Beginner’s guide to Merchant Navy Ranks

Any industry requires a hierarchy amongst the personnel to maintain a smooth coordination of operations and promote proper management strategies. The same goes for the Merchant Navy.

The nomenclature of merchant navy ranking system is globally accepted by shipping companies and commercial vessels around the world. However, there can be minor changes in names and duties assigned to specific positions depending on the country to which the ship belongs.

In general, the ranking system on merchant vessels is mainly divided into the following categories:

1 Deck Department

2 Engine Department

3 Catering Department

The bridge of a ship is the navigation hub fitted with advanced machinery systems for the safe navigation of the ship. Hence, it is required to be operated and controlled by people with the requisite knowledge and skills. Seafarers in the deck department are responsible for the navigation of the ship, handling of cargo operations and berthing machinery on the deck of the ship.

Similarly, seafarers in the ship’s engine room come under the engine department. This mainly includes marine engineers and ratings responsible for operation and maintenance of ship’s machinery. The engine room houses the propulsion and power generating machinery required for the safe operation of the ship. This also includes the fresh water generating plant, the sewage treatment plant, oily water separator amongst other machinery and requires skilled personnel for effective operation.

The third department, or the catering department, is responsible for the preparation of meals and general housekeeping for crew and passengers. The number of personnel in this department varies with the type of ship. Passenger vessels would have several members and ranks while a cargo ship would have only a couple of members owing to the difference in the number of people onboard.

A vessel thus requires a definite system of merchant navy ranks that would enable the distribution of assignments in a professional and formal manner.

The Captain (or Master) is the final authority on the ship and is the highest rank one can achieve onboard. The Captain shoulders immense responsibilities and oversees all shipboard operations. The Captain remains in command of the vessel at all times and it is the Captain who regulates the proper daily transactions and handles the legal affairs on maritime issues. In the event that the Captain is not present onboard, the Chief Mate is assumed to be in charge for that duration.

The Deck Department


  • Chief Officer / Chief Mate / First Mate
  • Second Officer / Second Mate
  • Third Officer / Third Mate
  • Deck Cadet
  • Deck Ratings

  • Bosun
  • Welder / Fitter
  • Able Bodied Seaman (AB)
  • Ordinary Seaman (OS)
  • Trainee OS
  • Chief Officer:

    Chief Officer occupies the second responsible position after the Captain of the vessel. He is the head of the deck department and carries out the orders of the Captain after consulting with him. He supervises the vessel’s crew and looks after the various deck operations which include maintenance operations on the deck as per the work schedule and cargo operations when in port or occasionally at anchor. The Chief Officer prioritizes the safety and safe functioning of the vessel and is concerned with the welfare of crew and passengers (if on a passenger vessel) onboard. Additionally, the Chief Officer manages the correct working of the hull, the accommodation section, the cargo gearing, the security appliances and the fire prevention equipment. In addition to this, the Chief Officer also keeps a navigational watch from 0400 – 0800 hrs and from 1600 – 2000 hrs. Generally, in port, the Chief Officer does not keep watch and the second and third officers spilt the watches between them on a 6-on 6 -off basis. On some ships, there are 2 third officers present. In such cases, the Chief Officer does not keep navigational watch as well.

    Second Officer:

    He is the officer on watch (OOW) responsible for the navigation chart preparation, publications on board and other paperwork. He is also the medical officer onboard responsible for the upkeep and administering of all medically related services onboard. His navigational watch timings are 1200 – 1600 hrs and 0000 – 0400 hrs while at sea and in port, his watches are from 1200 – 1800 hrs and 0000 – 0600 hrs.

    Third Officer:

    This OOW is in charge of implementing the security measures onboard and reports to the Chief Officer regarding the same. He is also responsible for the LSA and FFA and their maintenance. Other than that, he prepares all the port documents for use by the Captain along with handling the inventory of the bond store onboard. His navigational watch timings are 0800 – 1200 hrs and 2000 – 0000 hrs while at sea and in port his watches are from 0600 – 1200 hrs and 1800 – 0000 hrs.

    Deck Cadet:

    The deck cadet usually assists all the deck officers though he primarily keeps watch with the chief officer. Being fresh out of the institute, he is given tasks that allow him a gradual understanding of the ship and her workings and give him the confidence and competence to carry out a safe navigational watch. This training also allows him to learn for his ‘Certificate of Competency’ exams which would enable him to keep an independent navigational watch.


    Bosun is the head of the deck ratings and assists the Chief Officer in the daily assigning of jobs on deck and ensuring they are appropriately done.

    Able Bodied Seaman:

    An Able-bodied seaman (A/B) possesses a merchant mariner’s document and is eligible to assist the deck department especially in keeping supervised navigational watches.

    Ordinary Seaman:

    The post of an ordinary seaman, denoted by OS, serves in the vessel’s deck department.An OS is usually busy with tasks such as buffing, scaling, cleaning the deck and painting the superstructure. An OS can also undertake activities like overhauling, splicing ropes, wiring, rigging, etc and ensure secure handling of cargo gears and loading or dismantling cargo as directed by the Bosun / Chief Officer as well as keeping gangway watches in port in keeping with ISPS requirements. A trainee OS is similar to a cadet but for the rating section.

    The Engine Department

    Engineer Officers

  • Chief Engineer
  • Second Engineer / First Assistant Engineer
  • Third Engineer / Second Assistant Engineer
  • Fourth Engineer / Third Assistant Engineer
  • Fifth Engineer / Trainee Marine Engineer / Engine Cadet
  • Electro – Technical Officer
  • Engine Room Ratings

  • Fitter
  • Motorman / Oiler
  • Wiper
  • Trainee Fitter / Trainee Wiper
  • Chief Engineer:

    The Chief Engineer is the head of the engineering department on a vessel. The required qualification for this position is loosely referred to as the “Chief’s Ticket”. He is alternatively called as “The Chief” and usually draws the same payment as the Captain, although the complete responsibility of a particular vessel falls solely on the Captain’s shoulder. The Chief Engineer gives orders for operation and maintenance of the ship’s machinery system and has the overall responsibility of the engine room department.

    Second Engineer:

    He is responsible for the day-to-day activities in the engine room, and he is accountable to the Chief Engineer. He supervises the proper functioning of all engine room machinery systems and also assigns jobs to the other engine officers and crew.

    Third Engineer:

    This is the next rank after the Second Engineer, and is assigned jobs to look after machinery delegated by the Chief Engineer. He reports to the Second Engineer.

    Fourth Engineer:

    This is the junior rank amongst the engineer officers and is required to make sure the machinery systems assigned to him are working correctly. He too reports to the Second Engineer.

    With modern day ships operating with Unmanned Machinery Spaces (UMS), the engineer officers rotate the night watches so as to keep watches once in three nights with the alarms switched to their cabins during the UMS period.

    Trainee Marine Engineer:

    This is a trainee engineer position under the Second Engineer and he assists and learns while observing and carrying out activities in the engine room. He usually accompanies the second engineer during watch duty though he is normally assigned to assist the third and fourth engineers to enable him to learn more about machinery he would have to operate upon gaining his ‘Certificate of Competency’ and also help his preparations for the exams.

    Electro-Technical Officer:

    The electro-technical officer handles various aspects onboard a ship related to electrical systems. The ETO would report to the Chief Engineer and organise his jobs in consultation with the Second Engineer. He would handle the maintenance of various electrical systems in the engine room and the navigational equi[pment on the bridge. The myriad systems he would be working on would be as varied as the refrigeration system to the emergency systems or fire alarms and detectors to navigational lights and battery backups to electrically operated propelling machinery


    Being a recent rank addition, the ETO’s have an epaulette with a green stripe between the gold stripes instead of the royal purple stripes between the gold stripes for the Engineer Officer epaulettes to differentiate them.

    All the engine room ratings report to the Second Engineer


    Fitters are certified professionals in welding and are skilled operators of the lathe machine. They are counted upon for properly fitting of the engine and other electrical parts in the engine room as well as to repair or fabricate pieces required for repairing broken/cracked components. They are important because of their technical and fitting skills, as well as their knowledge which is more technical rather than theory based.


    Ratings in this rank hold a watchkeeping certificate who can keep watch along with Engineer Officers. They are delegated jobs by the second engineer and usually assist the Engineer Officers in the maintenance of machinery and keeping a track of operating parameters of the machinery.


    Wipers are responsible for assisting during a maintenance, cleaning the engine room and maintenance of the engine room. They are usually not certified watchkeepers though they progress from this rank to that of a motorman/oiler after getting a watchkeeping certificate and completing the requisite sailing time. Trainee wipers and trainee fitters start out under this rank and then get promoted upon gaining the requisite skills.

    The Catering Department

  • Chief Cook
  • Trainee Cook
  • Steward
  • Chief Cook:

    Chief Cook has the duty of preparing meals regularly for the crew and passengers. He is also in charge of the food stares and submits his list of required provisions to the Chief Officer. He is also responsible to ensure that the galley is clean and uncontaminated.

    Trainee Cook:

    The trainee cook assists the chief cook in preparation of meals and managing provisions.


    The Steward, is assigned tasks including serving meals on time, cleaning and maintaining the living quarters of the officers, and assisting in maintaining the record of the provision stores.

    On a passenger ship, the galley would involve several other ranks too.

    And that is a brief outline of the hierarchy onboard the ship. There might be differences in the ranks based upon \which country the ship is flagged with or even the shipping company, but the basic hierarchy is the same.