Seafarer’s Diaries: Day In The Life Of A Marine Engineer

July 23, 2022 Maritime Safety News

Syed Zain Ali Shah, 32, graduated from Pakistan Marine Academy with a Bachelor of Science in Maritime Studies and Marine Engineering in 2010.  Ali started his seafaring journey in 2011 and is now a Third Engineer. He is currently pursuing his Certificate of Competency (COC) class 2 and 1 combined in Singapore.

Syed Zain Ali Shah

“As seafarers, we live on the ship, it is like our working place and living place, so, it is like a home for us, and we sail through different waters and to different places around the world.  In general, a ship is a workplace and a home,” Ali told Maritime Fairtrade in an interview.

The work of a marine engineer

A marine engineer “takes care of the whole mechanical and electrical systems needed to run a ship safely,” said Ali.

According to Ali, every ship has a main engine, generators, purifiers, compressors, freshwater generators and salination plants for drinking purposes, oily water separators to conform to IMO regulations, steam plant for cargo heating and auxiliary machinery like the propulsion plant and powerhouse along with the air conditioning system.  The size of certain components like the boiler may differ from ship to ship based on the needs of the ship.

The chief engineer tops the hierarchy as head of the department of engineering.  This position is followed by the second engineer who is the head of engine room and machinery on other parts of the ship. The third engineer, which is Ali’s current role, is in charge of the powerhouse, electricity generators, boilers/steam house and sometimes the freshwater generator.

The fourth engineer is responsible for purification, auxiliary system, compressors, pumps and all related pipelines.  Along with the chief, second and third engineer, they make up the four officers onboard.  Though uncommon nowadays, some ships still have trainee engineers also known as the fifth engineer.  After which comes the crew, consisting of an oiler and a qualified electrician known as an electro technological officer, who is also the radio officer in charge of communication between ships and the shore side.

No work-life balance

As a third engineer, Ali starts work at midnight till 4 am in the engine room along with one oiler and two other seamen on deck. The four seafarers run the ship for the shift.

After which, Ali “hands over his watch” to the second engineer, who covers the 4 am to 8 am shift.  From 8 am till 12 noon, the fourth engineer takes over the watch.  The watch keeping duty is then handed over to Ali at 12 noon where he works another four-hour shift till 4 pm. Chief engineers do not report for watch duties but are on standby 24/7 in case of unexpected events.

During his rest hours, Ali would “go and sleep”.

Ali said that in the early days working on a new ship, seafarers have a “hectic routine to understand how things work on a ship” and to familiarize themselves with the operations.  According to Ali, the “experienced guys” get familiarized in about 10 to 15 days.  However, “to get settled (and understand) a new environment with new people takes about a month.” Time will be taken to “know how a certain person behaves, who has the expertise and who is lacking somewhere.”

Ali used the first one month to digest handovers from the previous crew to get a “whole clear picture of which machinery requires attention first and which machinery is okay and can run until the next two to three months” because they can wait as they long as they are “under operational condition”.

Ali said an engineer’s responsibility is to “bring back the whole ship and machinery to a good working condition”. As such, during this one month, seafarers will need to clock in extra hours during their break time.

One may think for the rest of his time onboard the ship, Ali is freed from his duties after his two four-hour shifts.  When asked whether seafarers have work-life balance on a ship, Ali gives a firm “No”. From his experience, when problems occur, he is unable to take on a stance such that “my four hours are done, I am going to rest.”

The fact that they are in the sea, where “upside there is only God, bottom side there are sharks and we are in the middle” means that “in the open sea, you are your own help,” said Ali. As such, all crew would need to be present when an emergency arises.

From a professional perspective, Ali said that it is discouraged to “leave your work till the next day.”  As the third engineer that is in charge of the powerhouse, “there is not just one, but two to three generators”, and these generators need to be ready. One is up and running, another is on standby and the last one is spare.

It is of utmost importance to keep all three in running condition as “we don’t know when we need them.”  If there are collisions or major accidents and the power is not ready, it may cost lives.

Ali emphasized that “safety of life at sea (SOLAS) and marine pollution are main focuses with SOLAS being the most important.  You can sacrifice the ship, you can sacrifice your cargo, but what about the people onboard?” Therefore, Ali clocked in one or two extra hours to ensure his work is finished.

“In short, I’m 24 by seven available.”

Love for the sea

Like many others, Ali said the greatest joy of working onboard a ship would be the opportunity to travel.  Throughout his career, Ali has seen countless picturesque sunrises and sunsets in different countries.  According to Ali, these sights were a thousand of times more breath-taking in real life as compared to postcards.

“I like to be on the sea. I like the environment,” Ali said fondly when asked about the joys of being a seafarer.  Other than his love for the sea, Ali likes the fact that he gets to meet and learn from new crewmates and to experience new environments and places.  Also, the pay is good.  “At the end of the day, when I go back home, I have plenty of money for me and my family.”

However, Ali said that “since 2010 onwards, I don’t see a great hike in salaries as much as the workload has been increased.”  He is unsure about the situation in Singapore, but he is certain that from the oil majors in the Middle Eastern side, “there is more workload and little increment.  Oil trade is getting expensive, the company owners, ship owners, and charterers are earning money but when it comes to crew, operators and people on a ship, they don’t spare an extra penny.”

As a result of the stagnant wages and increased workload, Ali shared that he knows “people who want to switch to the easier side or towards the natural gas trade.”  The trade of LNG and LPG consists of “newer ships that means less work” due to “less maintenance” which means “more resting hours”.

There is also the challenge of new regulations, amendments and paperwork are being pushed out all the time. There are different sets of rules and regulations set by IMO and port states that seafarers need to follow when operating certain machinery.

Ali lamented: “You cannot use this kind of fuel or that kind of fuel. In order to use that fuel, we need to have separate machinery.” This means seafarers need to constantly unlearn and relearn in order to keep up with the new updates.

Ali felt that as mariners, “we should be taught human behaviour” because while operating machines, engineers need to interact with different people.  Over the course of time and experience, Ali has worked with a variety of different nationalities from Indian, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Singapore, Malaysia, Scotland, Egypt, Syria, Ukraine and even Russia.

Ali said: “Every nationality has their pros and cons.  And there is an attitude for every nationality.” As such, learning how to interact and give one another respect is extremely important when living together on a ship for a long period of time.

Calm in the storm

“Whatever you’ve seen on Google, I’ve experience it,” Ali said with a chuckle when asked about his most unforgettable experience as a seafarer.

“We were in the Indian Ocean, and we were going down towards South Africa.  It was monsoon time with strong winds and rain.

“For four days, the ship was running on full propulsion but we did not move an inch due to the wind, currents and forces.”

Ali mimicked the motions like that of a roller coaster, rushing at full speed to its peak before crashing down vertically.  Unlike a roller coaster that is enjoyable, the rough sea had waves that were going up to 30 metres high which lasted for three days.

“We could not sleep,” Ali said, “If I sleep on the left, one wave comes and I’m on my right side.” Ali laughed as he recalled that he rolled off the bed and landed on the floor several times.  In the end, he resorted to sleeping on the floor.

“You cannot eat, whatever you eat will come out.  Everybody including the chief engineer was seasick except me,” Ali said he was doing extra work of a nurse, taking care of his crew mates. “I would be like, ‘okay you go over there’, then I would hold the other guy and put him on a chair or some stretcher. I was pretty much fatigue at that time.”

To Ali, that was a “pretty difficult time” making the experience with rough seas a tale to remember.

Rising up the ranks

A trainee engineer requires nine months of sailing time in order to qualify for the COC class 5, 4 and 3 examinations.  After completing the said exams, most countries would require a minimum of 12 months of sea time in order to take the COC class 2 or class 2 and 1 combined.  The requirement for COC class 1 would be at least 24 to 36 months of work, depending on the country’s own policies.

According to Ali, the starting pay of a seafarer is dependent on their company, with some “paying very little” while in other cases, the “pay is good enough”.   However, as one rises up the ranks, the pay could increase up to US$2,000 at a time.  Eventually, when one reaches the top as a chief engineer, the pay would be US$12,000 to US$15, 000 a month on average, up to US$17,000.

The future of seafaring

“I am the first seafarer of my family, and I will be the last.  My upbringing and the coming generation’s upbringing are very different,” said Ali.  The coming generations are “born with a silver spoon” but not in his case.

Seafaring is definitely not for the faint of heart but for individuals with passion and perseverance. Ali said that “some guys, they don’t like the sea”, and “in the first ten days they say the sea is not for us.”

“There is a shortage of seafarers and there will always be a shortage of seafarers” Ali pointed out. The war between Ukraine and Russia has caused a great gap in the demand and supply of crew as these countries produce the most seafarers along with Philippines. With Ukrainians and Russians no longer in the market, this causes a shortage.

Ali ended off by saying that he has no regrets pursuing seafaring even though he had plenty of options during his studies. He has more exposure working as a marine engineer on a ship as compared to the typical office worker. “I love what I do, and there is peace between me and my work,” Ali commented with a proud grin on his face.

After finishing his COC class 2 and 1 combined, Ali’s company would promote him to second engineer, overall in charge of engine room.  Ali said that he would be back in Singapore again next year to get his COC by 2025 to take on the role of a chief engineer.