Merchant Navy

The Merchant Navy offers a host of opportunities for skilled service leavers. We look at what it takes to become involved in one of the world’s biggest industries.

Britain has a proud maritime history. From the Battle of Trafalgar to the heroic efforts of seafarers during the Falklands conflict, the importance of the sea to our island nation can’t be underestimated. Our security and way of life have depended on the efforts of those who have lived, fought, worked and even given their lives at sea. But we’re not just talking about the Royal Navy. The Merchant Navy is the collective name for the thousands of ships that carry commercial goods and raw materials across the world, and it still plays a significant role in the life of the nation. Shipping is a massive industry and will continue to be so – ships currently carry over 90% of the world’s trade, and the amount of goods carried is set to double within the next 15 years. Being an island nation, 96% of the UK’s imports are carried by sea. From oil to chemicals, grain to cars, the industry deals with a massive range of products, equipment and goods, shipping across the world.

There are some 16,000 Officers and 11,500 ratings currently working in the UKÕs Merchant Navy, and you could become part of this exciting and adventurous industry. There has never been a better time to get involved – this year has seen a year-long celebration of all things sea-related – SeaBritain2005 – which incorporated the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar, the International Festival of the Sea and many other important events.

Hundreds of ships are operated worldwide by a large number of UK-based companies, including BP Shipping, Cunard Line, P&O and Shell Ship Management, to name a few. There are many private companies who own or manage large shipping fleets, carrying a massive variety of goods and performing a wide range of tasks at sea. Personnel are needed onboard ship – both above and below decks – and ashore in a range of clerical, managerial and organisational posts. From a deck officer, to a cartographic draughtsman; from a shipbroker to a vessel financier – the Merchant Navy offers a large range of employment opportunities.

Life on board operates in shifts, known as watches.”You’ll normally work four hours on watch and eight hours off, although at busy times this could change to six hours on and six hours off. The Merchant Navy offers a 24/7 lifestyle and you must be dedicated to the task in hand. If you’re considering joining the Merchant Navy for travel and adventure, think again. You will travel, docking at many different ports across the world, but you might not have enough time to disembark and explore these new places. However, you will be rewarded with generous paid leave – for example, four months on board ship may allow for two months” leave, letting you have more time to explore these distant countries!

The Merchant Navy is not just for ex-Royal Navy personnel, however. Regardless of which branch of the Services you’re coming from, you’ll have the kind of transferable skills that shipping companies are bound to find attractive. You’ll be organised, self-disciplined, multi-skilled and a good team member – already well-equipped to enter the Merchant Navy, and usually at a higher rank than someone walking off the street. If you have experience in fields such as communications, catering, engineering and navigation, your skills and qualifications will also allow you to become a valuable member of the Merchant Navy workforce. Your current qualifications will have to be checked by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA), and they will decide if you’ll require further training.

A wide variety of institutions and groups are involved in ensuring that seafarers are trained to the highest standard. Since 1937, the Merchant Navy Training Board (MNTB) has been the shipping industry body responsible for promoting the training of seafarers. It often has a presence at careers fairs and nautical college open days, so it’s worth checking out how the Board can help introduce you to life on the ocean wave. The MNTB also helps to co-ordinate and regulate the numerous training courses offered at nautical colleges across the country, as well as those offered on board ship – the ‘University of the Sea’.

The Marine Society & Sea Cadets is the UK’s largest maritime charity and is responsible for promoting the training and development of seafarers, as well as overseeing the activities of the Sea Cadet Corps. The Marine Society is also an approved learning provider for the MoD’s Enhanced Learning Credit Scheme, so any further training you undertake should be financially supported by the Scheme. You will also find that some shipping companies will pay to put you through training to further develop your skills and enhance your employability within the shipping industry. If, after speaking to the MCA you find you need further training to convert or improve your qualifications and experience, the MCA, MNTB or Marine Society will be able to point you in the right direction towards a conversion course or HND, for example.

There are many aspects of the maritime industry that you can choose to become involved in. Young people leaving school will usually join the Merchant Navy as ratings or trainee cadets. They will normally be sponsored through college by a shipping company, and gradually work their way through the ranks to become Deck Officers or Engineers for example. Since people leaving the Forces are more experienced and adaptable, you can undergo a conversion course to convert the skills and qualifications you’ve picked up during your time in the military. You may have the technical expertise to become an Engineer Superintendent, for example. 25 year old Matt Read works as an Engineer Cadet with BP Shipping. He was previously a Marine Engineer First Class with the Royal Navy, and, with support from BP, attended the Glasgow College of Nautical Studies for a three month conversion course to adapt the skills he developed in the Navy to suit his new civilian role.

From his first moments after boarding ship with BP at Cherry Point, Seattle, Matt began to notice big differences between life in the Merchant Navy and life in the Royal Navy. “As I arrived onboard after midnight, the first thing I really saw was my cabin, which is where the differences start. Compared to the other Officer’s cabins mine is tiny; however, when you’ve spent four years of your life cooped up in a room no bigger than the size of our control room with forty other men all sharing toilets and showers (with no curtains), my cabin seems enormous and luxurious. With its own en-suite, sofa, desk, and more storage space than I’ve ever had, it has more room than I ever hoped for.”

Apart from the luxury of a little more space, Matt quickly recognised a difference in the equipment he was dealing with. The main difference was size – working on boilers of 20 or 30 feet in height, rather than 10 feet high as he’d worked on in the Navy, as well as maintaining a massive two stroke engine. Matt confesses to being somewhat in awe of the machinery on board his new floating home. He was also appreciative of the new working environment, finding that his new colleagues mixed more easily across ranks than they had in the Royal Navy. “I was very impressed with the professionalism of the engineers, with everybody knowing their jobs extremely well,” explains Matt. “Now I’m onboard a different ship, in a different navy, with different people, I feel at home.”

The Royal Fleet Auxiliary (RFA) exists to supply the ships of the Royal Navy with food, ammunition, fuel and mechanical spares. Its 22 ships are owned by the MOD, but they are manned by civilians, members of the Merchant Navy. The RFA allows the RN to work successfully whilst on operations, and the RFA seeks people to work in sectors such as navigation, communication, supplies, engineering and medicine. The RFA accepts qualified and experienced seafarers up to the age of 55. Again, you’ll need to get your current qualifications checked by the MCA and undergo further training if necessary. RFA ships can also often carry RN helicopters and weaponry, because they sometimes operate in war zones and precarious situations, having previously travelled to the Falklands and former Yugoslavia for example.

Of course, the British shipping industry isn’t just involved in transporting trade and supporting the RN – there are also passenger ferries, research ships, cruise ships, mining ships and cable-laying vessels, for example. Not forgetting the many onshore jobs that can be carried out – from harbour management to organising ship insurance and negotiating fuel prices. Because of the range of opportunities available, the British shipping industry employs some 25,000 people.

Remember that there’s no central recruitment agency for careers in the Merchant Navy, so you’ll have to do some leg work and approach nautical colleges, shipping companies and industry training boards for advice and opportunities within the industry. In order to enter this kind of career you will of course have to pass medical, eyesight and colour vision tests, and you’ll certainly have to have the right aptitude for a life at sea.

The shipping companies and other institutions that make up the Merchant Navy are always seeking skilled seafarers and capable individuals to join their ranks and become vital members of this large and successful industry. If you think you’ve got what it takes to work in this exciting world-class sector, get in touch with the Merchant Navy Training Board or Marine Society to see how you can get involved.


Merchant Navy Training Board
020 7417 2800

Marine Society & Sea Cadets
020 7261 9535

Royal Fleet Auxiliary
023 9272 5923

The Institute of Marine Engineering, Science and Technology
020 7382 2600

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