Very little will surprise you, either personally or professionally, by the time you pass the U.S. Coast Guard exam for a chief engineer’s license. You’ve spent about six years in a ship’s engine department working with and supervising personnel of varying abilities. You understand your ship’s physical systems, and your skills are at their peak. You’re a merchant marine officer and at the top of the food chain aboard a modern ship.
You career began as a QMED, a qualified member of the engine department. You may have been a maritime academy cadet spending required summer sessions in the engine room or a mechanically inclined girl who felt the call of the sea. As you completed the exams for third-, second-, or first-assistant engineer, you worked your way to the top of the heap. You learned the ins and outs of a ship’s propulsion, plumbing, mechanical and electrical systems along the way. You planned and supervised the work of others -- male and female -- who were doing the same, to keep the ship’s systems in good condition. After graduation from an academy or six years of service in the engine department, you successfully completed the exam for chief engineer, the head of the engine department, second only to the ship’s master in authority.
Work offshore is one potential career path for you as a licensed merchant marine chief engineer. You might work on ships that make history, such as RV Knorr, the research ship that located the wreck of RMS Titanic. A research vessel, Knorr travels the world for Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. You might run the engine department aboard one of the civilian-crewed ships of the U.S. Navy’s Military Sealift Command. These ships range from troop carriers stationed in potential hot spots to fleet supply ships that travel worldwide and support vessels for Navy SEALS. You might also work on exploration or support vessels that locate and assist in the exploitation of undersea mineral resources.
Your license as a chief engineer isn’t limited to work on ships offshore. You can work inshore, aboard the tow- or push-boats that move freight on the inland waterways, such as the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers, or the Intracoastal Waterway. These jobs have regular work schedules, unlike offshore jobs with irregular schedules that might leave you at sea and away from home for months. You might work for seven days followed by seven days off, or work for 14 days with either seven or 14 days off, depending on your company. Such a schedule allows you to have a life away from the water.
Opportunities exist ashore for chief engineers who wish to pursue a management role. These include work as a port engineer. A port engineer oversees the maintenance or repairs of company vessels as they return to port. Such work may include assisting crews in preparing a vessel for its annual safety inspections by the U.S. Coast Guard. Licensed chief engineers can also work ashore as inspectors for organizations such as the American Bureau of Shipping. Called a classification society, ABS certifies that the ship meets the specifications of a class -- or type -- of vessel. ABS inspects a ship’s construction, dimensions, capacities and safety before its launch and periodically thereafter.
Will Charpentier is a writer who specializes in boating and maritime subjects. A retired ship captain, Charpentier holds a doctorate in applied ocean science and engineering. He is also a certified marine technician and the author of a popular text on writing local history.