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How to Work on a Cargo Ship

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Working on board a cargo ship is a job that requires knowledge of seamanship and material handling. Most cargo ships have a very limited crew that knows exactly what to do as soon as they arrive in port. Joining a cargo crew requires an Able Bodied seaman's card and a thorough physical. Once aboard a ship, you will be isolated from the world for long periods of time and working non-stop once you reach port. It is a lifestyle that not many people can handle, so think long and hard before signing up and setting sail.

Visit a United States Coast Guard-approved physician. Take a complete physical and obtain your seaman's medical certificate.

Visit the human resources offices of various freight offices at the cargo dock areas along the coast. Find out if any of the companies offer on-board ship cadet training. Sign up for one if you can find one of these rare opportunities in your area.

Search online to find vocational schools and community colleges that offer the Basic Seafarer's course curriculum. Review each program carefully and choose the one that offers the most comprehensive view of working on board cargo vessels.

Choose between deck or engine department work when you sign up for the course. Take all of the classes necessary to get your AB seaman's card in the rating you have chosen to start your career at sea.

Revisit the freight companies in your area. Fill out the application and tax documents given to you by the human resources department. Present your AB card and medical certificate to get a job on one of their vessels.

Pack lightly, taking only the essentials. Take the gear that your course work taught you you will need on board, as well as the items suggested by the company. Remember that there is limited space on board, so leave at home all things that you do not need.

Show up early for your new job. Report to the captain as soon as you arrive. Listen to everything he has to say and treat him with the respect due to the master of a sea-going vessel.

Stow your gear and jump right in and work with the rest of the crew. Keep in mind that your busiest times aboard a ship will be in port. Listen carefully to all of the instructions given to you by the captain and your department head. Follow orders without question and learn your job as quickly as possible.

Rely upon your training ashore and the instructions you receive aboard the ship. Trust the captain's judgment and strive to make each trip as safe and stress-free as possible for yourself and your shipmates.


Working in the catering department -- or galley -- of a ship requires a deck worker's AB card that has the "Including Steward" endorsement added to it. This endorsement will require a bit more coursework, but, it will make you more valuable on board, as someone who can work in more than one area.

Study any materials available on board your ship. Work in various stations when the captain allows you to do so, to gain further training that will help you to expand your knowledge and forward your career.


Life on board a ship is hazardous for the untrained and the unaware. Always be alert, sober and vigilant. Always follow orders and remember that your life depends upon your actions and the actions of your shipmates, just as their lives depend on you.


After learning electronics in the U.S. Navy in the 1980s, Danny Donahue spent a lifetime in the construction industry. He has worked with some of the finest construction talent in the Southeastern United States. Donahue has been a freelance writer since 2008, focusing his efforts on his beloved construction projects.