Merchant Navy Deck Officer

The Job and What's Involved

Merchant navy deck officers make sure that merchant navy ships navigate safely from one destination to another. They are responsible for ship communications, cargo handling, ship stability and managing the crew. They may work on ferries, cruise liners, cargo ships, bulk carriers, container ships, tankers as well as more specialised vessels and the vessels of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary (RFA).

The main duties of a merchant navy deck officer usually include:

  • Planning and plotting the ship's course, bearing in mind fuel costs, weather, sea and other conditions.
  • Making stability calculations.
  • Navigating and manoeuvring the ship when on watch.
  • Checking the ship's speed and direction.
  • Acting as look-out to spot potential dangers.
  • Supervising junior officers and ratings, who may come from many different countries.
  • Managing and using hi-tech communication systems, such as satellite navigation and computerised charts.
  • Mooring and unmooring duties.
  • Overseeing and assisting with the operation and maintenance of ship and deck machinery (eg winches and cranes).
  • Supervising the safe loading, storage and unloading of cargo.
  • Monitoring and supervising maintenance of the ship's safety and firefighting systems and equipment.
  • Maintaining the ship's log and dealing with paperwork.
  • Training junior deck officers.

On cruise liners, they may also deal with passengers and attend social functions. RFA ships may be involved in wartime activities.

Senior officers handle the administrative, financial, legal and commercial matters relating to the ship (eg on entry to port). On small ships, everyone may be expected to help out with practical tasks.

Merchant navy officers work shifts (watches) to provide cover 24 hours a day. Typically, a watch of four hours on is followed by eight hours off, but this will vary from ship to ship. For example, after a voyage of four months, officers may get two months' holiday.

Deck officers spend time on the bridge navigating the ship and on deck, where weather conditions can be cold, wet, dark and stormy. Work on deck can be physically demanding.

Uniforms and protective clothing are provided.

Officers usually have their own small cabin with facilities en suite, although standards may vary. Larger ships often have good leisure facilities. Most spare time is spent on board.

Trainees may start on an allowance of around £10,000 a year.
Experienced deck officers may earn up to £40,000 a year and Captains may earn £70,000 a year, or more.

Salaries on ships spending at least 183 days a year out of the UK may be tax free.

Employers pay for food and accommodation while at sea, as well as related travel costs.

Getting Started with this Career Choice

There are around 9,500 UK deck officers. The UK merchant fleet is increasing in size and there is a shortage of qualified officers.

There is no central recruitment. Potential trainees should apply for a sponsorship to the training and sponsorship organisations listed at Some of these organisations recruit for a large number of shipping companies and can arrange placements on a succession of different ships. Entry to the most popular companies may be competitive.

Education and Training

Several entry routes are offered by sponsoring organisations:

  • Officer cadet training requires a minimum of four GCSE's (A*-C), including English, mathematics, physics or combined science and a willingness to study to Higher National Diploma (HND) level.
  • Applicants who can additionally offer 120 UCAS points (higher in some cases) at A level or equivalent are eligible for a sponsored foundation degree programme.
  • Applicants with 160 UCAS points at A level or equivalent may be sponsored on to a sandwich degree in Nautical Science offered by Liverpool John Moores University.
  • Merchant navy ratings and royal navy officers may take a conversion course to train as a deck officer.

The University of Plymouth also offers a full-time degree in marine studies (merchant shipping) for candidates with one science A level or equivalent. The course includes an additional voluntary placement at sea for sponsored students only.

Taking part in a Careers at Sea ship visit is a good way of finding out more about life at sea.

All entrants must have good eyesight (wearing glasses or contact lenses is permitted) and normal colour vision. They must pass a medical before being accepted for training.

A Few More Exams You Might Need

All trainees must complete the Marine Coastguard Authority (MCA) Certificate of Competence as Officer of the Watch (OOW), entitling them to work on all kinds of ships throughout the world.

The HND in nautical science usually lasts three years. The foundation degree in nautical science or marine operations also lasts three years and offers the chance to enter the third year of an honours degree. The sandwich degree in nautical science usually takes four years and includes a dissertation.

Sponsorship packages usually cover tuition fees, training at sea, and accommodation and meals at college and on board ship.

All training consists of three alternating periods onshore at marine college or university and two periods on board ship. Trainees start by learning essential skills onshore, including shipboard familiarisation, first aid, firefighting, personal survival and safety. At sea they work alongside experienced officers.

Entrants study topics such as:

- Chart work
- Tides and sailings
- Meteorology
- Cargo work
- Ship construction
- Navigation
- Marine law and management
- Bridge watchkeeping
- Emergency response and ship stability
- Passage planning
- Maintenance
- Cargo and port operations
- Safety management systems

Former Royal Navy officers with relevant experience may be exempt from some aspects of training.

Entry after training is normally as a third officer. Before applying for promoted posts it is necessary to study for higher OOW Certificates of Competency. The highest level of competency is the master's certificate, which entitles the holder to become a ship's captain. It generally takes an extra six years to complete.

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Skills and Personal Qualities Needed

A merchant navy deck officer should be:

  • A natural leader with a sense of adventure.
  • A good communicator, in both speech and writing.
  • Able to cope with seasickness.
  • Fit and healthy.
  • Good at maths and calculations.
  • Accurate and demonstrate consistently good judgement.
  • Very safety conscious.
  • A team player.
  • Confident in social situations.
  • Able to take on responsibility, often at an early age.
  • Calm and decisive in emergencies.
  • Enthusiastic and self reliant.
  • Tolerant.
  • Aware of costs and financial matters.

Your Long Term Prospects

Promotion is normally to second officer, chief officer and captain.

Experienced officers may go into related onshore work.

There are also opportunities in ship management and fleet operations, ship surveying, lecturing and training, recruitment, regulatory authorities, shipbuilding, ship and equipment repair, port operations and pilotage, marine insurance and finance, shipbroking, maritime law and offshore exploration.

Get Further Information

The Marine Society,
202 Lambeth Road,
London SE1 7JW
Tel: 020 7654 7000

The Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA),
Spring Place, 105 Commercial Road,
Southampton, Hampshire SO15 1EG
Tel: 02380 329100

Maritime Skills Alliance,
1 Hillside, Beckingham,
Lincoln LN5 0RQ
Tel: 01636 629115

The Merchant Navy Association,
9 Saxon Way, Caistor,
Market Rasen LN7 6SG
Tel: 01472 851130

Merchant Navy Training Board,
Carthusian Court, 12 Carthusian Street,
London EC1M 6EZ
Tel: 020 7417 2800

The Royal Fleet Auxiliary (RFA),
Captain Naval Recruitment HQ,
Room G-13, Building 1/080 Jago Road,
HMNB Portsmouth, Hants PO1 3LU
Tel: 0845 604 0520

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