What Water Transportation Workers Do
Water transportation workers operate and maintain vessels that take cargo and people over water.
Water transportation workers usually work for long periods and can be exposed to all kinds of weather.
How to Become a Water Transportation Worker
Education and training requirements vary with the type of job. There are no educational requirements for entry-level sailors and marine oilers, but other types of water transportation workers typically complete U.S. Coast Guard-approved training programs.
The median annual wage for water transportation workers was $57,330 in May 2019.
Overall employment of water transportation workers is projected to show little or no change from 2019 to 2029. Fluctuations in the demand for bulk commodities is a key factor influencing employment in these occupations.
Water transportation workers operate and maintain vessels that take cargo and people over water. The vessels travel to and from foreign ports across the ocean and to domestic ports along the coasts, across the Great Lakes, and along the country’s many inland waterways.
Water transportation workers typically do the following:
- Operate and maintain nonmilitary vessels
- Follow their vessel’s strict chain of command
- Ensure the safety of all people and cargo on board
These workers, sometimes called merchant mariners, work on a variety of ships.
Some operate large deep-sea container ships to transport manufactured goods and refrigerated cargos around the world.
Others work on bulk carriers that move heavy commodities, such as coal or iron ore, across the oceans and over the Great Lakes.
Still others work on both large and small tankers that carry oil and other liquid products around the country and the world. Others work on supply ships that transport equipment and supplies to offshore oil and gas platforms.
Workers on tugboats help barges and other boats maneuver in small harbors and at sea.
Salvage vessels that offer emergency services also employ merchant mariners.
Cruise ships also employ water transportation workers, and some merchant mariners work on ferries to transport passengers along shorter distances.
A typical deep-sea merchant ship, large coastal ship, or Great Lakes merchant ship employs a captain and a chief engineer, along with three mates, three assistant engineers, and a number of sailors and marine oilers. Smaller vessels that operate in harbors or rivers may have a smaller crew. The specific complement of mariners is dependent on U.S. Coast Guard regulations.
The following are examples of types of water transportation workers:
Captains, sometimes called masters, have overall command of a vessel. They have the final responsibility for the safety of the crew, cargo, and passengers. Captains typically do the following:
- Steer and operate vessels
- Direct crew members
- Ensure that proper safety procedures are followed
- Purchase equipment and supplies and arrange for any necessary maintenance and repair Oversee the loading and unloading of cargo or passengers
- Keep logs and other records that track the ship’s movements and activities
- Interact with passengers on cruise ships
Mates, or deck officers, direct the operation of a vessel while the captain is off duty. Large ships have three officers, called first, second, and third mates. The first mate has the highest authority and takes command of the ship if the captain is incapacitated. Usually, the first mate is in charge of the cargo and/or passengers, the second mate is in charge of navigation, and the third mate is in charge of safety. On smaller vessels, there may be only one mate who handles all of the responsibilities. Deck officers typically do the following:
- Alternate watches with the captain and other officers
- Supervise and coordinate the activities of the deck crew
- Assist with docking the ship
- Monitor the ship’s position, using charts and other navigational aides
- Determine the speed and direction of the vessel
- Inspect the cargo hold during loading, to ensure that the cargo is stowed according to specifications
- Make announcements to passengers when needed
Pilots guide ships in harbors, on rivers, and on other confined waterways. They are not part of a ship’s crew but go aboard a ship to guide it through a particular waterway that they are familiar with. They work in places where a high degree of familiarity with local tides, currents, and hazards is needed. Some, called harbor pilots, work for ports and help many ships that come into the harbor during the day. When coming into a commercial port, a captain will often have to turn control of the vessel over to a pilot, who can safely guide it into the harbor. Pilots typically do the following:
- Board an unfamiliar ship from a small boat in the open water, often using a ladder
- Confer with a ship’s captain about the vessel’s destination and any special requirements it has
- Establish a positive working relationship with a vessel’s captain and deck officers
- Receive mooring instructions from shore dispatchers
Sailors, or deckhands, operate and maintain the vessel and deck equipment. They make up the deck crew and keep all parts of a ship, other than areas related to the engine and motor, in good working order. New deckhands are called ordinary seamen and do the least complicated tasks. Experienced deckhands are called able seamen and usually make up most of a crew. Some large ships have a boatswain, who is the chief of the deck crew. Sailors typically do the following:
- Stand watch, looking for other vessels or obstructions in their ship’s path and for navigational aids, such as buoys and lighthouses
- Steer the ship under the guidance of an officer and measure water depth in shallow water
- Do routine maintenance, such as painting the deck and chipping away rust
- Keep the inside of the ship clean
- Handle mooring lines when docking or departing
- Tie barges together when they are being towed
- Load and unload cargo
- Help passengers when needed
Ship engineers operate and maintain a vessel’s propulsion system, which includes the engine, boilers, generators, pumps, and other machinery. Large vessels usually carry a chief engineer, who has command of the engine room and its crew, and a first, second, and third assistant engineer. The assistant engineer oversees the engine and related machinery when the chief engineer is off duty. Small ships might have only one engineer. Engineers typically do the following:
- Maintain a ships’ mechanical and electrical equipment and systems
- Start the engine and regulate the vessel’s speed, following the captain’s orders
- Record information in an engineering log
- Keep an inventory of mechanical parts and supplies
- Do routine maintenance checks throughout the day
- Calculate refueling requirements
Marine oilers work in the engine room, helping the engineers keep the propulsion system in working order. They are the engine room equivalent of sailors. New oilers usually are called wipers, or pumpmen, on vessels handling liquid cargo. With experience, a wiper can become a Qualified Member of the Engine Department (QMED). Marine oilers typically do the following:
- Lubricate gears, shafts, bearings, and other parts of the engine or motor
- Read pressure and temperature gauges and record data
- Perform daily and periodic maintenance on engine room machinery
- Help engineers with repairs to machinery
- Connect hoses, operate pumps, and clean tanks
- Assist the deck crew with loading or unloading of cargo, if necessary
Motorboat operators run small, motor-driven boats that carry only a few passengers. They provide a variety of services, such as fishing charters, tours, and harbor patrols. Motorboat operators typically do the following:
- Check and change the oil and other fluids on their boat
- Pick up passengers and help them board the boat
- Act as a tour guide, if necessary
Water transportation workers held about 81,900 jobs in 2019. Employment in the detailed occupations that make up water transportation workers was distributed as follows:
|Captains, mates, and pilots of water vessels||38,900|
|Sailors and marine oilers||31,900|
The largest employers of water transportation workers were as follows:
|Inland water transportation||21%|
|Deep sea, coastal, and great lakes water transportation||19|
|Support activities for water transportation||18|
|Scenic and sightseeing transportation, water||7|
|Federal government, excluding postal service||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.
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.
This table shows a list of occupations with job duties that are similar to those of water transportation workers.
|Occupation||Job Duties||Entry-Level Education||Median Annual Pay, May 2019|
Fishing and Hunting Workers
Fishing and hunting workers catch and trap various types of animal life.
|No formal educational credential||The annual wage is not available.|
Heavy and Tractor-trailer Truck Drivers
Heavy and tractor-trailer truck drivers transport goods from one location to another.
|Postsecondary nondegree award||$45,260|
Heavy vehicle and mobile equipment service technicians inspect, maintain, and repair vehicles and machinery used in construction, farming, and other industries.
|High school diploma or equivalent||$51,590|
Material Moving Machine Operators
Material moving machine operators use machinery to transport various objects.
|See How to Become One||$36,770|
Workers in railroad occupations ensure that passenger and freight trains safely run on time. They may drive trains, coordinate the activities of the trains, or operate signals and switches in the rail yard.
|High school diploma or equivalent||$65,020|
Stationary engineers and boiler operators control stationary engines, boilers, or other mechanical equipment.
|High school diploma or equivalent||$62,150|
Hand Laborers and Material Movers
Hand laborers and material movers manually move freight, stock, or other materials.
|No formal educational credential||$28,710|
Airline and commercial pilots fly and navigate airplanes, helicopters, and other aircraft.
|See How to Become One||$121,430|
For more information about water transportation workers, including employment and training information, visit
Maritime Administration, U.S. Department of Transportation
For more information about licensing requirements and other credentials, visit
National Maritime Center, U.S. Coast Guard
Transportation Security Administration, U.S. Department of Homeland Security
For information about jobs on barges, tugboats, and towboats traveling on inland and coastal waterways, visit
For a career video on captains, mates, and pilots of water vessels, visit
Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Water Transportation Workers,
at https://www.bls.gov/ooh/transportation-and-material-moving/water-transportation-occupations.htm (visited ).