us (to handle),” said Joey.

What's it about?
The merchant navy is made up of civilian officers and crew who transport cargo as well as passengers in non-combatant, commercial ships. It has two main divisions: navigation and engineering. Navigation officers look after the safe movement of a ship, loading and offloading of cargo, radio communication, as well as crew and passengers. They are headed by the master, also known as the captain. The hierarchy is as follows:
. Master, or captain n Second officer or second mate
. Chief officer or chief mate nThird officer or third mate

Clock Work
A day in the life of a deck officer on board a ship:
3.30 am: Get up, have coffee
4 am (morning watch): Duty starts. Check maps and ship’s navigation path
8.30 am: Have breakfast
9.30 am to 11.30 am: Oversee ship’s maintenance; do routine paperwork on fortnightly/ monthly maintenance
11.30 am: Tea break
11.45: Resume work
12.30 pm: Have lunch
1.30 pm: Go back to sleep
4 pm: Resume watch. Take records of ship’s movement
6 pm: Dinner
7 pm to 8 pm: Resume work Finish any pending work

The Payoff
Salaries are highest for gas tankers, followed by chemical tankers, oil tankers, container ships and bulk carriers or general cargo vessels
Monthly salary (earned only while you sail):
. Deck cadet: $350-$450
. Third officer: $2,000 to $4,000
. Second officer: $3,000 to $4000
. Chief officer: $5,000 to $9,000
. Master: $7,500 to $14,000 Contracts last 6-7 months

Be physically and mentally tough because you are away from home for long periods and face certain risks at sea. However, officers are allowed to take family on ship – conditions apply
. Possess leadership qualities
. Have an aptitude for people and material management
. Be adaptive and willing to live with people with varying personalities in the same place for long spells

How do i get there?
Pass Class 12 with physics, chemistry, maths and English. Then, opt for three-year BSc nautical science programme by clearing (a) the IIT Joint Entrance Examination (followed by a medical exam and counselling) to enrol at an institute offering the degree; (b) the common entrance test of Indian Maritime University; (c) entrance test of private institutes. To work as a deck officer and for promotions, one must clear exams held by the ministry of shipping

Institutes & urls
. The Indian Maritime University, a Central-government institution, has seven regional institutes, including National Maritime Academy, Chennai and TS Chanakya, Mumbai
More details on
. Tolani Maritime Institute, Pune

Pros & cons


Well-paying, adventurous work


Travel around the world; international exposure


Work for about six months at a stretch and rest for four


Sailing for days can be physically and mentally exhausting. It’s tough being away from family and society


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


The environment at times may not be too comfortable for women

Options in Navigation abound

A teacher and sailor provides an insight into the profession

What made you join the merchant navy in general and navigation in particular?
I joined the merchant navy as I had a keen interest in it, right from my childhood. My father has been a master (captain) since 1972 and seeing him go on ships encouraged me to join this career and specifically navigation because this field satisfies the human nature of mastering a machine.

What skills or qualities are important for survival and success in this profession?
The training provided on shore prior to joining the vessel and after joining makes every individual capable of being a good sailor. The skills and qualities needed are:
. Be physically fit with 6/6 eyesight and no colour blindness
. Be a go-getter
. Be prepared for sudden changes in routine
. Should not be too specific about the food that he eats (can eat vegetarian or non-vegetarian food)
. Cannot be too much of a family man (should not be someone who cannot live without his parents, wife and child, or vice versa)
. Should be patient
. Must be systematic

What’s the scope in navigation today?
The scope is very good, as the current Indian scenario is such that marine-related (opportunities) are still open to be exploited.

How do the pay packages vary for Indian and foreign ships?
Indian ships pay at par with foreign ones. However, due to the tax deductions on income earned, Indian ships’ pay in hand may be less than foreign ships’.

(See info box for figures)

Other than teaching and consultancy, what are the onshore options for navigation officers?
There are many onshore opportunities, including:
. Ship agency jobs
. Port captaincy
. Port agency
. Logistics related – this means transporting cargo from the seller to buyer. For example, Wallenius Wilhemsen transports Nissan vehicles from Chennai to other countries.
. Container handling/ planning/ logistics agency
. Port pilots, port administration
. Commercial operations of a ship operator/ owner/ manager
. Be a part of technical, training, or operations team of a ship management firm
. Work with government or private surveying firms, ship/port suppliers
. Tanker operations/ safety/fixtures, marine, safety and quality team of a ship manager/owner – there are vessels which carry oil, chemicals and gas in bulk. There are experienced personnel needed for
managing the operations of these ships, for safety, fixing cargoes and to carry out quality and standards maintenance activities
. With enhanced education, a person can get into freight forwarding, multi-modal transport operations or logistics, etc.
. There are various jobs in the off-shore industry

Capt Gurusher Bahadur Singh, nautical officer, lecturer at VELS Academy of Maritime Studies Interviewed by Rahat Bano

First Published: Nov 02, 2010 11:51 IST