Working At Sea: Could Ship’s Navigator Be The Career For You?

A Ship’s navigator is responsible for the safe passage of their vessel. It is the responsibility of the ship’s navigator to plan and take the best course in order to reach its destination in the safest and quickest manner. Ship’s navigators are responsible for the handling of the electronic communication and navigational equipment onboard the ship.

In this article I’ll look at the role of ship’s navigator in more detail, outlining key duties, discuss career progression opportunities, and detail the qualifications needed and how to obtain them. And, like a ship’s navigator, I shall steer you through all this in a quick and efficient manner.

Times Have Changed

Gone are the days of hunching over maps and paper charts to find your positioning and plot your course. Nowadays, GPS equipment is used, and it is the ship’s navigator’s responsibility to effectively use this equipment. But do not think that a ship’s navigator’s job is an easy one; it’s not just a case of keeping an eye on a satnav. The ship’s navigator needs to be vigilant, monitor the ship’s course and make decisions about alterations to that course depending on various conditions such as weather and water traffic. Conditions can change frequently and so a ship’s navigator will be keeping watch over the ship, monitoring events ahead and making necessary changes.

The precise nature of your responsibilities will differ depending on the size and type of vessel you are serving on and the industry you are serving in. Ship’s navigators are required for all types of sea vessel, so there are career opportunities in the coast guard, the navy, on cruise ships, private vessels, ferries, tugboats, fishing ships and cargo ships.

Variety of Options

One attribute that all ship’s navigators require however is physical and mental resilience. You need to be able to keep a level head and be prepared to safely guide your vessel through a variety of potentially hazardous conditions. This can include combat scenarios if you’re working as part of the Navy or coastguard. You need to be prepared to work long hours on frequent rotation. Your shifts can often comprise six hours on, then six hours off, before doing another six hours. You might often have to go for long periods of time without sleep. The job is therefore physically and mentally demanding.

Mentally Tough

Mental resilience is also important when you consider that you will potentially be spending months away from home, onboard the same vessel, sharing a confined space with the same people for long periods of time. Being able to get on well with people is essential. You will be living with the people you’re working with.

Depending on the vessel, you may be sharing a bunk with another crew member. Recreational opportunities may not be particularly wide-ranging, and so you need to be happy with your own company and with the company of those around you – so not the right career for you if you’re a bad tempered recluse who values a daily walk in the country.

Before you can serve as a ship’s navigator you need to pass a physical test. A very good level of vision is a primary requirement.

Career Progression

The career progression opportunities are very good for this type of role, since you can start at a trainee cadet level and rise up the ranks to become chief officer. Obviously the salary will increase as you rise up the ranks and get more responsibility. There are also opportunities for those who decide to do onshore work at a later date, which many people choose because of family commitments and due to the rigours of life at sea (spending long periods of time in a confined space with the same people). These onshore opportunities may include lecturing and training, or relevant onshore work with the industry you’ve been serving with. The Maritime and Coastguard Agency expects sea-born trade to continue to be a flourishing industry, so there are many career options and progression opportunities open to you.


In order to become a ship’s navigator, you will need to have qualifications that demonstrate you have a good level of maths and English, since these are vital skills for this kind of role. You will also need to complete training and become qualified to allow you to serve onboard a sea vessel. In the first instance, you will need to hold an Officer of the Watch certificate of competency, issued by the Maritime and Coast Guard Agency. This will allow you to serve as a trainee officer. To rise up the ranks, you will need to qualify for further certificates of competency.

The Officer of the Watch certificate is usually gained over three years, with training that involves a mix of college based study and practical experience gained from serving onboard a sea vessel. In order to carry out this training, you will get sponsorship from a shipping company or relevant maritime organisation.

In order to use the onboard electrical navigational and communications equipment, you will need to enrol on a Transas accredited ECDIS course. ECDIS stands for Electronic Chart Display and Information Systems, and it covers the theory and practical aspects of using the electronic equipment on board a vessel. The Warsash Academy offers the three year Officer of the Watch certificate, as well as Transas accredited ECDIS training.

The role of ship’s navigator is a highly demanding one, but it yields great rewards in terms of salary and career progression.

Barry Oren spent the last decade in the merchant navy and is now the captain of a ship. He takes great pleasure in his job and doesn’t really fancy settling down on land permanently.

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