A Guide to the Career of a Seafarer

Thinking of joining the maritime industry as a seafarer? Curious about the life of a seafarer? Read on to find out more.

Lee Kok Leong, our special correspondent, interviews Captain James Foong, a 33 years old Malaysian seafarer with 15 years of sailing experience, on everything you need to know about the professional life of a seafarer.

James is elected as a young Associate Fellow to The Nautical Institute London, and passed his Master Mariner Certificate of Competency (CoC) Class 1 at age 28 in New Zealand.  He is presently in his final year of the MBA in Shipping & Logistics at Middlesex University, London. 

What does a seafarer do?  Are there different career tracks?

Well, for a commercial merchant navy vessel, say, a 8000 TEU container ship, typically there are three main departments onboard: the deck, which includes the navigation and cargo operations; the engine department, which focus on the machinery onboard ship and of course including the main engine; and the most common but usually forgotten, is the catering department which consist of the Cook, the most influential rank onboard after the Master.  

What about professional career progression?

The career progression depends very much on the certificate/license you are holding.  You can be extremely good at work but without a proper certification or license, you most likely may be “stuck” at one rank for a long time due to the many regulations that are clearly listed in the STCW Convention (Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping), the legally binding training requirements from the International Maritime Organization.

What types of ships can a seafarer work for?

The word “seafarer” has a very broad meaning because it can refer to a fisherman working along the coast in a 40-meter small boat or someone working in a 400-meter long 24,000 TEU class container ship. 

As for seagoing jobs, you can actually look at either liquid (wet) or dry cargo ships. LNG carriers are in hot demand for liquid vessels. Dry cargo ships vary from bulk to timber carriers to container vessels. Some shipowners offer direct hiring but many others rely on a manning agency for recruitment. 

What is the salary range?  Starting salary for new entrants? Top salary for a senior position?

Salaries vary depending on nationalities and companies. I have seen two cadets doing the same job but have different pay because they are from different nationalities. The freshly graduated cadets who became officers for the first time can probably expect wages between US$2500 to US$3000 a month. 

And as for senior captains commanding 20,000 TEU class container ships, I was told these veteran masters are getting near to US$20,000 a month. The salary gap is very big, it may be a reality to some and a joke for others.

Top 5 challenges of working as a seafarer

  • Very erratic work schedule with no fixed timing. Duty can beckon at any time. You’re never completely off duty when you’re onboard. If there’s a job to be done, it has to be done no matter how long it takes.
  • Even though there are many safety measures in place, accidents do happen while working onboard. There’s no qualified doctor on merchant ships.  However, we are trained to give basic first aid in case of injuries. Nevertheless, there is no substitute to being under the care of a medical doctor.
  • There’s also the risk that the ship can sink because of the chance of getting caught in the path of a big storm.
  • You will miss out on important events, birthdays, anniversaries and even funerals. No matter how serious your emergency or how much your presence is needed at home, you can’t go home till the ship reaches port and you’re relieved of your duties.
  • There is a high level of stress because of the nature of the job and the level of responsibility. For example, we may carry dangerous cargoes which can potentially burn, explode and/or cause serious pollution to the environment.

Top 5 satisfaction of working as a seafarer

  • Earn US dollars currency at a very young age.
  • In certain countries, the wages are considered tax-free income due to non-resident status.
  • Fond memories of working onboard the ship can last a lifetime.
  • The feeling of knowing that you did a good job when you have completed your contract and stepped out of the gangway.
  • Having to regularly make quick decisions keeps the mind active and alert.

Top 5 personal attributes that are necessary to become a successful seafarer

  • Leadership skill. Start to learn this by observing your senior colleagues.
  • A good team player who actively contributes to the completion of tasks and also helps other team members along the way.
  • Communication skill.  It is not how much you speak but how much people understand what you’ve spoken, that often makes the best conversation. 
  • Taking initiatives and have the willingness to learn will always leave a good impression. Many captains like me will rather choose good attitude at work over academic qualification.
  • Punctuality.  You will be surprised that being punctual is greatly appreciated by all.  

What is life at sea like? What are some interesting experiences you had onboard a ship?

I was first exposed to the maritime world in 2006 and the first vessel I served on was the 1978-built “Tenaga Dua”, the oldest class of its kind in the entire LNG fleet of MISC Berhad during that time. I had gone through more than five times of dry dock experience with LNG tankers and mega container ships, and my longest duration at sea was 308 days. 

I have sailed through the Suez Canal which is commonly used by many merchant vessels today and also the Strait of Magellan which is not commonly used by many vessels today. 

Depending on the navigation route, within a single journey the ship may, in one moment, pass through shallow waters, canals and rivers, and in the next moment, cross continents through the deep blue ocean, and traversing different time zones.

Life at sea is not much different from that on land.  There is good Internet connectivity and you are as connected on sea as on land nowadays.  You are just a click away to staying in contact with loved ones even in the middle of the ocean. 

However, you do have a lot of time to yourself within a confined space with limited physical interaction and communication with people. There will be days where you toil endlessly without so much as an appreciation for what you are doing and there will be days on end where your sleep cycle will be overturn.

There are both good days and bad days onboard, and everything will pass and new experience will come your way.  Every time you embark on a new job, you start to see it as one big adventure.

It is an amazing yet humbling moment when you realized that you are a senior officer who is responsible for both your subordinates as well as a multibillion-dollar floating space with essential cargoes on it.

It is also a heavy responsibility knowing that the cargoes onboard the ship you’re commanding have a direct impact on the everyday lives of people around the world.  These cargoes, sometimes as mundane as common household items or they can be special items like LNG which the public has not seen before or only has read about in textbooks, have one underlying theme, and that is they are essential to the functioning of the global economy.

For those working in office-based jobs, when you are taking coffee breaks, please spare a though for seafarers.  Sometimes, we are taking breaks without coffee but most of the time, we are taking coffee without breaks.  That’s life at sea.

Why do you want to become a seafarer?

  • The attractive salary.  You start earning at a time when your peers are either studying or struggling to get a job. Your salary will initially rise very steeply and then plateau subsequently. 
  • The generous onshore leave.  When you’re on leave, you’re totally on leave without having to worry constantly about the job. There are no pending deadlines to meet once you get off a ship, no boss to report to, and no clients to please.  Usually, the leave is six months a year, which is pretty cool. 
  • The chance to gain valuable life skills.  You will learn to be self-reliant and responsible at a very young age. You will interact and work with people of different nationalities on a daily basis, thus broadening your horizon and enhancing your communication ability. 
  • The spectacular view.  You’ll get to see breathtaking views of the ocean and the sky. 
  • The opportunity to challenge myself to being more than just a seafarer.  I realized that the maritime industry is much bigger than just being a Master Mariner at sea.  As a young leader myself, I feel a higher calling to mentor the next generation of leaders, and to provide a link between experience and knowledge.  People say there is no substitute for experience, but what is experience without the foresight of knowledge?

Top 10 advice for aspiring seafarers

  • Safety first. You come onboard in one piece and you have to go home in one piece too.
  • Start to have a retirement plan on receiving your first payslip.
  • Find the fastest way to obtain your CoC Class 1, the highest grade of seafarer’s qualification. You will thank me later.
  • Stay humble.  Do not be enamored by the salary and fanciful titles.  
  • You may be surprised the best mentor onboard the ship can be the good Cook in the galley. 
  • Be proud of who you are.  I’ve noticed many times how the stereotype of your nationality affects how others perceive you, rather than based on your attitude and behavior.  
  • So, for me, whatever I do, others will think this is the Malaysian way, not my own personal style, even though I am the only Malaysian they know.  Therefore, behave and conduct yourself well.
  • Ask yourself “When do you plan to quit sailing for good?”  This is the most difficult question to answer among seafarers.
  • A career at sea is not for the faint hearted. It’s nothing like an office job.  Every day at sea will bring new challenges as well as opportunities. 
  • A life at sea involves a lot of sacrifices by you and your family, so think long and hard before you decide to take the plunge.  For some, it’s the worst job ever, but for others, it’s the best decision of their life.
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Lee Kok Leong

Lee Kok Leong

Kok Leong, executive editor, has overall editorial responsibility for the direction and focus of Maritime Fairtrade. He has two decades of working experiences, including holding senior regional roles in business-to-business (B2B) print and online publications. He enjoys his work as a journalist, and regards it as a calling.

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