How to Become a Deckhand

Working on a boat has been a romantic idea for centuries. The reality can be harsh because you work hard, constantly combat loneliness and deal with life-threatening weather and experiences. But being out on the ocean every day with a crew who gets along and a fair-minded captain can help you to grow. Follow these steps to start your career as a deckhand.

Develop a routine for keeping in shape because deckhands work hard. You'll get some downtime but when the action starts, there's no time to rest and you need to be able to handle it.

Identify the locations where ships sail and dock like the east and west coasts, Great Lakes and fishing areas of the United States. Expect to travel to one of these places to get work.

Decide what kind of craft you want to work on. Most deckhands work on merchant marine vessels, but you can apply to fishing boats or cruise lines.

Get a Merchant Mariner's Document (MMD) or Z-Card. Issued by the United States Coast Guard, it's required if you work aboard a U.S. ship over 100 tons. It opens up employment possibilities with shipping companies.

Leverage any experience you have on boats. Helping your dad on his cargo or fishing boat as a kid counts.

Join the U.S. Navy and get some experience that way. Potential employers will look favorably on someone who's used to discipline and hard work on board a ship and served his country.

Join the Seafarers International Union (SIU). You can become a member even without a Z-Card. As an AFL-CIO member, you get many benefits when you join the SIU. But more importantly, you stand up with other deckhands for your rights.


Be prepared to take a drug test and get a criminal background check every time you have to renew your Z-Card. You'll have to get used to working in all weather conditions to make it as a deckhand. Seafaring depends on the weather so set up a savings account in case you have trouble finding work.


Don't become a deckhand if you need your 8 hours of sleep. Work schedules are unpredictable.

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