Not to be confused with a country's naval defence force, the merchant navy is made up of civilian officers and crew who transport cargo as well as passengers in non-combatant commercial ships. Merchant vessels move 90 per cent of the world's goods - from crude oil, LPG, LNG, kerosene, petrol, coal and mineral ore to wheat, vegetable oil, rice, crockery, shoes, cars, yachts and other products. The global industry boasts a combined fleet of about 40,000
What do they do?
The sugar in your tea, the petrol in your bike and umpteen other consumables reach you by sea, thanks to a tribe of hardworking people who spend months on end - away from their homes and loved ones - at sea. A major pillar of the merchant navy (the other being engineers), navigation or deck officers manoeuvre ships to transport about 90 per cent of the world's goods (as well as passengers) from one place to another.
One such person is Suneha Gadpande, 25, who has crisscrossed the entire world, barring Europe, sailing for a total of 44 months. A graduate of the public sector navratna Shipping Corporation of India's (SCI's) training institute in Powai, she is now chief officer, the second-in-command, on a ship. Officers like her, also called chief mate, oversee loading and unloading of cargo, ensure the vessel is in good shape, manage the crew and take care of the paperwork required for sea transportation.
Gadpande says she wanted to get into the Navy, for which she required a Bachelor's degree. So, when she got to know about the SCI training option, she quit the first year of her mechanical engineering programme at NIT Bhopal to be among the first group of women allowed into this still male-dominated bastion. Initially, says Gadpande, it was "pretty difficult" for the women as well as men not used to having the fair sex on board.
Hisar boy Vikrant Punia, 23, is third officer with SCI, a rank above the trainees. A BSc in nautical science from SCI's Maritime Training Institute, Punia is happy about taking a shortcut to a career. "I didn't have to do a four-year engineering course and then search for a job." This job promises lots of money and adventure - all at a very young age. You can become a captain, master in industry parlance, in about 12 to 15 years, including at least eight years of sailing time, depending on one's experience and vacancies on ships.
A seafarer's life is no bed of roses between the endless sky and sea but you can go places if you have what it takes. It's important to remember that this is a physically and emotionally demanding profession. Gadpande advises, "Join if you can survive alone…one has to be mentally prepared for the job."
"If you dock at Singapore, you wouldn't be out sightseeing. You have to carry out cargo duties," says Gadpande, who recently completed a two-week course on tankers in Delhi. Shipping is an expensive business and companies don't want their vessels docked idle for long. The time available to you will depend on the kind of cargo you handle, says Tushar Sharma, senior manager - personnel, Ebony Ship Management, Delhi. "With dry cargo, you will get two to three days and with tankers, one or two. If the ship is at anchor, and the agent says your turn will come after a week, you can take a boat to come ashore."
It's a lucrative career, no doubt. Job prospects are "very good because the number of officers is less," says Capt. Pankaj Sarin, Director, Applied Research International, New Delhi.
Foreign companies consider Indian officers and Filipino crew the ideal complement on a merchant ship. Higher pay and income tax exemption due to non-resident status make most professionals sign up for foreign-flag carriers. However, on the other hand, the tax rules and a law requiring Indian ships to hire crew from within the country have caused a shortage of quality manpower in domestic companies, whose combined share in the global sea-route business dipped from about 35 per cent in 1990-91 to under 14 per cent in 2004-05.
Source: HT Horizons
Be physically tough
Show leadership qualities
Aptitude for people and material management
Be adaptive and willing to live with different people in the same place for long spells
Be mentally strong as you are absent from home for long periods and face certain risks at sea (some officers are allowed to take spouses on ship)
How do I get there?
You should pass Class XII with physics, chemistry, maths and English, usually with at least 60 per cent marks (50 per cent in English. After this, opt for the three-year BSc nautical science programme by clearing
(a) the IIT Joint Entrance Examination (followed by a medical exam and counselling) to enrol at one of the institutes offering the degree;
(b) the common entrance test of Indian Maritime University, which has affiliated institutes and centres across the country;
(c) entrance test of private institutes. To work as a deck officer on a merchant ship and for promotions, you need to clear exams held by the Ministry of Surface Transport. More details, including medical requirements, at dgshipping.com. Under government rules, women candidates are given age exemption and fee waivers