What’s it like working as a Deck Officer?
Working in an executive department responsible for the navigation, manoeuvring and safe handling of the ship, communications between ship and shore, the handling and delivery of cargo, and the operation of all lifesaving devices, the role of a Deck Officer is vital onboard a merchant vessel.
As the highest ranking Deck Officer, the Chief Officer – also known as the First Officer – will have the ultimate responsibility for the handling of cargo and the efficient running of the ship. With the assistance of lower ranking Deck Officers, all of whom have to be certified by examination after completing the appropriate qualifying sea time, this team keeps the ship and its crew safe, secure and in business.
As part of the deck department team, Deck Officers spend time on the bridge navigating the ship and out on deck where weather conditions can be dark and stormy, or beautifully warm and bright. Onboard, Deck Officers usually have their own internal cabin with ensuite facilities, and on larger ships they may have access to leisure facilities.
As work patterns for Deck Officers are in shifts for between a few weeks and several months at a time, Deck Officers spend long periods away from family and friends. However, holiday leave is generous in order to compensate for the time spent away from home.
What kind of work can I do?
Deck Officers are often responsible for management of the Ratings (some of whom may not understand much English), navigation using satellite and radar systems, managing and using communication systems, and supervising the safe loading, storage and unloading of cargo. They can also be in charge of monitoring and supervising the maintenance of the ship’s safety and firefighting systems and equipment, making stability calculations, record-keeping, and training. In essence, Senior Deck Officers handle the administrative, financial, legal and commercial matters relating to the ship, in comparison with the ship’s Master who has overall responsibility for operations.
Where can I work?
As there is no central hub for Deck Officer recruitment, potential candidates must approach ship owners and managers or training organisations directly to find sponsored training opportunities. Deck Officer training incorporates onshore studies in shipboard familiarisation, navigation, collision regulations, first aid, firefighting, personal survival and safety, and at-sea training in the form of shadowing experienced officers at sea as Deck Cadets.
After training both onshore and at sea and sufficient sea time, Deck Officers will start their career onboard as a low ranking Officer, which depending on the size of the ship might be Third, Fourth or Fifth Officer. Promotion is possible from Third Officer to Second Officer, to Chief Officer and, ultimately, to Master. With a clear career path from the start, becoming a Deck Officer puts you on first rung of the ladder to becoming the Master of a ship.
What are the shore-based opportunities when I am ready to leave the sea?
There are many opportunities for people with seafaring experience in ship management and other maritime-related occupations ashore:
- Ship management and fleet operations
- Surveying ships to check seaworthiness, for repair and maintenance purposes, to check cargo details
- Ports and harbour work
- Training the seafarers of the future
- Ship repair, marine equipment production
- Marine insurance, ship classification, maritime law and arbitration
There is a great demand for those with seafaring skills and experience!
Susie Thomson is a second officer on one of the ships operated by the Royal Fleet Auxiliary (RFA), the civilian manned fleet of ships operated by the Ministry of Defence. The RFA has a fleet of 22 ships of many different classes including tankers, container ships and aviation support.
What are your main responsibilities?
My principal responsibility is the navigation and loading of the vessel. This includes careful planning of routes from leaving one port to arrival at the next. It also includes bridge watchkeeping, where I ensure that the vessel is on the correct route and avoids any potential hazards.
What hours do you work?
I spend four months appointed to a ship, and then have three months’ leave. Whilst at sea, the shift pattern is generally four hours on and eight hours off. I work from 4.00am to 8.00am, then 4.00pm to 8.00pm as senior watchkeeper. Flexibility with hours is essential as ships operate 24 hours a day. Additional duties include mooring operations, loading and discharging cargo and security checks, but as there are strict regulations on working hours, other hours on duty are reduced to compensate.
What is your working environment like?
Again that varies from vessel to vessel. Our smaller ships have only around 37 crew members and the largest may have around 150. The crew become a tight knit community, and everyone knows and works alongside everyone else, particularly on the smaller vessels. RFA ships are all well equipped, modern and sociable places to work.
What skills or qualities do you need?
All personnel are trained in the sea skills required for their career path. As a female in a male-dominated environment, I think it’s really important to be particularly motivated and self-confident. The ability to work well in a team is absolutely essential.
Why did you choose this type of work?
When I was a student I wasn’t sure what career I wanted, but having worked part-time in a call centre, I knew that office work and a nine-to-five routine wasn’t for me. I heard about the RFA through a family friend and the more I looked into it, the more I thought it might be something I’d enjoy. What appealed to me the most was the travelling, the variety and the responsibility it gives you. The training package and the money offered impressed me too, so I applied and was fortunate enough to be offered a place as a deck cadet.
What training do you do?
As a cadet, training lasts for three or four years. Some time is spent at sea and some is at college – in my case the Nautical College in Glasgow. At the end of this period, most cadets leave with an HND or degree and as a certified Officer of the Watch. The RFA cover the cost of this training and pay a salary as well.
Training is ongoing, as it’s important to keep up to date with new technology. Specific training is given when I am new to a vessel or some of the technology it uses.
What do you like/dislike about your job?
I love the responsibility and the sense of job satisfaction when the job’s done and we’re safely in harbour. For example, it can take around four hours to plan charts for entry to Plymouth, then a further two hours to execute the entry. The whole ship is counting on me to have got it right, so to complete a task like that gives a great sense of fulfilment.
The only negatives are the paperwork and administration duties that a management role brings, but I have to accept that as an equally important part of the job.
What are the main challenges?
The main challenge is working with so many different people from differing walks of life. I constantly have to adapt my way of thinking to get the best from the people around me.
How do you see your future?
I’m hoping to gain promotion to the rank of first officer, and to stay at sea for another six years or so until I’m 30. Then I may consider a shore role as I hope to have children at some point and, though it’s a personal choice, I’d rather not work at sea then. There are options that don’t require such long spells at sea such as ferry work, but I like the idea of working in the shore-side marine sector, putting my knowledge and experience to good use. There are plenty of interesting opportunities such as shipbroking, teaching or working for the marine accident investigation branch.
- S and H grades.
- Glasgow Nautical College as RFA cadet.
- Graduated with HND as a certified Officer of the Watch.
- Current post as second officer.
- When applying for a cadetship, do research on the company you are applying to well in advance.
- Make a five year plan, and strive to achieve it.
- Working at sea is a fantastic way of life but it’s not for the faint-hearted.
- Give working at sea a go…you’ll never know the opportunities available until you investigate the possibilities.
Photo Thomas Kohnle