Life at sea

‘What does a marine engineer do?’

The most frequently asked question to me by far is: ‘What do you do as a marine engineer?’ Let me tell you, and I think I can speak for all seafarers in general, that this is the most difficult question you can ask a seafarer. ‘What is it that you are actually doing on board?’ Nevertheless, I understand why people ask me this question and in this blog I will try my very best to come up with a satisfactory answer to this burning question.

In general, a marine engineer is working on board a ship and is monitoring, checking, repairing and overhauling the ships machinery systems. This includes (but is not limited to) mechanical -, electrical – , hydraulic – and pneumatic systems. Every ship is different. So are its machinery systems. Most machinery spaces contain air systems, ballast- and bilge systems, fuel systems, lubricating oil systems and cooling water systems. Marine engineers monitor and carry out maintenance on equipment such as air compressors, boilers, coolers, diesel engines, e-motors, filters, HVAC units, purifiers and pumps to make sure all systems are operational at all times. To conclude with, all technical issues on board, wether it is in the engine room, in the accommodation or on deck, are the responsibility of marine engineers.

Dual fuel engine in the engine room of a LNG tanker

What the duties, responsibilities, and most common jobs of a marine engineer are depends on many different factors such as the rank you have, the type of vessel you are working on and the company you are working for. Also the age of the ship and the ships culture plays a huge role. The daily life of an engineer on a luxurious sailing yacht is different than from an engineer on a 25 year old oil tanker. I cannot speak for all marine engineers, but I can give you an impression of the life of a third engineer on a gas tanker.

My day normally starts at 07:45 AM in the engine control with with a toolbox meeting with the second and chief engineer. We discuss the planning of that day, alarms of the evening and night before and other important matters that require attention. After the meeting I make my round in the engine room where I check and note temperatures, pressures and oil levels of all the equipment. This I write down in a logbook. I also check for abnormal sounds, smells or leakages. The engine room tells me what my job for the day will be. If no abnormalities are found I can make my own planning based on our Planned Maintenance System (PMS).
Some jobs are weekly, some monthly, three monthly, six monthly or yearly. Common jobs for a third engineer are testing of the water quality onboard, changing and cleaning of filters from different systems, maintenance of the auxiliary engines, checking and testing of the MOB and lifeboat engines, maintaining the sewage plant, dismantling and assembling of purifiers and, in case there is no electrician onboard, checking off the proper function of batteries and all lightning.
Before noon the running hours of various equipment have to be taken and noted in the engine room logbook. One of the reasons this is done is to calculate fuel and lubricating oil consumption. At 16:00 the same round as in the morning is done and noted in the logbook.

Before 18:00 I finish my job, complete my administration and clean up the tools I used. I have always worked with a UMS system (unmanned machinery space). This means that nobody is in the engine room after 18:00 and that every other day I have to respond to alarms in the evening and nighttime. On these days I also make my safety round in the evening before sleeping.

Now you have an impression of a normal day as a marine engineer but… my working hours differ in the following situations: during bunkering, when receiving spare parts or stores, during arrival and departures (because a ship is operative 24/7 it often happens at nighttime), when problems occur, during a repair period or dry dock, etcetera, etcetera.

Conclusion: what a marine engineer does depends on so many factors that it is difficult to give a concise answer. Unfortunately, the definition: ‘someone who does precision guesswork based on unreliable data provided by those of questionable knowledge’ doesn’t cover it all.
In the rare case that this blog is also not answering your question and you decide to ask a seafarer please remember…only ask when you have time to listen to the answer! 😉

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  1. This blog is so amazing. Thank you for writing this. M a 4th engineer and many a times, my family, relatives and friends ask me, what work is actually there on ship? The engine is running already so you all might be having a jolly time. But I hope they read your blog too and now understand how difficult, responsible and important marine engineers are onboard.
    Keep up with some more content.
    Much Love

  2. Javier Vicente says:

    Hello Désiree, I loved reading your blog and seeing how hard it was for you, but that in the end you got it right. Reading your story, I’ve realized how much you love your profession, and how hard you have had to work to achieve your success. CONGRATULATIONS,
    I had a grandfather who was chief steamboat engineer (in the middle of the last century) and that he had an extremely hard life; and I have always been interested in the life of naval engineers and life at sea in general.
    He spent eleven months at see (his ship was a cod fishing vessel) and only one month at home. My mother and my aunt are tweens, and he met his daughters when they were over a year old.
    He was based in St Johns Newfoundland and Labrador (CANADA). They had no refrigeration facilities on board, and much of the food they ate was salted.
    In brief,
    It was an extremely hard life and although living conditions are much improved, you have to like it a lot to wear it well, and I see that you do.

    BEST OF LUCK AND KEEP BLOGGING (I’ll be watching).

  3. I appreciated it when you shared that the job of a marine engineer depends on many diverse factors such as the rank you have and the type of vessel you are working on. It is important to find the right one that is experienced working in similar job scope for your application. I would like to think if a company needs to hire a marine engineer, it should consider hiring the one that is experienced and reliable.

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