Shipmates, also known as merchant mariners, are professional seamen who operate and maintain ships of all sizes. The typical deep-sea ship's crew consists of three different ship officers: the first mate, the second mate, and the third mate. Each ship officer's job duties increase in importance with the first mate having the most responsibilities of the three shipmates.
Shipmates occasionally work on freshwater vessels as well. These boats that sail on fresh bodies of water such as large lakes typically have a much smaller crew. Often, only a single merchant marine will handle all of the job responsibilities usually handled by the three shipmates. The smaller size of most freshwater vessels makes this job possible.
Merchant mariners, contrary to popular misconception, are highly trained professionals who dedicate long hours and perform the arduous day-to-day tasks of operating seagoing and freshwater ships. These professional civilian sailors may ferry people or massive amounts of cargo such as raw fuels, metals, and other commodities from country to country. Indeed, without the work of merchant mariners, the entire global commodities market would not function as efficiently.
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The job duties of shipmates depend upon the size and scope of the vessels that shipmates operate. No matter the size of the vessel, the primary responsibility of all shipmates is to safely transport a ship's cargo, both manufactured goods and personnel.
The types of seagoing and freshwater vessels shipmates work on are numerous. Shipmates can work on tanker ships, international container ships, tugboats, bulk supply ships, salvaging vessels, and even cruise ships. Shipmates may also ply their trade on any number of private vessels as well.
Ship mates who work on tanker ships transport petroleum products and many other types of precious liquid commodities around the world, sometimes traveling thousands of miles to complete the job properly. Shipmates who work on large container vessels ensure the safe transport of all types of manufactured goods by securing and overseeing proper storage of the cargo.
The job duties of shipmates working on tugboats and salvaging vessels are similar to the job duties of shipmates working on deep-sea cargo ships. The main difference is that these two types of ships do not carry large amounts of occasionally volatile cargo. Shipmates on tugboats sail for much shorter periods of time, and salvage vessel shipmates only sail when deployed in an emergency.
The main day-to-day responsibility of a merchant marine is to sail the vessel while the captain rests. In the worst-case scenario, a ship's first mate would be the first to assume the position of captain in case of an emergency. Usually, however, shipmates schedule and supervise the job duties of the entire crew, navigate the ship safely, and ensure that the vessel travels at a safe speed.
The top educational institutions in the United States and Canada include the United States Merchant Marine Academy, the Maritime College of the State University of New York, and the Georgian College Great Lakes International School. Many more vocational colleges exist near the busiest ports in North America, but these institutions represent the programs with the most demand and highest post-graduation employment rate.
Well-paid shipmates more often than not hold at least a bachelor's degree and have many years of sailing experience as well. Also, a large number of shipmates have sailing experience in the military. Not surprisingly, a large number of employers actually prefer to hire highly skilled former naval officers who enter the civilian sea trade.
Jobs as a merchant marine require licenses and hands-on training. In the United States, for instance, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security requires that merchant marines hold an up-to-date Merchant Marine Credential and a Transportation Worker Identification Credential as well.
Many merchant marine vocational schools include a Merchant Marine Credential along with a degree. In other cases, prospective shipmates can apply to take the Merchant Marine Credential examination at any regional U.S. Coast Guard center.
Earning a Transportation Worker Identification Credential requires a thorough security screening by the government. In addition to a background check, entry-level shipmates must provide proof of citizenship and proof of residence in the country.
As touched upon previously, the work environment of a merchant marine varies widely. Large deep-sea cargo and container vessels require shipmates to travel to any number of highly trafficked international ports. Indeed, many shipmates choose this career in order to enjoy traveling internationally, sailing for weeks or months at a time.
Typically, freshwater ships do not require long sailing hours, but the work environment of these vessels is basically the same as deep-sea ships. The difference is that domestic merchant marines usually work on smaller vessels, which require less intense day-to-day maintenance. Also, freshwater sailing involves much less risk than sailing for months at a time across the world's busiest oceans.
Shipmates can earn a salary of approximately $65,000 annually. This figure represents the median of all shipmates who work on the international and domestic levels. The bottom portion of all entry-level shipmates may earn as little as $25,000 annually, but the top echelon of shipmates and captains may earn as much as $100,000 annually.