Merchant navy deck officer
Emergency Services and Military

Merchant navy navigation (deck) officers are responsible for the navigation of ships. They check that cargo is safe and stable, supervise crew members and make sure that their ship is fit to sail.

Work Activities

There are usually two main departments on board ship: deck and engine. The deck department is concerned with the overall operation of the ship and the deck officer's responsibilities include navigation, communications, cargo and stability, maintenance and safety.

Deck officers carry out navigational duties, which involves plotting the ship's position, giving steering instructions and managing communication, using the latest satellite and radar systems and equipment.

Deck officers also oversee the safe loading, storage and unloading of cargo. They make stability calculations and maintain safety and equipment. In addition to this, they supervise deck crew members and ensure the safety of passengers. They also monitor and maintain safety, firefighting and life-saving equipment.

The senior navigation (deck) officer directs and supervises a small team of professional seafarers, including junior deck officers and ratings. The Master (Captain) is in overall charge of the ship and is responsible for the safety of passengers and crew, and will handle legal and commercial matters.

Merchant navy ships operate around the clock and officers work shifts, known as watches, that vary according to the size of the ship. This usually involves four hours on watch and eight hours off, or six on and six off. The time spent at sea could vary from a few days to several months. Periods of leave also vary.

A deck officer in the Royal Fleet Auxiliary (civilian-crewed ships operated by the Ministry of Defence supplying cargo to the Royal Navy), is responsible for inter-ship liaison, monitoring of helicopter movements, control of sophisticated handling equipment, and of nuclear biological chemical damage (NCBD).

As RFA personnel work closely with the Royal Navy, they may have to perform duties under combat conditions. The job is physically demanding.

Personal Qualities and Skills

Key skills for merchant navy deck officers

You will need:

  • Good teamworking skills and the ability to lead, and inspire others
  • Decision-making skills
  • Excellent mathematical skills for navigating
  • written and verbal communication skills
  • An interest in technology
  • Calmness under pressure
  • Confidence, enthusiasm and self-reliance
  • Resourcefulness, adaptability and flexibility

Pay And Opportunities

Typical employers of merchant navy officers

Salary rates for the merchant navy vary with the company, and depend on your ship type and rank. Deck officers earn in the range of £20,00-£80,000. Your employer may pay for food and accommodation at sea and some travel costs when onshore.

The merchant navy is the collective name for the UK's commercial shipping industry. Individual companies are responsible for their own recruitment.

At sea, merchant navy deck officers are employed on a range of sea-going vessels. These include:

  • Ferries and cruise ships;
  • Cargo container ships;
  • Oil, gas and chemical tankers and other bulk cargo carriers;
  • Specialised supply, support and rescue vessels – including support for the offshore oil and gas industry.

Onshore employers include:

  • Shipping companies;
  • Marine insurance companies;
  • Maritime regulatory authorities;
  • Maritime training and recruitment companies;
  • Port operations, including pilotage.

Merchant navy officers can also gain similar work with overseas-based shipping companies.

Contact shipping companies directly for details of their sponsorship schemes and vacancies. Most companies take on a specific number of cadets for specific roles every year. The companies vary widely in their size and nature, offering different types of working environments.


Qualifications and training required

You can join the merchant navy from age 16 as an officer cadet or marine apprentice and start training as a deck officer. You will need at least 4 GCSEs (9-4), including English, maths and physics (or combined science).

You could also do an industry-backed HND, foundation degree, such as the three-and-a-half-year foundation degree (FdSc) course in marine operations/nautical science/marine engineering/marine electrical systems. The foundation degree (Professional Diploma in Scotland) can lead to an honours degree. Entry into officer training may be possible with HND/HNC in nautical science/marine engineering.

The training is fully paid for by the sponsoring company and includes a training salary. For entry requirements, a list of colleges/universities running the programmes and a list of employers offering sponsorship, see Careers at Sea (https:/

A number of shipping companies sponsor candidates on a four-year BSc (Hons) degree in merchant ship operations/nautical science or a BEng (Hons) in marine engineering applications/mechanical and marine engineering.

If you already have a degree, in a subject like nautical science or marine engineering, you will usually be able to join a graduate training programme and train as an officer in shorter time.

In Scotland there are two institutions that run courses for training as a deck officer: City of Glasgow College and the University of the Highlands and Islands (NAFC Marine Centre UHI). City of Glasgow College offers a range of courses leading to marine-related qualifications. UHI offers the Merchant Navy Cadet Programme. You will require sponsorship by a shipping company or agency and this will involve spending time at college and at sea. The sponsoring company may have additional entry requirements to the colleges.

All Navigation (Deck) and Engineering Officer ranks require a seafarer Certificate of Competency (CoC) – issued by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency. You receive the Officer of the Watch (OOW) on completing the Merchant Navy Training Board course through one of the maritime colleges/universities. These courses are residential, interspersed by periods at sea.

After your training period, the promotional routes for deck officers are 3rd officer to 2nd officer, then 2nd officer to Chief officer, and then Chief officer to Master (Captain).

Opportunities may be available on cruise ships and passenger ferries for graduates in catering, hospitality, business, performance or entertainment, and cruise companies should be contacted directly.

Experience and qualifications gained within the fishing industry or the Royal Navy (https:/ may be recognised or accredited towards MCA requirements. Candidates are assessed on an individual basis and should make their own application for exemption from the academic and practical aspect of officer training.

You will need to pass an eyesight and medical examination, plus security and background checks.

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