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What Is A United States Merchant Marine?

what is a merchant marine oiler

What is a Merchant Marine?

First, what is a Merchant Marine? A merchant mariner is an employee of the U.S. Merchant Marine (USMM). The USMM is managed by the Department of Transportation's Maritime Administration and consists of privately-owned and federally owned, U.S.-registered merchant ships and vessels that provide waterborne transportation for passengers and cargo moving in domestic and international commerce.

USMM supports international trade, disaster relief, military conflict and the general infrastructure of America's waterways. Mariners are the men and women who run it all, from our ports and connectors to vessel management and shipping around the world. Both the civilian mariners and the merchant vessels are managed by a combination of the government and private sectors. 

The USMM primarily transports domestic and international cargo and passengers during peacetime, and it operates and maintains deep-sea merchant ships, tugboats, towboats, ferries, dredges, excursion vessels, charter boats and other waterborne craft on the oceans, the Great Lakes, rivers, canals, harbors, and other waterways. In times of war, USMM can be an auxiliary to the U.S. Navy and can be called upon to deliver military personnel and materiel for the military.

Technically, the U.S. Merchant Marine isn’t a governmental service, but there are identification and credentials issued by the federal government for standards purposes. However, some USMM officers are commissioned as U.S. Navy Reserve officers.

What is a Merchant Marine that is licensed?

Licensed mariners fill many of the Merchant Marine's leadership and training positions, directing the organization and making key decisions across the board. Think of them as professionals with advanced training in their field (significant maritime-related experience and knowledge) that require a special designation (a license) who provide critical functionality to Merchant Marine Operations. Like surgeons to their operating room staff or airline pilots to their flight crew.

Many who have licenses are officers on merchant ships and they have attended a maritime academy where they not only earned a degree, but also advanced credentials. There are seven maritime academies located across the country: The U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, the California State University Maritime Academy, the Great Lakes Maritime Academy, the Maine Maritime Academy, the Massachusetts Maritime Academy, the State University of New York Maritime College and the Texas A&M Maritime Academy.

What is a Merchant Marine that is unlicensed?

Unlicensed mariners are the backbone of the Merchant Marine workforce, an army of skilled and newly trained workers with little or no prior experience afloat. These mariners hold “certifications” rather than licenses, though they can and often do advance into the licensed ranks.

Is the Merchant Marines a military branch?

While it has a similar feel to that of U.S. military organizations, the USMM is not a military organization. However, it is a disciplined organization like the traditional six service departments (Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Space Force, Air Force and Coast Guard) under the Department of Defense. It has leadership hierarchies, codes of conduct, vast support networks, and legislative backing.

The key difference is that Merchant Marines are civilians who must follow special laws and regulations designed for merchant mariners and enforced by a military body, the U.S. Coast Guard. If posted at sea, mariners will serve on commercial vessels, which can share similarities with military vessels, such as position titles and lifestyle. For example, the head of the engineering department is called the Chief Engineer and the vessel master – who commands the ship — is formally addressed as “Captain.” Most USMM vessels run more efficiently than a standard commercial vessel, and all those aboard must be ready to change course and support a U.S. mission anywhere in the world.

What is a Merchant Marine fleet?

Because of the ambiguity of the USMM fleet, the numbers vary, but according to the U.S. Merchant Marine website, USMM has more than 10,000 ships and vessels and Merchant Marines can serve in three departments: Deck, Engine and Steward. Most mariners spend their careers in only one of these departments. 

It is important to note that this number is vastly different than what is reported on other government websites and publications which report the ship numbers to be less than 200, but given that the number 10,000 was used on the official USMM site, we went with that number, but we did want to highlight the discrepancy between sources.

What is a Merchant Marine timeline?

The time required to become a member of USMM depends on the route an applicant takes. A person who joins as a seaman may become a mariner after passing required courses. They must then pass rigorous exams to receive the necessary credentials. The process, all in, can take a few months. An apprentice applicant will likely train for more than two years, though much of that training time is sea time.

Those who are interested in becoming officers must attend a maritime academy which can take four years or more to complete.

What is a Merchant Marine age requirement?

Anyone interested in joining the USMM can do so at age 16. There is no age restriction otherwise and people can join the USMM even after retiring from other careers.

What is a Merchant Marine workforce?

There are roughly 13,000 mariners out there. Commercial companies employ roughly 7,500 professional mariners to operate their ships while the federal government employs another 6,000. The latter mostly operates vessels in the Military Sealift Command.

What is a Merchant Marine Veteran Program?

It is more accurately called the Military to Mariner program. This program allows veterans of any service to join USMM. Veterans do not need to be former members of the U.S. Navy, U.S. Coast Guard, or have served aboard U.S. Army vessels to apply. Veterans of any military service are encouraged to apply, and they do not have to have held a maritime related military occupation or rating.

Of course, veterans who served in maritime related service branches or occupations will certainly complete the training with more ease than say a military policeman, but there is no maritime skill requirement to join the USMM.