Life At The Sea- Men Who Rein The Ocean And What It Takes To Be A Marine Engineer

5 min

We humans have made the greatest strides in technology in the last century or two. This has been the single biggest reason that we have been successful in bringing the world and people closer than that can ever be. Mankind is steadily taking steps to reach out to places beyond the expanse of our imaginations, unmanned missions into the dark unknown space with the hope that it’s not just this planet Earth but many more places in this galaxy and beyond that may support life in various forms, a possibility that we cannot just let pass. But the infancy of our technology is also the reason that has limited our reach today.

But how well do we know our own planet in the first place? Do you realise that there are places on this very earth that are yet untouched by humans? That there are places in the Amazon and Congo that have humans still living a primitive life, no different from the very apes we are hypothesized to have evolved from?

This planet we call home, is 71% water, 29% land. This is what we know of the 29% land. Imagine the expanse of the oceans! Explorations so far have been made of only 2% of the oceans, of the mysteries, unseen sights, unexplored species. We have at least done a better job over the water. Thanks to one amongst the top advancements of mankind. Ships.

A commercial paper once published claimed that if we were to stop these ships for a week, we could have a big part of our population starving.

So these ships keep the people and economy running. But what keeps these behemoths running? The largest reciprocating engines known to man, the largest engines humanity has ever built; these are assigned to the care of Marine Engineers.


Marine Engineers are the best example to the adage ‘Jack of all. Master of none’. A ship is built to be self sustaining. Its has engines to propel itself, air conditioning plants for the comfort of the crew, refrigeration plants for the food and cargo it carries, sewage treatment plants for the daily waste generated, incinerators for food and other operational wastes, fresh water generation plants to produce an unending supply of fresh water for drinking and daily use for its occupants, boilers for steam requirements like  propulsion by turbines like earlier times, heating fuel oil, running pumps, etc. and most importantly power generators for the electricity requirements.

So a Marine Engineer is an engine mechanic, a refrigeration mechanic, electrical and electronic engineer and a plumber and a steam engineer. But the knowledge being limited to operation, maintenance and some ingenious ideas, the vessel designing and building remains alien.

Ships servicing the commercial requirements of global economy are together called ‘Merchant Navy’, which can be any amongst an oil carrier(crude oil, finished products), bulk carrier(food grains, iron ore, cement), container ships (chartered containers of miscellaneous cargo), LPG and LNG carriers, Chemical carriers and Ro-Ro’s (Roll On-Roll Off which carry vehicles).

Merchant Navy is often confused with the Defense Navy, even though these ships play a silent role incase of actual war scenarios, where they are deployed on support duties. But that falls under exceptional duties. Otherwise, these ships are strictly commercial, run by the owners, agents and charterers.


Every ship has three departments- the navigators, the engineers and the galley department comprising groups of people doing round the clock duty. The navigators, join as deck cadets or able bodied seaman and rise up the rank based on their sea time and exams, all way to be a Captain.

A Captain is called the ‘Master of the Ship’. He owns the ship, while it is at sea, and has been given complete authority to make decisions for the running of the ship and the safety of the crew and is responsible for the life of every person on board, because in an adversity it is his decisions that may decide the fate of the people working under him. It is based on this moral responsibility that captains often go down with the ship, in the event he has been unsuccessful in saving the life of every soul on board in an emergency.

Crew first, ship second, cargo lost. This is the priority given while acting in an emergency, meaning no ship or machinery or cargo is more valuable that of a human life. It takes a vast area of knowledge to direct a ship in waters- chart-work, handling, reading the weather, and the most important, celestial navigation to steer the ship without the aid of modern day radars or even a compass in case of a failure of equipments.

The galley department takes care of the food requirements of the crew the ship carries. A tedious task considering the diversity of nationalities of people aboard.

Then there is the Engine Department. A ship is only as good as its engineers. Its one job where your knowledge, understanding and expertise are the greatest assets.

Life at sea is not easy. The pay is good. All other expenses including food and accommodation are paid for, and the salary is tax free. You are a NRI back home. Sailors do earn in a month what people on shore earn in a year. But is it all worth? The greed for money cannot keep you going there. The day you lose the interest in your job, the moment you miss your family, it’s the end of the story. Many have fallen prey to this greed, but couldn’t sustain themselves. There is only one ingredient that makes a real hardcore Marine. Passion! Love for the job and the sea. Being in your accommodation you do not feel much of what’s outside, but the endless expanse of the horizon can be haunting, unless you really love the waters.


There are many streams today. General Purpose ratings, in many institutes across the country, where courses are conducted for six months, teaching you both about the deck and engine departments, and putting the onus upon you to chose, where you want to work, starting as an oiler/wiper in the engine department, or an ordinary seaman in the deck department. Doing mechanical engineering and then the one year training on specialisation, or a direct B.E/B.Tech Marine Engineering can put you on the ship as a junior engineer. Whereas as a Diploma/Bachelor in Nautical Studies can put you onboard as a Deck Cadet. That’s how you can start off at the sea.


The initial months are never easy. You may have to take orders from everyone, be ready for e fiercest ragging, you should be available on call 24/7 and sleep is a luxurious commodity and you may as well need to clean the common toilets. These are topics are not forthcoming enough to speak of.
It takes nerves of steel to survive the initial days. But later as you get accustomed to the people, pressure and the environment, you learn to work hard and party harder. And juniors are taken care of by seniors like their own children on port visits and ship parties.


My sincere advice- Stay away, unless you are crazy enough to still want it for life after this warning. Post the recession of 2008, the shipping industry has literally sunk to the bottom of the ocean. And a revival may take many more years. Moreover, shipping companies have themselves started training candidates, so its an advisable field only you can make it to such institutes. Else, finding a job is impossible, and yes, reference of anyone may not be of much use either. It’s the ultimate test of patience. And even if you find a job, it can get frustrating with the endless exams and re exams to prove yourself time and again, in order to climb that ladder of hierarchy. You would still be studying, when everyone else is working and mostly probably enjoying too.

To a lay person, the mention of sea, can be scary, to say the least, but there are some topics which would never fail to entice, exhilarate and amuse- Bermuda triangle, mermaids, etc.

There are two places on earth where the magnetic north of the compass aligns with the true north. All route plans are based on the heading and any alterations in the apparent direction misplaces all plans. But considering the overall traffic through the region of the Bermuda triangle shows that there has not been any significant difference in casualties as compared to any other regions of such traffic.
If anything, the Bermuda triangle is nothing but a manufactured and propagated hoax, the mystic of the story creating obvious interests. But the majority reported losses belong to the U.S. Navy and Air Force and not any civilian airplanes, ships or cargo ships. Mermaids are, unfortunately, another hoax.

To conclude, all I can say from my first hand experience so far for any aspiring sailor is that, when thinking of turning to this field for your bread and butter, first and foremost gauge yourself well even before contemplating to join; do you really have it in you and will the zeal last enough to sustain you throughout the journey? Also, be prepared to forsake the world on land, at least for those few sailing months, and learn the basics well or else, and there are always those cliche 9 to 5 jobs to grab. The pressure, homesickness and exhilaration of the sea have the potential take a toll on the ones who may be mentally and physically sub-prepared and honestly, it may not be everyone’s and anyone’s cup of tea!

Anit Antony
Saboo Siddik College

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