The Shipboard Management Structure by Ieuan Dolby

It has oft been asked by those ashore how a ship operates, who is in-charge and ignorance shines forth when an engineer is asked “and when will you become Captain”! It is therefore time to lay-to-rest some of these myths and to give explanation as to what foundation a ships management structure is based upon.

Every business whether it is a high-flying banking firm or the local plumbers outfit a management structure in place. In a smaller ad-hoc company down the road the management structure may consist of one man sitting in an office, who barks out order like a sniffer dog struck lucky, to a down trodden son who has no choice in the matter or a large wall street firm that has hundreds of workers, many VP’s, directors and a chairman who nobody ever sees.

Whatever company looked at there is a structure in place, whether it is the ideal structure and whether it works or is practical in real life is not important except to say that like all businesses, cruise ships, gas tankers, ferries, rowing boats and offshore supply vessels all have a management structure in place.

A vessels management structure is extremely defined! It is built on decades of culture and formulation and has adapted and changed with time to produce a system that is at first glance ideal, it covers all aspects of shipboard operations and lifestyles and is tightly regulated through strict control from ashore. A seafarer cannot rise up the ranks of structure to a higher position unless he has sat and passed the requisite number of exams, he cannot become a self-imposed boss through financial wangling, bribery or luck or through the showing of family wealth to impose authority. The only way that any seafarer can climb the management structures ladder is to have the right qualification and the only way to get the right qualification is to study at college, pass a written exam or two and be interrogated by an experienced surveyor who should know what he is talking about. Even this might not be the last step to increased authority; the company primarily must approve the promotion subject to availability, suitability and requirement. It is only recently that officers are able to sail in a higher position upon receipt of their new qualification due to the shortage of seafarers worldwide. Ten, even twenty years ago, many officers of junior rank would hold the highest available ticket yet be unable to sail in that position. They might hold that ticket for five or more years before a position came available and they were promoted.

Many people assume from having watched weird films(set on a ship that is mysteriously plummeting to the sea-bed with a pack of rabid dogs onboard or sea snakes overtaking a vessel as steams along) that authority is defined by the number of stripes one wears on their shoulders. Certainly, this noted fact is distinct on many vessels, the higher up on the ladder one is the more stripes they have to weigh them down; after the Titanic disaster Engineers were eventually acknowledged as being integral to the operation of a vessel and were given officer status (represented by purple stripes to the outside of the gold). But uniforms are not necessary, they are merely a status symbol, a method used to implement authority and structure but with or without the uniform the structure remains in place. Uniforms might be necessary on ships were large crews operate, where faces are often unrecognizable amongst the crowd and so the wearing of a badge identifies one immediately in the position that they hold. On smaller vessels though were perhaps only ten or so officers and crew live in confined quarters the emphasis these days is on integration not segregation, to produce a more family orientated atmosphere so that life onboard is not wrought with ill-will.

The wearing of a uniform is not an integral part of the management structure. The structure is defined through the rank that one holds and this is clear to all concerned, there is no wavering of this structure, there is no option to change and like it or lump it if a person comes onboard with a certain rank then that is the position that he or she will assume. In a similar situation ashore, if a finance-orientated guy with all the appropriate qualifications is offered a job as Chief Financial Officer then he will expect and be expected to fulfill that role when he sits in the chair. He would certainly not like to find himself relegated to the basement as mail boy on his first day and nor would the company like to find out ten weeks down the line that he couldn’t add 2 + 2 never mind run accounts!

The management structure is divided into paths! The Captain has the ultimate authority on a vessel! The Captain is after all responsible for safe operations, the safety and well-being of his crew and will answer any questions asked regarding improper actions, unsafe work practices, oil pollution and accidents that may occur whether or not he was involved or even out of his bunk at the time. For example; if an Able Seaman gets drunk and beats up the cook during an argument then the Captain will be called to account. If the Chief Engineer overfills his bunker tanks and floods the Humber River with prime gas oil then the Captain will be looking for a lawyer from inside of the local nick! The position comes at a heavy price!

Under the Captain is the Chief Officer who will one day hope to become Captain or who will remain as a Chief Officer for the rest of his career if he does not feel that the responsibility that tags along is worth the price.

The Captain, the Chief Officer and in descending order the Second Officer and Third Officer (sometimes referred to as Deck Officers or Navigation Officers or by Engineers as Deck Tarts) are all trained as navigators! They are responsible for the safe navigation of the vessel, they are responsible for the stability and integrity of the vessel, for cargo operations (unless it gets too difficult for them and the engineers have to take over) and for ensuring that the correct paperwork is completed and filed for ships business relating to the above and as that defined by the office.

There is though another path or two to follow at sea, not everything is about navigation and form filling. The path of engineering and before anybody asks again, “no, a Chief Engineer cannot become a Captain”! Or to re-phrase that, he can become a Captain if he goes back to school and studies for three years, goes to sea in a junior rank for one year, then studies some more and then hopes that he gets promoted to a not so junior rank and then sails some in this rank and then studies some more at college and hopes that he passes and gets promoted ………to cut a long story short; should an engineer wish to become a navigating officer he would have to study and sail as a deck officer for a number of years and it might be ten or more years before he would sit in the Captains chair. The same works the other way around, a deck officer cannot wake up one morning and decide that he would prefer to go downstairs rather than up, a career path has been chosen and to change would involve a mass of financial input (which no company would entertain) and time.

The Chief Engineer is responsible for the maintenance of the vessel, the operation of its machinery and the fabric of the boat. He, like the Captain has worked long and hard to reach the position that he has attained and with this position comes the fact that he is second in command of the vessel and again that responsibility weighs heavily on his shoulders. He in turn is backed up by a second, third and fourth engineer who will all hopefully one day climb that ladder to fill the Chiefs shoes.

On typical trading vessels these are the two command lines of the management structure. There are other specialties, an electrician maybe included onboard and his responsibility will lie with anything electric, to maintain it in a desired safe and operable condition. He will remain an electrician throughout his career, neither gaining nor dropping in rank and will be on a par to the third engineer. Varying vessels might have other ranks to consider, fridge engineers, radio officers or cargo specialists, all are of middle rank and all fit into the structure underneath the top two, the Captain and the Chief Engineer.

Finally, yet equally important are the crewmembers, an integral part of the management structure with each sailor arriving onboard with appropriate training, experience and skills that make the back-bone of any boat, so to speak! Each department has the requisite number of able seaman, the deck has sufficient to handle cargo work, lookout and watch duties, the engine room has an oiler or two to look after the cleanliness of the machinery spaces and to provide needed support to the engineers. The cook may have a galley boy or girl to help with the washing of the dishes and to clean the officer’s cabins, hopefully he or she will one day rise up to become a cook, should they so desire. It must be remembered that crew members are integral to a vessels operation, some may rise up the ladder in years to come (though study and financial input) but generally speaking they are the work force and will remain crew members throughout their career.

This is the management structure! It is not open to discussion, it is set down on paper and like it or lump it this is the way it works. There are many occasions when the boundaries are crossed, when personalities clash or experience talks but the one underlying factor that inhibits excessive out-of-rank behavior is that with each rank comes a pre-defined responsibility so by either inflating oneself to a position of higher than given or deflating oneself down the ladder it does not change the rank structure or the inherent responsibilities tagged to it. If a mate starts barking orders to the engineers or changing course of the vessel without authority from the master he better have a good reason for doing so! If he did these actions without due cause, (maybe for the safety of the vessel) then he will find himself on the next plane home. If the Second Engineer decided to stop the engine for a bit of piece and quiet without first discussing this with the Chief Engineer then the world will come crashing around his ears! In addition, let us not forget, if an Able Seaman decides that he likes to drink coffee out of the Chief Officers personal cup, then he might find himself looking out for yellow submarines from the f/castle in a force nine gale!

In a similar situation ashore, a company for example that has directors, managers and a work force, all go home each night. The actions of the chef who decided that he should send an email on behalf of the supply manager to order 7000 pairs of high heels shoes, might find himself looking for another job or suffering the wrath of another, but he has not endangered lives and he has not crossed boundaries that could influence the health and safety of other souls. And should the financial director decide to walk into the interior design section of the company one day and make an order that the toilets should be painted black on all floors, the workers will probably find that there toilets are all painted black within the next few days. The financial director will happily sign the chit for the paint, the workers will not say boo and the company won’t blink an eye, he is the financial director after all. Nothing will even be said at the next directors meeting. The other directors will probably snicker and grumble behind his back but nothing will result and the toilets will remain black until some other director gets it into his head that they should be blue.

The rank structure or management structure is extremely defined at sea purely and simply because of the lack of links to ashore. The need for well-defined authority and the need to preserve that authority are required and without which the system would fail. If the system fails, the safety of the ship and its crew are at stake. One of the ways to preserve the rank structure is through strict regulation over the requirement to have a certain qualification to fill any rank, the higher you go the more you need.

Stepping ashore again, the Chief Planner in a factory may find that the assistant planner has ambitions. The Chief Planner may come to work one very average morning to find that his assistant planner had gone and implemented a plan that the Chief Planner had himself planned. The end result of the outright usurp of authority might be that the Chief Planner very shortly find himself reading the Jobs page in the local rag simply because the planning director liked the plan that the assistant planner had said he had planned. Not to get confused with all the plans, this obviously fictitious example has only been laid out to show one things: that qualifications ashore in a management structure are often of no importance. The chief planner could have had a degree in zoology, the assistant planner a bus-ticket it would matter not!

Ships have a very defined and on the table management structure, it is one that has worked for many decades and one that will be around for a lot longer to come. It has become fact that many companies ashore are looking toward engineers to run floating installations, were the rules-of-the-sea do not come into force and there are mutterings that engineers have a more diverse background, able to command a larger number of tasks and are therefore preferred in a shipping company management positions ashore – some of these murmurs might just be true. It may also be mentioned that Oil and Water don’t mix but despite this inconsequential banter and despite the continuing interference of the outside world, the management structure onboard is set in concrete for some time to come, it holds itself well through rough weather and bad and it rides smoothly into the troughs and sits proudly on the peaks – the shipboard management structure has a solid foundation!

Ieuan Dolby is the Author and Webmaster of As a Chief Engineer in the Merchant Navy he has sailed the world for twenty years on a variety of rust buckets and state of the art vessels. Now living in Taiwan with his wife and son he writes about cultures across the globe and life as he sees it; a seafarers escapades with a few tall tales thrown in!

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