Marine navigators -- they are often called mates -- guide marine vessels
of all types and sizes. Their main duty is to find the fastest course to a
specific spot on the globe without compromising the safety of the ship, its
crew, its cargo, its mission and the surrounding natural marine environment.
Modern technology has made this job much easier, of course. Marine navigators
used to spend hours hunched over maps to find the exact and relative location
of their ships. Nowadays, they rely on satellites and computers to get an
instant fix on their location and to plot a course.
"Computerization has changed a lot of things," says Barrie Hudson. He served
as a marine navigator for several years. "Navigation programs now simplify
But technology has not necessarily eliminated the need for experienced
and seasoned marine navigators. You have to realize technology can fail, says
Hudson. "The bridge has to be manned properly," he says. "Somebody has to
keep a lookout."
Nobody on the bridge of the Exxon Valdez did when it ran aground in 1989.
More than 11 million gallons of crude oil spilled on to the coast of Alaska.
It severely damaged one of the most beautiful and pristine natural environments.
An inquiry found the captain was under the influence of alcohol. And the
navigator on duty was fatigued and poorly trained.
Marine navigators work on ferries, tugboats, fishing boats, cruise ships,
cargo ships and other private ships. They also serve in the navy, the coast
guard and scientific research vessels.
Working hours for marine navigators can vary significantly. They must be
prepared to work a variety of shifts, or "watches." They may work for four
hours, followed by eight hours off before working another four. Or they may
work for six hours, followed by six hours off.
But whatever rotation a crew follows, it can change as other factors --
weather, mission requirements -- change. "If you are running into crowded
waters or fog, then you double up watches for safety," says Hudson.
Translation: If there is bad weather, you may have to pull off a few extra
shifts for as long as it is necessary. "You may go without sleep a long period
of time, depending on the operation," says Hudson. "If you are in the fishing
industry, for instance, they will go without sleep for days at a time."
The likelihood of long working hours, combined with the stress of guiding
a vessel through less than perfect weather conditions, means you must be in
reasonable physical shape if you want to pursue a career in this field.
Indeed, any aspiring marine navigators must pass a physical test before
they can serve on board any type of vessel. Excellent vision is a primary
requirement for this career, says John Mackie. His resume includes 15 years
at sea, five of them as a navigator for the coast guard.
"And of course, you cannot go to sea if you are a heart attack waiting
to happen," he says.
"Depending on the type of vessel, you may be called upon to do some tough
physical jobs," adds Hudson.
So generally, this career may not be accessible to people with physical
disabilities, says Linda Sturgis. She is a lieutenant with the U.S. Coast
Guard, and she served as a navigator for two years on board a cutter.
Marine navigators also face a significant number of (potentially deadly)
job hazards. They include any type of bad weather, collisions with other crafts,
running aground on shore or against cliffs, noxious cargo, and if you are
in the navy or coast guard, actual combat.
Travel, is of course, common in this career, and trips can last several
months. So do not expect a traditional family life. Living on board a vessel
with the same people for a long period of time is also a unique experience
that demands a great deal of imagination, tolerance and sensitivity.
For one, living quarters on board vessels are small, and crewmembers may
have to share bunks.
Sturgis did not have to when she served on a 378-foot-long U.S. Coast Guard
cutter. But if you consider that she worked alongside 189 other crewmembers,
life on board was not exactly luxurious. "You add that up, and that's not
a whole lot of room," she says.
Plus, the range of recreational options is limited. And you cannot escape
other crewmembers, since the workplace is also your home. "You pretty much
eat with your boss, work with your boss, and if you have any downtime, you
play cards with your boss," says Sturgis.
So you better be able to get along with everybody, says Hudson. And that
may not be easy since the tight confines of a vessel tend to magnify any personal
and psychological problems crewmembers may experience.
"You can have disturbances and that sort of stuff," says Hudson. "You may
be fighting with people and not like them. That's very common."
Get a vessel through the water
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