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Merchant ships came into existence as soon as men were able to build a craft that could float and carry people and cargo. The first well-organised merchant ships were from Venice and Genoa in Southern Europe and Hamburg and Bremen in North Europe. Soon people realized the profits merchant ships could make in trading with far off countries.

The first steamship that crossed the Atlantic was in the early part of the 19th century. Competition increased and better vessels came into being. Today there are many types of ships in the merchant navy. Merchant Navy fleet includes cargo ships, container ships, barge carrying ships, tankers, bulk carriers, refrigerator ships, passenger ships as well as roll off/roll on ships. Here is a brief description.
Cargo ships - The simplest cargo ship has large open storage spaces called Holds. On the ship's deck are machinery for loading and unloading, winches and booms.
Container ships are designed to carry containerised cargo. Special standardised containers packaged with cargo are loaded directly onto the vessel.
Barges - Barges are long, large, usually flat boats which are usually wed or maneuvered by other towing vessels.
Roll on and Roll off ships - These are designed to carry vehicles which can be loaded at ports by being driven on and can be unloaded by being driven off.
Tankers - Tankers carry petroleum products, or alternatively any liquid eg., molasses. It has pumping equipment for loading and unloading.
Bulk carriers - Cargo such as grain, oil, ore has lot of weight. Bulk carriers are so designed that they can enter shallow waters and narrow channels. They can be loaded and unloaded by special equipment in very short time.
Refrigerator ships - Huge cold storage plants are built into them. They are used to carry perishable food stuff and items on specific service routes.
Passenger ships - These vary in capacity from small ferry vessels to large trans Atlantic vessels. The large liners are almost like 5 star hotels and include swimming pools, games courts etc. The ferry boat on the other hand has neat seating arrangements and gives shelter from sun and rain. All passenger ships carry some cargo and vice verse. Some large cargo carriers have passengers on board too.
Nature of Work
Merchant Marine vessels can be categorized into the Deck, Engine and the Steward departments each over seen by officers. The main officers on the ship are Executives or Navigators and Engineers. Engineers take care of the running of the ship and Executive Officers look after all activities on the deck.
Though there are traditional dividing lines between the deck and engineering branches these roles are becoming less defined and the role of the ships's officer is changing. This is a consequence of the increasing sophistication of navigational and mechanical equipment, together with the use of computers and electronic control and automation in modern ships. This process of change is expected to continue at an ever increasing rate particularly on foreign ships.
Navigating officers and Marine engineers have to go through structured training and a series of promotion examination before taking command of the ship as a Captain/Chief Marine Engineers.
In terms of functional hierarchy the officers have ‘ratings' working under their supervision in each of the two major departments, i.e., deck and engine room. The option to join a foreign going vessel or a coastal ship depends on qualification, age, and aptitude. Here is a description of what the officers and ratings do on a ship.
Deck officers
The Captain or Master is in command of the ship He is responsible for the vessels navigation, discipline, safety of passengers, crew and the cargo. It is the job of the Captain to set the course for the ship and the speed too. They are in charge of maneuvering the ship to avoid hazards and locate the ship's position using navigational aids.
The captain or master is the sole representative of the ship's owner. He is in charge for assigning organisational duties for ship's operation, navigation and maintenance with the chief mate. The chief mate, also known as first mate or chief officer acts as the master's first assistant. He is in charge of all cargo planning and deck work. He assists with navigation and discipline and helps to maintain order. He is in charge of the training of company cadets.
The second mate is in charge of mails, the maintenance of all equipment and charts used for navigation. He is responsible for helping the captain in planning & executing the sailing schedule. He is also the medical officer for upkeep of general health of the crew & staff and is trained in first aid.
The third mate is responsible for maintenance of lifeboats and firefighting equipment. He acts as signal officer in charge of all signalling equipment and assists with cargo work. One mate usually stands watch as in charge of the navigating bridge. In ports the third officer alternates port watches with second officer. In port duties he keeps cargo watch to ensure smooth loading & off loading and observing the cargo loading plan, port and company regulations.
Engineering officers
The ship's engineers have complete responsibility of the ship's engine room i.e. the main engine, boilers, pumps, hydraulic and fuel systems and the ship's electrical generating plant and distribution system. The chief engineer is assisted by junior officers up to the level of third engineer. The existing hierarchy on some ships is as follows:-
  • Chief Engineering Officer - 18 months as second engineers and Certificate of Competency 1st class Motor Engineering is required.
  • Second Engineering Officer must have 1 year officer in charge experience and 6 months simulator training
  • Third Engineering Officer
  • Fourth Engineering Officer
  • Fifth Engineering Officer
  • Electrical Officer.
The chief engineer is responsible for all the propulsion machinery's, power generating equipment and auxiliaries. The job entails maintaining documents of the working of the machinery as well as the repairs carried out. Fuel consumption and requirements have to be logged. Second engineers are responsible for the maintenance of lubricating systems, engine room auxiliaries, and electrical equipments.
The third engineer is responsible for fuel and water, supervises tank soundings, and logs the consumption of fuel and water. The boiler room equipment, the feed water system pumps and condensers are monitored by him. The fourth engineer is responsible for the operation and maintenance of engine room auxiliaries. Electrical officers maintain and repair all electrical circuits and motors.
The job demands practical work, and engineers spend most of the day in boiler suits. Junior officers up to the level of third engineer are mainly working with their hands, and to some extent supervising engine room ratings. Even chief engineers spend about a quarter of their time in practical tasks. If any part of a ship's system fails, it must be dismantled, assessed, repaired, reassembled and put back into operation. Sometimes spare parts have to be manufactured on board.
The latest ships have a good deal of electronic control and automation. On such ships the engine room is not continuously staffed; a panel of alarm and monitoring systems is connected up to the engineers' accommodation and to the bridge. As a result, engineers can often work a fairly normal day, from 8am to 6pm but if there is an emergency they must turn out at a moment's notice.
Power requirements vary according to whether the ship is in port or at sea. However, a tanker may need as much power to drive the pumps as it does to move through the sea. This power must be available whenever it is needed.
Radio electronic officers
Radio officers carry out all tasks pertaining to the operation, maintenance, and repair of radio and other electronic communications devices. They maintain depth recording equipment and electronic navigational aids such as radar and the long range navigation equipment. They are responsible for receiving and recording time signals, weather reports, position reports and other data.
Electronics now plays an important role in many areas of shipboard operation, cargo monitoring systems, control of engine-room auxiliary plant, navigational collision avoidance apparatus and emergency communications. Thus, Radio officers are legally required on passenger ships and vessels (1,600 tonners) that trade in international waters.
With Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS), however, any crew member can use the phone to dial the desired number with the relevant codes and talk to any part of the world as well as receive messages. Women may also get a certificate of proficiency in the Radio Officers course as companies like the Shipping Corporation of India have now started employing them on board vessels.
Radio officers trained for conventional ships have to undergo 3 months course to qualify as Electronic officers. The upgrading course can be taken at IIT Chennai and AMET Chennai. Electrical/Electronics engineers can join directly.
Steward department
The steward department maintains the crew's living quarters and prepares meals. The chief steward maintains inventories of food stuffs , linen, bedding, furniture etc. They oversee both the operations and maintenance of living rooms and the mess halls. The other staff are the chief cook, baker and attendants.
Merchant navy rating
Ratings are sailors or crew workers who after pre sea training serve on board a merchant navy vessel and rise to the rank of ‘Bo sun' who is the head of the ratings.
There are three kinds of ratings : deck, engine room and catering. Some operate with general purpose crews and such ratings spend some time working in the engine room as well as on the deck. Today, crews are smaller then they used to be and equipment is far more sophisticated. As a result, ratings take on more responsibility than in the past and work with less supervision, and there are fewer job and training opportunities.
Deck rating - Work at sea varies very much with type of ship, but is predominantly manual - cleaning, sweeping, chipping off rust, polishing, etc. They look after the maintenance of the ship and operations at the time of loading and unloading. A lot of time is spent preparing and painting the steel work. When a ship carries cargo, tanks or holds have to be cleaned and inspected. Ratings also act as look-outs and helmsmen on the bridge.
In port, they assist in the mooring of the ship, in the preparations for cargo operations and taking on board of stores, as well as in fire and security patrols.
Engine room-rating - Engine room ratings are responsible for the day-to-day cleanliness of the engine room and for routine oiling, greasing and servicing of machinery. As they experience, they help officers to monitor and ensure the safe running of main plant and ancillary equipment. They also help to repair and maintain other machinery on board. In some companies the work of deck and engine room ratings is combined into that of ‘general purpose' ratings, allowing more flexibility in the tasks that they can undertake.
Catering or Saloon rating - The duties of junior catering ratings are normally :
  • To clean accommodation areas and public rooms
  • To help the cook in the preparation of food to clean galleys and cooking utensils, and to help in the maintenance of fridges, freezers and hygiene in all food preparation and serving areas
  • To serve meals to officers and crew
  • To load and store the ship's consumable stores
Ratings are, supervised by the head of their respective crews - the ‘Bo sun'. Ratings get promoted after 3-4 years service from ordinary seaman (OS) to Able Bodied Seaman (AB) and wiper becomes a motorman (MM), and very efficient seamen only become Bo sun.
Other professionals on the ship
Marine Radio officers, electrical officers (engineers), Pursers and Medical officers are hired directly and their maximum qualifications and suitability are determined by the shipping companies employing them. Pursers are usually B.Com/BA and they need no professional training. They keep accounts on board. The radio officers should have a certificate of proficiency as wireless operator as issued by the Ministry of Communication. A majority of radio and electrical officers are ex Indian Navy Petty officers though graduates are also eligible if they clear the exams conducted by the ministry. All these professionals report to the Master of the ship.
Work Environment
The working condition on a ship varies with the kind of ship. Many liners are very old and not really in excellent shape while others may be new with the latest facilities. The working conditions vary between passenger ships, all kinds of cargo ships, tankers and also vary with the region the ship sails and the water ways it sails on.
Engineering officers share the same facilities as deck officers and the general environment in which they have to work is the same. However, the main workplace for engineers is the engine room, which can be hot, noisy and to some extent dirty. Engineers are also involved in the maintenance of deck machinery, whatever the weather.
The environment in which they work has improved considerably in recent years with the increase in automation. However, their job is demanding and they often have to work in far from ideal locations - for instance, maintaining and repairing equipment in confined spaces or in refrigerated areas. Working on board a ship is not as glamorous as it may seem.
Ratings are expected to work in open weather conditions which may be hot, cold or wet. Keeping watch in open spaces, maintaining ships equipment in difficult weather and rough sea conditions can really be a tough job.
Merchant Navy personnel while travelling across the globe may not necessarily see all the ports they visit. They have to carry out a number of responsibilities while the ship is docked. They remain on board for long periods and hence are away from home. They can earn long vacations between contracts for jobs. Most merchant navy personnel are hired on contracts for one journey at a time so the option to discontinue in favour of stepping into another kind of job always exists.
While travelling throughout the world, may be exciting, long sea voyages may get boring. Seafarers are away from their homes and families for long periods of time. Space on the ships is cramped. Living area is shared with others. Mess room may also be a place for recreation. Men of the merchant navy are exposed to all kinds of weather, no matter what is their rating.
Personal Characteristics
The jobs call for genuine interest that can help the entrant adjust with ease and confidence. The ability to withstand long stretches of hard work in an emergency situation on board a vessel and to bear the physical strain, needs a person with tough mental and physical self to sustain through such stress. A person with a strong mental make-up and tough physical constitution along with a sporting, adaptive and adjustable attitude can find life at sea one of adventure and fun. Life at sea is not a comfortable break from the routine of academics. A merchant navy entrant must involve in a rigorous course of the on-the-job learning. They have to pass stipulated examinations to get promotions.
Engineering officers must be practical and resourceful. An aptitude for maths and physics is essential. During their training they must acquire a thorough knowledge of diesel engines, steam turbines, boilers, electrical power generation and circuits, electronics and system engineering. Manual dexterity is necessary; much of the work involves the servicing and repair of equipment. They must enjoy solving problems, and be flexible enough to adapt to advancement in technology and working practices. At times they have to share the work of the deck department. Hence they need to be aware of the work and should have good administrative skills.
Shipping firms are primarily looking for young people interested in a seafaring career. Personal attributes such as responsibility, adventure, willingness to be away from home for long periods and the ability to get on with others is essential. With the reduced size of crews, everyone's contribution matters. Hence a rating should be able to handle technical work independently. Flexibility, dexterity and the attitude to pitch in when needed is appreciated.



Qualification as a merchant navy officer ca lead to opportunities throughout. Following are the career options in merchant navy:

Deck Officer:- The officers from this branch primarily look after the ships navigation, loading/unloading of cargo and the general maintenance and administration of the ship. The officers join in the rank of 3rd officer and is subsequently promoted to the rank of 2nd officer, Chief Officer and finally the Master of the ship.

Engineering Officer - These are the officer who are qualified in Marine Engineering. They join as 4th engineer and step by step get promoted to 3rd, 2nd and Chief Engineer, subject to their passing the competency exams and performance onboard the ship. the Engineering department in addition to looking after the main engines, are also responsible for associated equipment like power generation equipment, cargo pumps and air-conditioning etc.

Purser - He is an officer who looks after all the administrative works related to pay and perks of personal onboard. however, this category of personnel has also been almost phased pout and their duties passed over to other deck officers.

Ratings - There are three kinds of ratings -Deck, Engine Room and Catering. Deck rating is responsible for cargo handling, mooring/unmooring and general maintenance of the ship. Similarly the engine room rating assist the engineering officers in maintenances and operation of engines and associated equipment. The catering crew consists fo Steward/Cooks and as the name suggests, they look after the catering and the house keeping of officers cabin.

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