What Does a Merchant Seaman Do?

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  • Written By: Laura M. Sands
  • Edited By: Heather Bailey
  • Last Modified Date: 26 November 2019
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A merchant seaman is an individual who works onboard a water vessel to transport cargo across oceans and lakes. While the majority of seamen who work in merchant shipping handle cargo, some also transport humans and animals. There are multiple types of merchant seamen positions, such as captain, deck officer and engineer positions. While all work together to assure safe and reliable transport, detailed job descriptions for these types of seamen vary.

Some individuals who work as a merchant seaman are able to work close enough to a port to live onshore. For example, a ferry captain may live in mainland housing when not on duty. Most seamen live at sea for long periods of time, however. Seaman jobs for those living onboard a water vessel for an extended period of time are known to be particularly dangerous at times due to severe storms and other hazards, such as fire, slips and collisions. Very strict safety rules apply to seamen jobs and individuals must receive basic training in boat handling and safety procedures before becoming employed as a merchant seaman.


Also known as merchant marines or merchant navy positions, various types of seamen jobs exist within the industry. A captain or a ship master is a general overseer of the vessel’s operation. Among the many duties expected of a person in this position is the responsibility for assuring that the vessel remains on course, is operating safely and that records of everything that take place onboard a vessel or pertaining to cargo shipment are accurate.

As another type of merchant seaman, a sailor or a deckhand, also known as an ordinary seaman or an able seaman, has various duties involving manual labor. For example, an able-bodied seaman may be assigned to maintain a vessel’s gear, raise or lower smaller vessels from a main deck or clean a vessel’s deck. Higher ranking able seamen also supervise other deckhands to perform various manual labor duties to ensure that the vessel operates at its most optimal level.

A merchant seaman generally undergoes formal training and an apprenticeship before being hired to work as an employee on a vessel. Often, these individuals are trained in the military, but may also receive specialized private training. Depending on the jurisdiction and specialty one works in, a merchant seaman may also be required to obtain licensing before being able to work. A small minority of merchant seamen acquire positions through on-the-job training.


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Post 3

It can be tough to get into these kinds of jobs unless you're willing to go down to the shipyards and just start asking around. If you can get one it can be a ticket to see the world though, with a pretty good salary even though the work is tough.

It's something I'd recommend that young people do for a few years, but not necessarily make a career out of it.

Post 2

@pastanaga - Not necessarily. I think that being a merchant seaman back in the old days meant taking on a lot of risk (since ships were even more likely to go down or get lost back then) and the rewards were huge if you were smart about it. Things we take for granted today, like pepper, were total luxuries back then and anyone who managed to bring some into port would have their weight in gold.

I guess they are still probably moved around the world by merchant seamen and marines, but the process is a bit different now. And I imagine a merchant seaman's salary is fixed, rather than dependent on the wares and their market value.

Post 1

I think, once upon a time, a merchant seaman was the name for anyone who actually traded their own wares on the ocean, whether they were renting space on a ship, or owned their own ships.

These days the title is applied to people who work in merchant seaman jobs, but aren't actually selling their own wares.

Ironically, I think they probably are earning more money than people in the old days with the title, as working on ships means earning a good salary, since the job can be so dangerous.

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