U.S. Merchant Marine

There is a maritime “service” you may not have heard much about, yet, the United States Merchant Marine is arguably incredibly important to the Armed Forces. They also help keep America’s economy moving.

Merchant Mariners are not part of the military. Now, some of them run a number of ships that support the U.S. Navy, like the Henry J. Kaiser-class replenishment oilers and Lewis and Clark-class dry cargo ships, as well as the sealift vessels like the Bob Hope-class vehicle cargo chips.

The Merchant Marine moves cargo and passengers between nations and within the United States during peacetime, and operate and maintain deep-sea merchant ships, tugboats, towboats, ferries, dredges, excursion vessels, charter boats and other waterborne craft on the oceans, the Great Lakes, rivers, canals, harbors, and other waterways.

The Merchant Marine primarily transports cargo and passengers during peacetime; in times of war, the Merchant Marine can be an auxiliary to the United States Navy, and can be called upon to deliver military personnel and materiel for the military.

Merchant Marine officers may also be commissioned as military officers by the Department of Defense. This is commonly achieved by commissioning unlimited tonnage Merchant Marine officers as Strategic Sealift Officers in the United States Navy Reserve.

The United States Maritime Administration, under the Department of Transportation, handles programs that administer and finance the United States Merchant Marine. This includes supporting the United States Maritime Service, which helps to train officers and crew on merchant ships.

U.S. Merchant Marine

You can become an officer by going to one of 7 “maritime academies”

To become the captain of a merchant ship, your best route would be to attend a “maritime academy.” There are seven of them located across the country:

The United States Merchant Marine Academy, the California State University Maritime Academy, the Great Lakes Maritime Academy, the Maine Maritime Academy, the Massachusetts Maritime Academy, the State University of New York Maritime College and the Texas A&M Maritime Academy.

U.S. Merchant Marine


US Merchant Marine


US Merchant Marine Academy (New York)


Great Lakes Maritime Academy @ Northwestern Michigan College (Traverse City, MI)


Become a Merchant Marine


U.S. Merchant Marine


What Is a Merchant Mariner?

A merchant mariner serves aboard a commercial vessel as part of the Merchant Marine after completing training and certification through the Coast Guard. The mariner may have one of a variety of jobs, from electronics to culinary work. Mariners help keep a vessel operating smoothly and ensure that the vessel, cargo and passengers get safely to their destination.

Mariners may work on a variety of ships. Common possibilities oceangoing container ships, bulk carriers, towboats, ferries, dredges, and cruise ships. Mariners’ careers may take them to just about anybody of water, from the oceans to the Great Lakes to many harbors, canals, and rivers.

Some different types of mariners include the following.

  • Captains or masters: A captain commands a vessel and runs its operations. Captains commonly steer or operate the ship, direct crew members, ensure compliance with safety protocols, purchase equipment, arrange for maintenance, supervise loading and unloading and keep official logs and records.
  • Mates or deck officers: Mates are responsible for the vessel’s operation when the captain is off duty. The chief mate has the highest level of authority and assumes command of the ship if the captain becomes unable to fulfill the necessary obligations. The chief mate is typically in charge of the cargo and passengers, whereas second and third mates take responsibility for navigation and safety. Mates often engage in activities such as taking watches, managing the activities of the deck crew, assisting with docking, monitoring the vessel’s speed, direction and position, supervising the loading of cargo and making announcements to passengers as required.
  • Pilots: Pilots are not part of a vessel’s crew, but may go aboard to help the crew navigate an unfamiliar waterway. Pilots typically guide vessels into harbors and within confined waterways such as rivers and canals. Some are harbor pilots — they work for a port and assist the many vessels that enter and leave the port throughout the day.
  • Ordinary Seaman or deckhands: Deckhands maintain and operate the vessel and its deck equipment, except for the engine or motor. New deckhands are ordinary seamen, and sailors with more experience are able seamen. Able seamen usually make up most of the crew and perform more complicated tasks than ordinary seamen. Deckhands may stand watch, paint, chip away rust, clean the interior of the ship, handle mooring lines, tie barges together, load and unload cargo, assist passengers and sometimes steer the ship under the supervision of an officer.
  • Ship engineers: Ship engineers maintain the ship’s engine, boilers, pumps, generators and other equipment. They may perform tasks such as working on the ship’s electrical systems, starting the engine, regulating the ship’s speed, performing maintenance checks, monitoring refueling needs, taking inventory of supplies and parts and keeping official logbooks.
  • Marine oilers: Marine oilers work in the engine room. They may perform tasks such as lubricating gears, shafts and bearings, reading temperature and pressure gauges, performing maintenance, assisting with machinery repairs, operating pumps, cleaning tanks, and assisting with cargo.


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