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How to Become a Deckhand

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Deckhands help keep water vessels clean and in sound mechanical condition. They must have basic knowledge of vessel operations and maintenance, a good understanding of maritime safety practices, and the physical stamina to cope with labor-intensive tasks. Deckhands, depending on the vessels on which they work, may be referred to as tugboat deckhands, dredge deckhands, ferryboat deckhands or scow deckhands. This job may suit people with little maritime training and a passion for the sea.

Get Trained

Receiving professional training is the best way to get started as a deckhand. Some colleges, such as Hinds Community College in Mississippi, offer certificate programs that train prospective deckhands how to wear respirators and life jackets and use fire extinguishers and inflatable life rafts. Students are also equipped with with basic towing techniques and rope skills such as anchoring and mooring.

You can also become a deckhand by learning on the job. Maritime unions, such as Seafarers International Union, or SIU, have apprenticeship programs, in which novices learn deckhand roles from veteran sailors, typically for a period of up to two years.

Master Essential Qualities

To be an accomplished deckhand, you need strong technical skills and an aptitude for practical work. You should be able to effectively operate winches, capstans and other deck equipment, as well as perform physical tasks such as lowering lifeboats during emergencies. You must have normal color vision to easily recognize color-coded signals from the vessels' electrical components and problem-solving skills to perform basic repairs, such as replacing worn cables. Teamwork and communication skills are also important, as you must work alongside stewards, mates and other crew members.

Obtain a License

Deckhands working on board cargo and passenger vessels don’t require a license to be employed. However, those who work in fishing vessels may need to obtain a license, depending on the laws of their states. In Alaska, for instance, you must obtain a crewmember license to work aboard a commercial fishing boat.

You can also secure membership in maritime associations such as SIU and Pacific Maritime Association to access industry news, job boards, and other useful career resources.

Find Employment

After obtaining the necessary training, search for jobs in recreational and commercial fishing companies, cruise lines and merchant shipping companies. As you gain more experience, so do your chances of rising to senior ranks such as mate and deck officer. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the employment of all water transportation professionals, including deckhands, will show little or no change from 2019 to 2029


Based in New York City, Alison Green has been writing professionally on career topics for more than a decade. Her work has appeared in “U.S. News Weekly” magazine, “The Career” magazine and “Human Resources Journal.” Green holds a master's degree in finance from New York University.

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