Sailors assist the ship captain and any crew higher in hierarchy to operate ships. They dust and wax furniture and polish wood trim, sweep floors and decks, and polish brass and other metal parts. They inspect, repair, and maintain sails and rigging, and paint or varnish surfaces. They make emergency repairs to the auxiliary engine. Sailors may stow supplies and equipment and record data in log, such as weather conditions and distance travelled. 

Working conditions

Sailors usually work for long periods and can be exposed to all kinds of weather. Many people decide that life at sea is not for them because of difficult conditions onboard ships and long periods away from home.

However, companies try to provide pleasant living conditions aboard their vessels. Most vessels are air-conditioned and include comfortable living quarters. Many also include entertainment systems with satellite TV and Internet connections, and meals may be provided.

Work Schedules

Workers on deep-sea ships can spend months at a time away from home.

Workers on supply ships have shorter trips, usually lasting for a few hours or days.

Tugboats and barges travel along the coasts and on inland waterways, and crews are usually away for 2 to 3 weeks at a time.

Those who work on the Great Lakes have longer trips, around 2 months, but often do not work in the winter, when the lakes freeze.

Crews on all vessels often work for long periods, 7 days a week, while aboard.

Ferry workers and motorboat operators usually are away only for a few hours at a time and return home each night. Many ferry and motorboat operators service ships for vacation destinations and have seasonal schedules.

Other titles

The following job titles also refer to sailor:


Minimum qualifications

A high school diploma is generally required to work as a sailor.

ISCO skill level

ISCO skill level is defined as a function of the complexity and range of tasks and duties to be performed in an occupation. It is measured on a scale from 1 to 4, with 1 the lowest level and 4 the highest, by considering:

  • the nature of the work performed in an occupation in relation to the characteristic tasks and duties
  • the level of formal education required for competent performance of the tasks and duties involved and
  • the amount of informal on-the-job training and/or previous experience in a related occupation required for competent performance of these tasks and duties.

Sailor is a Skill level 2 occupation.

Sailor career path

Similar occupations

These occupations, although different, require a lot of knowledge and skills similar to sailor.

ordinary seaman
fisheries deckhand
deep-sea fishery worker
bulk filler

Long term prospects

These occupations require some skills and knowledge of sailor. They also require other skills and knowledge, but at a higher ISCO skill level, meaning these occupations are accessible from a position of sailor with a significant experience and/or extensive training.

maritime pilot
ship captain
ship assistant engineer
ship duty engineer
non-vessel operating common carrier

Essential knowledge and skills

Essential knowledge

This knowledge should be acquired through learning to fulfill the role of sailor.

  • Global maritime distress and safety system: The internationally agreed-upon set of safety procedures, types of equipment and communication protocols used to increase safety and make it easier to rescue distressed ships, boats and aircraft.
  • Anchors used in maritime water transport: Distinguish various types of anchors used in maritime transport operations according to the type of vessel, port characteristics and regulatory guidelines.

Essential skills and competences

These skills are necessary for the role of sailor.

  • Guide ships into docks: Safely guide a ship into a dock and anchor it.
  • Watch for maritime navigation aids: Watch for navigation aids (lighthouses and buoys), obstructions, and other vessels that may be encountered. Interpret navigation aids, communicate information, and take orders from the captain.
  • Operate traditional water depth measurement equipment: Operate traditional water depth measuring equipment e.g. weights on a line, and traditional techniques for measuring the depth of water, particularly along coastlines and near harbours.
  • Anchor ships to the port: Anchor ships to the port according to the type of vessel.
  • Prepare lifeboats: Prepare lifeboats in ships before departure, ensure full functionality in case of emergency, follow regulatory instructions for lifesaving boats.
  • Moor vessels: Follow standard procedures to moor vessels. Manage communication between the ship and the shore.
  • Ensure public safety and security: Implement the relevant procedures, strategies and use the proper equipment to promote local or national security activities for the protection of data, people, institutions, and property.
  • Prepare deck equipment: Handle a wide assortment of deck equipment, including waterproof marine doors, hatches, winches, pumps, cleats, fairleads, portlights, shackles, swivels, tank top covers, anchors, and bollards. Prepare and organise equipment in the required locations and quantity on board a vessel.
  • Communicate reports provided by passengers: Transmit information provided by passengers to superiors. Interpret passenger claims and follow up requests.
  • Clean parts of vessels: Clean engine rooms and vessel components using appropriate cleaning materials; ensure compliance with environmental regulations.
  • Follow written instructions: Follow written directions in order to perform a task or carry out a step-by-step procedure.
  • Wash decks of ships: Clean the ship’s deck by sweeping and washing it thoroughly. Remove superfluous salt and water to avoid oxidation.
  • Assist anchoring operations: Assist during anchoring operations; operate equipment and assist in anchor manoeuvres.
  • Paint ship decks: Detect and remove rust using primers and sealants; paint vessel decks to fend off oxidation process.
  • Follow work procedures: Adhere to procedures at work in a structured and systematic manner.
  • Operate echo sounding equipment: Operate technological equipment to measure the ocean’s depth. Calculate and interpret results, and communicate them to management.
  • Secure ships using rope: Use rope to secure and untie the ship before departure or upon arrival.
  • Use different types of fire extinguishers: Understand and apply various methods of firefighting and various types and classes of fire extinguishing equipment.
  • Use maritime English: Communicate in English employing language used in actual situations on board ships, in ports and elsewhere in the shipping chain.
  • Unmoor vessels: Follow standard procedures to unmoor vessels. Manage communication between the ship and the shore.
  • Pilot vessel into ports: Safely navigate vessel in and out of port; communicate and cooperate with captain and ship’s crew; operate vessel communication and navigation instruments; communicate with other vessels and harbour control centre.
  • Follow verbal instructions: Have the ability to follow spoken instructions received from colleagues. Strive to understand and clarify what is being requested.

Optional knowledge and skills

Optional knowledge

This knowledge is sometimes, but not always, required for the role of sailor. However, mastering this knowledge allows you to have more opportunities for career development.

  • Types of maritime vessels: Know a large variety of maritime vessels and their characteristics and specifications. Use that knowledge to ensure that all security, technical, and maintenance measures are taken into account in their supply.

Optional skills and competences

These skills and competences are sometimes, but not always, required for the role of sailor. However, mastering these skills and competences allows you to have more opportunities for career development.

ISCO group and title

8350 – Ships’ deck crews and related workers

  1. Sailor – ESCO
  2. Water Transportation Workers : Occupational Outlook Handbook – U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics
  3. Featured image: Photo by Brett Sayles
Last updated on August 21, 2022

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