What do Water Transportation Occupations Do

Water Transportation Occupations

The movement of huge amounts of cargo, as well as passengers, in and out of U.S. waters and sometimes over the oceans depends on workers in water transportation occupations, also known as merchant mariners. They operate and maintain civilian-owned deep-sea merchant ships, tugboats, towboats, ferries, barges, offshore supply vessels, cruise ships, and other waterborne craft on the oceans, the Great Lakes, rivers, canals, and other waterways, as well as in harbors.

Captains, mates, and pilots of water vessels operating on domestic waterways or on U.S.-flagged deep sea ships command or supervise the operations of these ships and water vessels. Captains or masters are in overall command of the operation of a vessel, and they supervise the work of all other officers and crew. Together with their department heads, captains ensure that proper procedures and safety practices are followed, check to make sure that machinery and equipment are in good working order, and oversee the loading and discharging of cargo or passengers. They also maintain logs and other records tracking the ships' movements, efforts at controlling pollution, and cargo and passengers carried.

Deck officers or mates direct the routine operation of the vessel for the captain during the shifts when they are on watch. On smaller vessels, there may be only one mate (called a pilot on some inland towing vessels), who alternates watches with the captain. The mate would assume command of the ship if the captain became incapacitated. When more than one mate is necessary aboard a ship, they typically are designated chief mate or first mate, second mate, third mate, etc. Mates also supervise and coordinate activities of the crew aboard the ship.

Captains and mates determine the course and speed of the vessel, maneuvering to avoid hazards and continuously monitoring the vessel's position with charts and navigational aids. Captains and mates oversee crew members who steer the vessel, determine its location, operate engines, communicate with other vessels, perform maintenance, handle lines, and operate equipment on the vessel. They inspect the cargo holds during loading to ensure that the load is stowed according to specifications and regulations. Captains and mates also supervise crew members engaged in maintenance and the primary upkeep of the vessel.

Pilots guide ships in and out of harbors, through straits, and on rivers and other confined waterways where a familiarity with local water depths, winds, tides, currents, and hazards such as reefs and shoals are of prime importance. Pilots on river and canal vessels usually are regular crew members, like mates. Harbor pilots are generally independent contractors who accompany vessels while they enter or leave port. Harbor pilots may pilot many ships in a single day.

Ship engineers operate, maintain, and repair propulsion engines, boilers, generators, pumps, and other machinery. Merchant marine vessels usually have four engineering officers: A chief engineer and a first, second, and third assistant engineer. Assistant engineers stand periodic watches, overseeing the safe operation of engines and machinery.

Marine oilers and more experienced qualified members of the engine department, or QMEDs, assist the engineers to maintain the vessel in proper running order in the engine spaces below decks. These workers lubricate gears, shafts, bearings, and other moving parts of engines and motors; read pressure and temperature gauges; record data; and sometimes assist with repairs and adjust machinery.

Sailors or deckhands operate the vessel and its deck equipment under the direction of the ship's officers and keep the nonengineering areas in good condition. They stand watch, looking out for other vessels and obstructions in the ship's path, as well as for navigational aids such as buoys and lighthouses. They also steer the ship, measure water depth in shallow water, and maintain and operate deck equipment such as lifeboats, anchors, and cargo-handling gear. When docking or departing, they handle lines. They also perform routine maintenance chores, such as repairing lines, chipping rust, and painting and cleaning decks or other areas. On vessels handling liquid cargo, mariners designated as pumpmen hook up hoses, operate pumps, and clean tanks; on tugboats or tow vessels, they tie barges together into tow units, inspect them periodically, and disconnect them when the destination is reached. Experienced sailors are designated able seamen on oceangoing vessels, but may be called simply deckhands on inland waters; larger vessels usually have a boatswain, or head seaman.

A typical deep-sea merchant ship has a captain, three deck officers or mates, a chief engineer and three assistant engineers, plus six or more seamen, such as able seamen, oilers, QMEDs, and a cook. The size and service of the ship determine the number of crewmembers for a particular voyage. Small vessels operating in harbors, on rivers, or along the coast may have a crew comprising only a captain and one deckhand. On smaller vessels the cooking responsibilities usually fall under the deckhands' duties.

On larger coastal ships, the crew may include a captain, a mate or pilot, an engineer, and seven or eight seamen. Unlicensed positions on a large ship may include a full-time cook, an electrician, and machinery mechanics. Some ships may have special unlicensed positions for entry-level apprentice trainees.

Motorboat operators operate small, motor-driven boats that carry six or fewer passengers. They may operate fishing charters, serve as liaisons between ships or between ship and shore, or perform area patrol.

Work Environment

Water transportation workers held about 66,600 jobs in 2020. Employment in the detailed occupations that make up water transportation workers was distributed as follows:

  1. Captains, mates, and pilots of water vessels - 29,900
  2. Sailors and marine oilers - 26,400
  3. Ship engineers - 7,800
  4. Motorboat operators - 2,600

The largest employers of water transportation workers were as follows:

  • Inland water transportation - 25%
  • Support activities for water transportation - 20%
  • Deep sea, coastal, and great lakes water transportation - 14%
  • Federal government, excluding postal service - 8%
  • Scenic and sightseeing transportation, water - 6%

Water transportation workers usually work for long periods and can be exposed to all kinds of weather. Many people decide that life at sea is not for them because of difficult conditions onboard ships and long periods away from home.

However, companies try to provide pleasant living conditions aboard their vessels. Most vessels are air-conditioned and include comfortable living quarters. Many also include entertainment systems with satellite TV and Internet connections, and meals may be provided.

Work Schedules

Workers on deep-sea ships can spend months at a time away from home.

Workers on supply ships have shorter trips, usually lasting for a few hours or days.

Tugboats and barges travel along the coasts and on inland waterways, and crews are usually away for 2 to 3 weeks at a time.

Those who work on the Great Lakes have longer trips, around 2 months, but often do not work in the winter, when the lakes freeze.

Crews on all vessels often work for long periods, 7 days a week, while aboard.

Ferry workers and motorboat operators usually are away only for a few hours at a time and return home each night. Many ferry and motorboat operators service ships for vacation destinations and have seasonal schedules.

Education & Training Required

Entry-level workers are classified as ordinary seamen or deckhands. Workers take some basic training, lasting a few days, in areas such as first aid and firefighting.

There are two paths of education and training for a deck officer or an engineer: applicants must either accumulate thousands of hours of experience while working as a deckhand, or graduate from one of seven merchant marine academies in the United States. In both cases, applicants must pass a written examination. It is difficult to pass the examination without substantial formal schooling or independent study. The academies offer a 4-year academic program leading to a bachelor-of-science degree, a MMC endorsement (issued only by the Coast Guard) as a third mate (deck officer) or third assistant engineer (engineering officer), and, if the person chooses, a commission as ensign in the U.S. Naval Reserve, Merchant Marine Reserve, or Coast Guard Reserve. With experience and additional training, third officers may qualify for higher rank. Generally officers on deep water vessels are academy graduates and those in supply boats, inland waterways, and rivers rose to their positions through years of experience.

Harbor pilot training usually consists of an extended apprenticeship with a towing company or a harbor pilots' association. Entrants may be able seamen or licensed officers.

In recent years, to generate interest in the maritime industry, 18 high schools have been designated “maritime high schools” with a curriculum created by the U.S. Maritime Administration. Graduation from one of these schools can help one’s entry in the academies or with jobs elsewhere in the industry.

Certifications Needed

All mariners that are required to obtain Coast Guard credentials are required to obtain a TWIC from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. This credential states that you are a U.S. citizen or a permanent resident and have passed a security screening.

In addition, with few exceptions, the Coast Guard requires that mariners applying for a credential after April 15, 2009, obtain a MMC. Entry level seamen or deckhands on vessels operating in harbors or on rivers or other waterways do not need a MMC. The MMC replaces the Merchant Mariner Document, the license, and Standards of Training, Certification, and Watchkeeping for Seafarers endorsement. The MMC incorporates the licenses into the credential, which varies by occupational specialty, type of vessel, and by body of water (river, inland waterway, Great Lakes, and oceans). Requirements for the credential increase as the skill level of the occupational specialty and the size of the vessel increase and applicants must pass a test in order qualify. Applicants for the credential must also pass a drug screen, take a medical exam, and meet the minimum age requirements. For more information on credentialing requirements see the Coast Guard's Web site listed in the sources of additional information.

Radio operators are licensed by the Federal Communications Commission.

Other Skills Required

Most positions require excellent health, good vision, and color perception. Good general physical condition is needed because many jobs require the ability to lift heavy objects, withstand heat and cold, stand or stoop for long periods of time, dexterity to maneuver through tight spaces, and good balance on uneven and wet surfaces and in rough water.

How to Advance

Experience and passing exams are required to advance. Deckhands who wish to advance must decide whether they want to work in the wheelhouse or the engine room. They will then assist the engineers or deck officers. With experience, assistant engineers and deck officers can advance to become chief engineers or captains. On smaller boats, such as tugs, a captain may choose to become self-employed by buying a boat and working as an owner-operator.

Job Outlook

Overall employment of water transportation workers is projected to grow 12 percent from 2020 to 2030, faster than the average for all occupations.

About 8,400 openings for water transportation workers are projected each year, on average, over the decade. Many of those openings are expected to result from the need to replace workers who transfer to different occupations or exit the labor force, such as to retire.


Much of the projected employment growth in these occupations is due to recovery from the COVID-19 recession that began in 2020.

Fluctuations in the demand for bulk commodities, such as petroleum products, iron ore, and grains, is a key factor influencing employment in these occupations. When demand for these commodities is high, the need for water transportation workers goes up; when demand slows, so does the need for workers. In addition, large vessels that carry more cargo require fewer water transportation workers.

Nevertheless, these workers will continue to be needed as federal laws and subsidies ensure that there always will be a fleet of merchant ships with U.S. flags. Keeping a fleet of merchant ships is considered important for the nation’s defense.


The median annual wage for water transportation workers was $62,760 in May 2021. The median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $30,490, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $133,620.

Median annual wages for water transportation workers in May 2021 were as follows:

  • Ship engineers - $82,410
  • Captains, mates, and pilots of water vessels - $81,640
  • Sailors and marine oilers - $46,720
  • Motorboat operators - $38,670

In May 2021, the median annual wages for water transportation workers in the top industries in which they worked were as follows:

  • Support activities for water transportation - $77,680
  • Deep sea, coastal, and great lakes water transportation - $77,220
  • Inland water transportation - $75,560
  • Federal government, excluding postal service - $52,920
  • Scenic and sightseeing transportation, water - $43,540

Workers on deep-sea ships can spend months at a time away from home.

Workers on supply ships have shorter trips, usually lasting for a few hours to a month.

Tugboats and barges travel along the coasts and on inland waterways and crews are usually away for 2 to 3 weeks at a time.

Those who work on the Great Lakes have longer trips, around 2 months, but often do not work in the winter, when the lakes freeze.

Crews on all vessels often work long hours, 7 days a week.

Ferry workers and motorboat operators usually are away only for a few hours at a time and return home each night. Many ferry and motorboat operators service ships for vacation destinations and have seasonal schedules.

Academic Programs of Interest

Marine Science