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Sailors look for dangers and obstructions in the path of water-based vessels, operate and steer water-based vessels, measure water depth, and manage cargo onboard ships and other vessels. Cruise ships, the military, boating tour companies, fishing charter companies, and cargo companies hire sailors to work full-time hours during all shifts, including nights, weekends, and holidays. Sailors work in a highly collaborative environment with other sailors and crew members, and primarily report to the captain and other ship officers. Because they work onboard vessels, sailors travel constantly and may be away from home for days or weeks at a time.

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Sailor Duties and Responsibilities

A sailor’s day-to-day duties vary greatly depending on the type of vessel they’re on, the amount of cargo they must manage, the length of the trip, and the number of other crew members onboard. However, are several core tasks performed by most sailors, including the following:

Stand Watch

Sailors stand watch on the bow or bridge of a ship or vessel to ensure no hazards or dangers impede its path.

Manage Cargo

Sailors load and unload cargo and ensure it is securely stored in the vessel’s hold. This includes attaching hoses and operating pumps to transfer liquid substances into and out of cargo tanks.

Operate Vessel

Sailors steer the vessel and manage other operational functions as directed by the ship captain or commander.

Assist with Docking and Undocking Procedures

Sailors drop and lift anchors, mooring lines, gangways, and ladders to assist with docking and undocking procedures.

Maintain Equipment

Sailors maintain, repair, and replace ship equipment. This includes keeping all ship equipment clean and fueled.

Clean Ship

Sailors keep the ship deck and other areas clean.

Sailor Skills and Qualifications

Sailors assist with all ship operations and guidance while maintaining open communication with other crew members and officers. When hiring sailors, employers look for professionals who have all the following skills:

Communication skills – sailors use excellent verbal communication skills to work collaboratively with the ship crew and give alerts to potential dangers or problems that may affect the ship or its course

Physical fitness – sailors stand for hours at a time and lift heavy objects, which requires strength and stamina

Attention to detail – sailors read gauges and measuring equipment and stand watch onboard vessels, which requires strong attention to detail

Mechanical skills – sailors frequently work with their hands and use mechanical skills to operate steering wheels, gauges, rigging, and other ship equipment

Multitasking – sailors multitask to manage many duties at once

Tools of the Trade

Sailors regularly work with the following tools and equipment:

Docking equipment (anchors, gangways, mooring lines, towing lines, ladders, ropes)

Steering tools (wheel, gauges, switches)

Water-depth equipment (weights, ropes)

Deck equipment (lift boats, life jackets, hatches)

Cargo tools (hoses, pumps)

Sailor Education and Training

Few employers require sailors to have specialized training or extensive experience on the water. A majority of employers, including the U.S. Navy, look for sailors who have a high school diploma or equivalent. Prior to sailing, however, many employers require sailors to obtain a certificate of health from a physician. A valid passport is also often required for sailors, as they frequently travel across international borders.

On-the-job training is provided to sailors, as many employers hire them on an entry-level basis. Training varies by employer but may last for several weeks. While in training, sailors work closely with senior crew members to learn how to perform their basic job duties.

Sailor Salary and Outlook

Data from PayScale shows that sailors earn a median annual income of $57,288. Water transportation workers earn a median annual salary of $55,590, the equivalent of $26.73 per hour, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Water transportation workers operate and maintain vessels on the water, performing the same duties as sailors. The BLS expects employment in this field to rise 8 percent through 2026, a rate that is as fast as the national average.

Sailors receive varying benefit packages based on their employer. Most provide basic medical insurance, and some may additionally provide dental and vision benefits. Paid vacation days are typically offered as well. The U.S. Navy provides sailors with extensive benefits that include promotion opportunities, free meals, free lodging, and complete insurance coverage.

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Helpful Resources

Find tips and information for professional sailors of all kinds using these books and websites full of content, workplace techniques, and opportunities:

U.S. Navy Cruiser Sailors Association

this site is designed to provide Navy sailors with up-to-date information, articles, networking events, and other content

Sailor and Marine Oiler Career: The Insider's Guide to Finding a Job at an Amazing Firm, Acing the Interview & Getting Promoted

this book is an insider's guide to finding a job as a sailor, performing well during the interview, and eventually earning a promotion

American Sailing Association

designed for sailors, this website provides school information, sailing training courses, news updates, and certification programs, among other resources

Sail for a Living: Find a Job, Start a Business, Change Your Life

learn more about various marine careers and discover industry secrets with this book, which provides in-depth information about working as a sailor for a living

Sailors' Society

find schools, nautical education programs, upcoming networking events, and more information for sailors at this website

Life as a Sailor: Joining and Serving in the United States Navy

learn how to get a job as a Navy sailor with this book, which provides tips for success and other valuable information