What is a Deckhand?

A deckhand handles cleaning, basic maintenance, and cargo. It's an entry-level role in maritime work with room for career growth.

5 mins read・Jan 24, 2023
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A deckhand is an entry-level position in the maritime industry. Deckhands play an essential role in the regular operations and maintenance on the ship or boat.

This article will cover what a deckhand is responsible for, and the process to get started.

Deckhand Responsibilities

Most of the deckhand responsibilities include ensuring everything on the vessel is clean and in good working condition. When you’re starting out as a new deckhand, you can expect to spend a lot of time cleaning, handling basic maintenance tasks, and keeping watch.

Deckhands work under the supervision of the vessel’s Deck Officers.

As you spend more time and gain more experience, you’ll take care of other tasks around the vessel.

The specific responsibilities also depend on the type and purpose of your vessel.

Some general responsibilities include:

  • Securing cargo and gear.
  • Standing watch underway and in port.
  • Maintaining ship equipment and machinery on the decks.
  • Maintaining deck surfaces and interior spaces.
  • Assisting in operations like docking and undocking.
  • Ensuring the safety of passengers and other crew members.

Working as a deckhand can be a physically demanding job, and you should expect to be on your feet most of the time. You may also be working long hours, and away from home depending on your schedule.


Starting out in the maritime industry typically doesn’t require advanced education or years of experience.

It’s possible to start working as an uncertified/unqualified deckhand with little to no training. We always recommend this if you’re not sure about entering the maritime industry. Working as an unqualified deckhand will give you a taste of what it’s like before you invest your time and money into a formal maritime training program.

The entry-level position is called Ordinary Seaman, or OS. Becoming an OS is a fairly straightforward process. You’ll need to complete a few Coast Guard forms, get a TWIC, pass a drug test, and a general USCG physical exam.

You can read more about that process in this article: How to Become an Ordinary Seaman

If you have some experience and sea days, you can work your way upward to become an Able Seaman. As you spend more time in the industry and earn more certifications, you’ll have better career and pay opportunities.

General skills required

Working in the deck crew isn’t rocket science, and nearly all of your training will be on the job.

You can expect to be on your feet, moving around, and doing some physical work. Being in decent shape will definitely make your job easier.

Good communication skills are also needed in the maritime industry. You’ll usually be working with a team, but everyone is expected to pull their own weight. Understanding what’s expected of you is essential.

You’ll also want to audit your mental toughness. Working in this industry won’t be a walk in the park, especially when you’re coming in at an entry-level position. You need to be able to handle the hard work, being alone and possibly away from home, and stressful situations.

Career Path

If you decide to pursue a career in the maritime industry, there are many different paths you can take that all start with being a deckhand.

Inland and Near Coastal

Inland vessels travel on rivers, bays, and coastal waters. Near Coastal vessels stay within <200 nautical miles from shore. Inland or near coastal work typically means you’ll travel less and have less time away from home.

A lot of these vessels are smaller, but they still require deckhands with different qualifications depending on what kind of work they are doing.

Some Inland and Near Coastal vessels don’t always require you to have a USCG Merchant Mariner Credential  (MMC) which is also called an entry level USCG license to be a deckhand. These include:

  • Tour boats
  • Passenger ferries
  • Smaller fishing boats

Other Inland and Near Coastal vessels typically require you to have a USCG Merchant Mariner Credential  (MMC) which is also called an entry level USCG license and a TWIC to be a deckhand.  These include:

  • Tug boats
  • Barges
  • Support/Service vessels

Ocean-going vessels

Another option is to work on larger ocean-going vessels. This work comes with a much different opportunity and schedule. The ocean voyages can last weeks or months, so you can expect to be away from home more often. These vessels typically require you to have a USCG Merchant Mariner Credential or entry level USCG license and a TWIC.

These include:

  • Cargo ships
  • Cruise ships
  • Research vessels

As you can imagine, the deckhand work on a cruise ship is much different than the deckhand work on a cargo ship. Cruise ship deckhands are working in customer service. On a cargo ship, deckhands are helping the other crew members.

You can get a job as an unqualified deckhand without years of training, but you will need to get your TWIC card to work on ocean-going vessels. Working in international waters also requires getting your STCW endorsement. Different STCW endorsements allow you to do a variety of jobs aboard merchant vessels.

Continued training and education

There are plenty of opportunities to add courses and certifications to your maritime resume. When you’re starting out as a deckhand, one of the most important things to get is more sea time. The more time you spend on the water, the more you’ll learn and the more opportunities you’ll have access to.

To become an Able Seaman, you’ll need a minimum of 180 sea days working in the Deck Department. You’ll also need to pass a written exam and practical demonstration requirements for Able Seaman and Lifeboatman. We recommend that you take a course at a USCG approved school for both Able Seaman and Lifeboatman.

There are also higher Able Seaman ratings. The highest of these is Able Seaman Unlimited, which requires 1080 days of seatime working on the Deck Department on Oceans, Near Coastal or Great Lakes waters.

As you can see, moving up the ladder in the maritime industry won’t happen overnight. There are great career opportunities, but they require hard work and patience. It’s recommended that you explore your options and decide which ladder you want to climb.

For example, a Wiper is an entry-level position. From there, you can work your way up to becoming a QMED (Qualified Member of the Engine Department) and work as an engineer on supporting the maintenance of the vessel's mechanical systems.

There are plenty of different entry-level careers, and many of them can start with becoming a deckhand and getting your first few years of experience. With this experience you can take advanced courses to work your way up to becoming a Captain on Smaller vessels and eventually Master Unlimited, which is the highest rank in the maritime industry.

We hope this made your life a little easier and if you have other questions the MM-SEAS team is always here to help!

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About the author

Nate Gilman
Nate Gilman

Nate has over 15 years of professional maritime experience and has hawsepiped his way to a 3rd Mate Unlimited Endorsement with full STCW compliance. He is proud veteran of the NOAA Commissioned Corps.

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