“Anybody wanting to go out to sea needs to have a strong constitution, open eyes and a measure of wanderlust,” says merchant seaman Michael. He explains what it takes to have be a chief officer in the merchant navy.
Name: Michael Dybvik
Company: Höegh LNG
Industry: Transport & Logistics
What is your job? Chief officer
How long have you been doing this job? 6 years
University: US Merchant Marine Academy
Degree Subject: Nautical science
Qualifications: Cadet shipping
1. What was your very first job?
My first career-oriented job was as a daycare assistant while I was in high school.
2. What did you want to do when you were at school?
I had no idea what I wanted to do. There was a great world I wanted to see and the idea of sitting at a desk for five days a week, 45 weeks a year absolutely horrified me.
3. How did you find out about the industry?
Everybody has heard of seamen; most people have family ties or older relatives that have a connection to merchant seamen or naval seamen. In my case, my father was a seaman.
4. How did you get there?
I applied to the Merchant Seamen’s College in America which was rather strict at the time. Once accepted, the system is regimented and carefully organised to funnel you through schooling and training to end up with a degree.
5. What is a typical day like?
I work for 10 weeks at a time, so that’s 10 weeks on, 10 weeks off.
A typical day for my position means waking up at 3.30am and standing the 4am to 8am watch. I am in charge of the deck crew and have a morning meeting where I delegate (assign) a series of jobs to be completed.
Throughout the day I check up on the crew’s progress, make risk assessments of new work that is to be completed in the future, and I prepare permits and inspect working spaces. I am in charge of training and teaching the junior officers who in turn are responsible for route preparation and maintenance of safety, fire, and lifesaving equipment.
A ship has everything on board to sustain a group of people for a fixed time. Everything on deck falls under my responsibility and if this sounds vague it is only because there are too many systems and situations to list. I am the ship’s security officer, medical officer, ballast officer, and generally the go-to person for anything that is not ship shape!
6. What’s the best thing about your job?
I only work half of the year! I have no daily commute to work, my cabin is several decks below my office and the ship’s bridge, and for every day I am onboard, I earn 1 day’s paid vacation. This job really takes the old saying “work hard, play” hard to the limit.
The work can be strenuous and long hours are expected, but I can experience all of the world’s climates and daylight hours on a voyage from the north of Norway to Chile or Australia.
Most of the companies that have a European crew also recognise the sacrifice we make by being away from home for extended spells with limited communication. The salary for a merchant ships officer or ships engineer far exceeds what most graduates will be making when they come out of university.
7. What is the most challenging thing about your job?
Long periods of time away from home and the limited communications systems. We have an internet connection on board but with 30 people sharing a connection slower than what you would have in a standard household, streaming media is impossible and even downloading pictures slows the whole connection down.
Shipping is also one of the oldest industries in the world and the authorities regulating the industry are slow to adapt new technologies. This means that I have to deal with systems I often consider ancient and discuss technological issues with a generation that does not necessarily have the same appreciation for modern systems as me.
8. What advice do you have for people who want to do what you do?
Don’t be afraid to contact the merchant shipping school nearest you. Anybody wanting to go out to sea needs to have a strong constitution, open eyes and a measure of wanderlust.
Seamen are not experts of any particular field but a deep understanding of physics, chemistry, mechanics, business, human relations, leadership, and even astronomy are necessary to be a ships officer.
Seamen are, by necessity, self-sufficient. There is nobody to call for help when the nearest shore is thousands of miles away and there are no mothers or partners to return to after a hard day’s work. Theoretical knowledge and practical ability are required in equal parts.
9. What things do you wish you’d known before starting your career?
Security concerns are a part of life today, not just ashore, but also on ships and terminals. The days of shore leave and unrestricted access to the shore are long gone.
Shipping is also one of the most regulated industries in the world. Disasters continue to happen and even though safety is more important than ever, dangers lurk around every corner of a ship. Injuries persist and the list of dead and lost seamen continues to grow. No severe injuries or deaths have occurred under my supervision and I intend to keep it that way.
10. Where would you like to be in 5 years?
This is a particularly difficult question. If I keep sailing I should hope to be captain. With my holidays I have lots of time to pursue another degree or pursue a career change if I get tired of seafaring. This is a question best answered five years from now!
If you like the sound of Michael's story and want to find out more about maritime careers, check out this forum between Humber UTC School and industry experts Careers At Sea.