Workers in water transportation occupations operate and maintain vessels that take cargo and people over water. These vessels travel to and from foreign ports across the ocean, to domestic ports along the coasts, across the Great Lakes, and along the country’s many inland waterways.


Water transportation workers typically do the following:

  • Operate and maintain non-military vessels
  • Follow their vessel’s strict chain of command
  • Ensure the safety of all people and cargo on board

These workers, sometimes called merchant mariners, work on a variety of ships.

Some operate large deep-sea container ships to transport manufactured goods around the world.

Others work on bulk carriers that move heavy commodities, such as coal or iron ore, across the oceans and over the Great Lakes.

Still others work on both large and small tankers that carry oil and other liquid products around the country and the world. Others work on supply ships that transport equipment and supplies to offshore oil and gas platforms.

Workers on tugboats help barges and other boats maneuver in small harbors and at sea.

Salvage vessels that offer emergency services also employ merchant mariners.

Cruise ships employ a large number of water transportation workers, and some merchant mariners work on ferries to transport passengers along shorter distances.

A typical deep sea merchant ship, large coastal ship, or Great Lakes merchant ship employs a captain and chief engineer, along with three mates, three assistant engineers, and a number of sailors and marine oilers. Smaller vessels that operate in harbors or rivers may have a smaller. The specific compliment of mariners is dependent on US Coast Guard regulations.

Also, there are other workers on ships, such as cooks, electricians, and mechanics. For more information, see the profiles on cooks, electricians, and general maintenance and repair workers.

Captains, sometimes called masters, have overall command of a vessel. They have the final responsibility for the safety of the crew, cargo, and passengers. Captains typically do the following:

  • Supervise the work of other officers and the crew
  • Ensure that proper safety procedures are followed
  • Prepare a maintenance and repair budget
  • Oversee the loading and unloading of cargo or passengers
  • Keep logs and other records that track the ship's movements and activities
  • Interact with passengers on cruise ships

Mates, or deck officers, direct the operation of a vessel while the captain is off duty. Large ships have three officers, called first, second, and third mates. The first mate has the highest authority and takes command of the ship if the captain is incapacitated. Usually, the first mate is in charge of the cargo and/or passengers, the second mate is in charge of navigation, and the third mate is in charge of safety. On smaller vessels, there may be only one mate who handles all of the responsibilities. Deck officers typically do the following:

  • Alternate watches with the captain and other officers
  • Supervise and coordinate the activities of the deck crew
  • Assist with docking the ship
  • Monitor the ship’s position, using charts and other navigational aides
  • Determine the speed and direction of the vessel
  • Inspect the cargo hold during loading, to ensure that the cargo is stowed according to specifications
  • Make announcements to passengers, when needed

Pilots guide ships in harbors, on rivers, and on other confined waterways. They are not part of a ship’s crew but go aboard a ship to guide it through a particular waterway that they are familiar with. They work in places where a high degree of familiarity with local tides, currents, and hazards is needed. Some, called harbor pilots, work for ports and help many ships coming into the harbor during the day. When coming into a commercial port, a captain will often have to turn control of the vessel over to a pilot, who can safely guide it into the harbor. Pilots typically do the following:

  • Board an unfamiliar ship from a small boat in the open water, often using a ladder
  • Confer with a ship’s captain about the vessel’s destination and any special requirements it has
  • Establish a positive working relationship with a vessel’s captain and deck officers
  • Receive mooring instructions from shore dispatchers

Sailors, or deckhands, operate and maintain the vessel and deck equipment. They make up the deck crew and keep all parts of a ship, other than areas related to the engine and motor, in good working order. New deckhands are called ordinary seamen and do the least-complicated tasks. Experienced deckhands are called able seamen and usually make up most of a crew. Some large ships have a boatswain, who is the chief of the deck crew. Sailors typically do the following:

  • Stand watch, looking for other vessels or obstructions in their ship’s path, and for navigational aids, such as buoys and lighthouses
  • Steer the ship and measure water depth in shallow water
  • Do routine maintenance, such as painting the deck and chipping away rust
  • Keep the inside of the ship clean
  • Handle lines when docking or departing
  • Tie barges together when they are being towed
  • Load and unload cargo
  • Help passengers, when needed

Ship engineers operate and maintain a vessel’s propulsion system. This includes the engine, boilers, generators, pumps, and other machinery. Large vessels usually carry a chief engineer, who has command of the engine room and its crew, and a first, second, and third assistant engineer. The assistant engineer oversees the engine and related machinery when the chief engineer is off duty. Small ships may only have one engineer. Engineers typically do the following:

  • Maintain the electrical, refrigeration, and ventilation systems of a ship
  • Start the engine and regulate the vessel’s speed, based on the captain’s orders
  • Record information in an engineering log
  • Keep an inventory of mechanical parts and supplies
  • Do routine maintenance checks throughout the day
  • Calculate refueling requirements

Marine oilers work in the engine room, helping the engineers keep the propulsion system in working order. They are the engine room equivalent of sailors. New oilers are usually called wipers, or pumpmen, on vessels handling liquid cargo. With experience, a wiper can become a Qualified Member of the Engine Department (QMED). Marine oilers typically do the following:

  • Lubricate gears, shafts, bearings, and other parts of the engine or motor
  • Read pressure and temperature gauges and record data
  • Help engineers with repairs to machinery
  • Connect hoses, operate pumps, and clean tanks
  • May assist the deck crew with loading or unloading of cargo

Motorboat operators run small, motor-driven boats that only carry a few passengers. They work for a variety of services, such as fishing charters, tours, and harbor patrols. Motorboat operators typically do the following:

  • Check and change the oil and other fluids on their boat
  • Pick up passengers and help them board the boat
  • May act as a tour guide

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Work Environment

Workers in water transportation occupations held about 81,600 jobs in 2012.

The industries that employed the most water transportation workers in 2012 were as follows:

Deep sea, coastal, and great lakes water transportation 24%
Inland water transportation 21
Support activities for water transportation 19
Government 12
Scenic and sightseeing transportation, water 6

Workers in water transportation occupations usually work for long periods on small and cramped ships, which can be uncomfortable. Many people decide life at sea is not for them because of difficult conditions onboard ships and long periods away from home.

However, companies try to provide a pleasant living condition aboard their vessels. Most vessels are now air-conditioned and include comfortable living quarters. Many also include entertainment systems with satellite TV and Internet connections. Large ships usually have one or two full-time cooks as well.

Injuries and Illnesses

Sailors’ and marine oilers’ jobs can be more dangerous than most jobs. Crew members work outside in storms and other bad weather, which increases the risk of injury.

Workers can also be hurt working with certain machinery, heavy equipment, and cargo. However, modern safety procedures and communication systems have greatly improved safety for mariners.

Work Schedules

Workers on deep sea ships can spend months at a time away from home.

Workers on supply ships have shorter trips, usually lasting for a few hours to a month.

Tugboats and barges travel along the coasts and on inland waterways and are usually away for 2 to 3 weeks at a time.

Those who work on the Great Lakes have longer trips, around 2 months, but often do not work in the winter when the lakes freeze.

Crews on all vessels often work long hours, 7 days a week, while aboard.

Ferry workers and motorboat operators usually are away only for a few hours at a time and return home each night. Many ferry and motorboat operators service ships for vacation destinations and have seasonal schedules.

Education and Training

Education and training requirements vary by the type of job. Officers and engineers usually must have a bachelor’s degree. Most water transportation jobs require the Transportation Worker Identification Credential (TWIC) from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and a Merchant Marine Credential (MMC).


Most deck officers, engineers, and pilots have a bachelor’s degree from a merchant marine academy. The academy programs offer a bachelor’s degree and a Merchant Marine Credential (MMC) with an endorsement as a third mate or third assistant engineer. Graduates of these programs can also choose to receive a commission as an ensign in the U.S. Naval Reserve, Merchant Marine Reserve, or U.S. Coast Guard Reserve.

Non-officers, such as sailors or marine oilers, usually do not need a degree.


Ordinary seamen, wipers, and other entry-level mariners get on-the-job training for 6 months to a year. Length of training depends on the size and type of ship and waterway they work on. For example, workers on deep sea vessels need more complex training than those whose ships travel on a river.

Licenses, Certifications, and Registrations

All mariners working on ships with U.S. flags must have a Transportation Worker Identification Credential (TWIC) from the Transportation Security Administration. This credential states that a person is a U.S. citizen or permanent resident and has passed a security screening.

Most mariners must also have a Merchant Marine Credential (MMC). They can apply for an MMC at a U.S. Coast Guard regional examination center. Entry-level employees, such as ordinary seamen or wipers, do not have to pass a written exam. However, some have to pass physical, hearing, and vision tests, and all must undergo a drug screening, to get their MMC. They also have to take a class on shipboard safety.

Crew members can apply for endorsements to their MMC that allow them to move into more advanced positions.

Wipers can get an endorsement to become a Qualified Member of the Engine Department (QMED) after 6 months of experience by passing a written test.

Ordinary seamen can get an able seamen endorsement after 6 months to 1 year of experience, depending on the type of ship they work on, by passing a written test.

Able seamen can complete a number of training and testing requirements, after at least 3 years of experience in the deck department, to get an endorsement as a third mate. Experience and testing requirements increase with the size and complexity of the ship.

Officers who graduate from a maritime academy receive an MMC with a third mate or third assistant engineer endorsement, depending on which department they are trained in.

To move up each step of the occupation ladder, from third mate/third assistant engineer to second to first and then to captain or chief engineer, requires 365 days of experience at the previous level. A second mate or second assistant engineer who wants to move to first mate/first assistant engineer also must complete a 12-week training course and pass an exam.

Pilots are licensed by the state in which they work. The U.S. Coast Guard licenses pilots on the Great Lakes. The requirements for these licenses vary, depending on where a pilot works.

More information on MMCs and endorsements is available from the U.S. Coast Guard National Maritime Center.

Other Experience

Instead of attending a maritime academy, captains and mates can attain their position after at least 3 to 4 years of experience as a member of a deck crew. This experience must be on a ship similar to the type they hope to serve on as an officer. They also must take several training courses and pass written and on-board exams. The difficulty of these requirements increases with the complexity and size of the vessel. Most officers who take this career path work on the great lakes or inland waterways rather than on deep-sea ships.

Many pilots have years of experience as a mate on a ship. The ship should be of the type they expect to pilot. For example, if they work at a deep-sea port, they should have experience on an ocean-going vessel.

Although there are no license requirements for motorboat operators, some employers prefer applicants who have several years of boating experience.

Personality and Interests

Water Transportation Workers typically have an interest in the Building, Persuading and Organizing interest areas, according to the Holland Code framework. The Building interest area indicates a focus on working with tools and machines, and making or fixing practical things. The Persuading interest area indicates a focus on influencing, motivating, and selling to other people. The Organizing interest area indicates a focus on working with information and processes to keep things arranged in orderly systems.

If you are not sure whether you have a Building or Persuading or Organizing interest which might fit with a career as a water Transportation Worker, you can take a career test to measure your interests.

Water Transportation Workers should also possess the following specific qualities:

Customer-service skills. Many motorboat operators interact with passengers and must ensure that passengers have a pleasant experience.

Hand-eye coordination. Officers and pilots who steer ships have to operate various controls while staying aware of their surroundings.

Hearing ability. Mariners must pass a hearing test to get an MMC.

Manual dexterity. Crew members need good balance to maneuver through tight spaces and on wet or uneven surfaces.

Mechanical skills. Members of the engine department keep complex machines working properly.

Physical strength. Sailors on freight ships load and unload cargo. While away at sea, most workers have to do some heavy lifting.

Visual ability. Mariners must pass a vision test to get an MMC.


The median annual wage for water transportation occupations was $48,980 in May 2012. The median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $24,920, and the top 10 percent earned more than $105,440.

Median annual wages for water transportation occupations in May 2012 were as follows:

  • $70,890 for ship engineers
  • $66,150 for captains, mates, and pilots of water vessels
  • $38,190 for sailors and marine oilers
  • $35,190 for motorboat operators

In May 2012, the median annual wages for water transportation workers in the top five industries in which these workers worked were as follows:

Support activities for water transportation  $59,290
Deep sea, coastal, and great lakes water transportation 50,230
Government 47,600
Inland water transportation 46,780
Scenic and sightseeing transportation, water 35,190

Workers on deep sea ships can spend months at a time away from home.

Workers on supply ships have shorter trips, usually lasting for a few hours to a month.

Tugboats and barges travel along the coasts and on inland waterways and are usually away for 2 to 3 weeks at a time.

Those who work on the Great Lakes have longer trips, around 2 months, but often do not work in the winter when the lakes freeze.

Crews on all vessels often work long hours, 7 days a week.

Ferry workers and motorboat operators usually are away only for a few hours at a time and return home each night. Many ferry and motorboat operators service ships for vacation destinations and have seasonal schedules.

Job Outlook

Employment of water transportation occupations is projected to grow 13 percent from 2012 to 2022, about as fast as the average for all occupations.

Employment of captains, mates, and pilots of water vessels is projected to grow 14 percent. Employment of ship engineers is projected to grow 8 percent. Employment of sailors and marine oilers is projected to grow 16 percent from 2012 to 2022.

As the economy recovers, the demand for waterway freight shipping will grow, increasing the need for these workers. Job growth is likely to be concentrated on inland rivers and the Great Lakes. This will be driven by the demand for commodities such as iron ore, grain, and petroleum. In addition, the need to supply offshore oil platforms will drive growth of supply ships.

However, growth in domestic waterways freight may be limited by an increase in intermodal shipping. Intermodal shipping means that shippers use more than one method to transport a good. An increase in intermodal shipping may send some freight from barges to trains. For some products, rail is a more direct route from the Midwest to a coastal port, which saves time and money.

Jobs in coastal shipping will likely continue to decline, as more companies use foreign vessels to transport goods internationally. However, there is a limit to the decline because federal laws and subsidies ensure that there will always be a fleet of merchant ships with U.S. flags. Keeping a fleet of merchant ships is considered important for the nation’s defense.

The popularity of river cruises as a type of vacation is growing. This trend may lead to more opportunities for workers on inland rivers such as the Mississippi or Ohio River. However, most ocean-going cruise ships go to international destinations, and these ships generally do not employ U.S. workers.

Employment of motorboat operators is projected to grow 6 percent from 2012 to 2022. Demand for these workers will be driven by growth in tourism and recreational activities, where they are primarily employed.

Job Prospects

Job prospects should be favorable for most water transportation occupations. Many workers leave these occupations, especially sailors and marine oilers, because recently hired workers often decide they do not enjoy spending a lot of time away at sea.

In addition, a number of officers and engineers are approaching retirement, creating job openings. The number of applicants for all types of jobs may be limited by high regulatory and security requirements.

For More Information

For more information about water transportation occupations, including employment and training information, visit

Maritime Administration, U.S. Department of Transportation

For more information about licensing requirements, visit

The U.S. Coast Guard

For information about jobs on inland and coastal waterways on barges, tugboats, and towboats, visit

The American Waterways Operators

Lake Carriers’ Association

Passenger Vessel Association


Where does this information come from?

The career information above is taken from the Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook. This excellent resource for occupational data is published by the U.S. Department of Labor every two years. Truity periodically updates our site with information from the BLS database.

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