Life on a Container Ship: A Shore-Based Employee's Week at Sea

Life on a Container Ship: A Shore-Based Employee's Week at Sea

If you work in a shore based job in the shipping industry, such as in maritime recruitment or crew planning, it's probably fair to say you know a lot more about living and working on a container ship than the average person who works in an office.

Or perhaps you're someone who is considering one of the many careers in the maritime industry and you'd like some real insight into what life at sea is like.

Or maybe you’re not connected to seafaring, and aren't thinking about finding a seafarer job, but you're simply curious to know what life on a vessel is like.

a seafarer looking through binoculars.

Whoever you are, we hope this article will be of interest to you as it’s a little different to our usual blog posts.

Based upon the experiences of one of our coworkers who was lucky enough to recently spend a week at sea on one of our vessels, for the uninitiated and the land-based, this is a unique insight into the day-to-day lives of the seafarers who make shipping the world’s most vital form of transportation.

Life on a container ship: A shore based employee's week at sea

First of all, let's take a look at the container ship that our coworker sailed upon.

Introduction to the vessel

The vessel is a container ship with a gross tonnage of 23633 and a deadweight of 27209 tons. She has a length of 191 meters and a breath of 28 meters. Built in 2008, she’s currently registered and flying under the flag of Liberia and operates mainly in the Baltic region.

Crew members standing in front of docked container ship

The vessel is part of a fleet of container ships that is fully managed by the Nordic Hamburg Shipmanagement (HK) Ltd. shipping company.

Life on a container ship: Days 1 and 2

After embarkation, our representative was comfortably settled in the owners’ cabin on D-Deck, ready to begin her mini voyage. Always a crucial aspect of life at sea, she was then provided with an introduction to personal life saving equipment and alarm signals.

Next up was another important part of life onboard a vessel: Food!

Dinner had been kept in the officer’s mess (the room or area where crew eat and relax) for our visitor as she had missed the ship’s regular dinnertime, and she ate alongside crew members who for reasons due to their watch or other circumstances also had to eat a little later.

Departing the port

The next day the vessel departed the Ukrainian port of Odessa at lunchtime with a Pilot onboard. For those who don't know, Marine Pilots are seafarers who are based ashore who have in-depth knowledge of a port’s approach and exit. Their job is to board a vessel that is entering or leaving the port and expertly navigate them in or out to ensure a safe passage.

The vessel was pulled aside the berth by two tugs and once his duties were completed, the pilot disembarked on the starboard (right hand) side of the ship via the pilot’s ladder.

After the ship’s departure, the Third Officer took our representative on a guided tour.

A guided tour of the vessel

Beginning on D-Deck, the Third Officer and our coworker moved downstairs to the main deck where a briefing on the ship’s fire fighting equipment took place before visiting the cargo office, conference room, and ship’s gym, sauna, and changing rooms - the latter being valuable facilities for seafarers who need to maintain their mental and physical wellbeing during their life at sea.

View from a container ship as it comes into port

Types of ship life saving equipment

It goes without saying that another hugely important part of life on a container ship is knowing where the lifesaving equipment is located, and how and when it should be used.

As well as the personal lifesaving equipment shown to her when our rep embarked, this also included knowing the whereabouts of the life rafts and how to use them.

These are located on both the vessel’s port and starboard sides, with the ship being in possession of two different types of life rafts: One that is lowered by davit and another that is thrown into the water.

The vessel is also equipped with a fast rescue boat (FRB) and a freefall boat. The FRB is situated on the starboard side and, like the life raft, is to be lowered into the water by davit.

freefall lifeboat on a davit.

Meanwhile the freefall boat accommodates 25 people with each person onboard the vessel having their own seat number should the boat be deployed. The freefall boat is located on the ship’s stern and can be released from inside when all crew are seated.

All of the rescue boats and rafts are supplied with freshwater, food, medicines and blankets.

Container ship equipment and engines

Next on the tour was an introduction to lashing equipment for containers: Semi-automatic twist locks and long and short bars. On this vessel lashing is done by stevedores and the crew does not participate, although the Deck Cadet is responsible for checking reefer (refrigerated) containers.

shipping containers

So that the vessel and crew are ready to spring into action when they arrive at their destination, the Chief Officer is sent a cargo plan before they reach each port so the Deck Cadet knows on which position reefers are placed.

Our coworker onboard was also shown winches on the stern and bow, and mooring rope storage. This particular ship has polypropylene ropes which are designed to sink in the water if they break to avoid injuring the crew on deck.

Night watch on a container ship

Have you ever wondered what happens during the night watch on a container ship?

On this occasion on the vessel, the Third Officer’s watch ran from 20:00 to 24:00. The lights on the bridge are all switched off during the night watch, with the only illumination being in the chart room where the computer, echo sounder, charts and other papers are located.

Container ship's control panels at night dimly lit

The chart room is shielded by curtains to conceal the light, as darkness is paramount for optimum vision. To ensure maximum efficiency and safety, all the devices on the ship’s bridge are duplicated in the unlikely event that one of them happens to fail.

Life on a container ship: Days 3 and 4

For container ships, cargo operations and cargo planning are a big part of daily life aboard a vessel.

So that everyone is fully aware of what’s happening, shore planners send a cargo plan to the vessel for each port in advance of arrival. The Chief Officer receives the plan and notes where reef containers and dangerous cargo containers should be placed.

seafarer using a laptop on the bridge of a vessel.

In accordance with the ship’s facilities and circumstances, they can make amendments to the plan and send these back to the planner on shore.

The Chief Officer also receives information regarding how many empty containers the ship will carry, and what’s inside the reefer and dangerous cargo containers. This particular vessel normally takes 20, 40, and 45 ft. containers and high cubes but there’s also the rare possibility of her taking open tops too.

If you don't know your shipping containers, high cubes are the same as regular containers but have a height difference of one foot. Meanwhile open tops are containers that are covered by a tarpaulin rather than a solid 'roof'.

The Bosporus Strait and berthing at Ambarli

On day three the container ship reached The Bosporus Strait in northwestern Turkey. At this point, there is what can best be described as a sort of maritime version of a “one-way street” whereby the local authorities have created a caravan of ships that wait patiently for entry and exit. The ship stayed at anchorage for eight hours waiting for her slot in the caravan.

two one way street signs pointing in different directions.

During the entire Bosporus passage a Pilot is onboard to relay commands to the Helmsman. The Master (Captain of the ship) repeats these commands, the Helmsman repeats them again and then takes the appropriate actions.

After the Strait was successfully navigated, the vessel berthed at the port of Ambarli in Turkey.

Of course, being a container ship, it meant that the vessel and her crew were not there to rest and cargo operations commenced. These operations are performed by shore cranes, with the vessel’s cranes only being used for picking up supplies.

A huge quantity of supplies were received in Ambarli and once these were delivered onboard, the crew from each department transported their supplies to the relevant storage area.

View from a container ship as it sails towards a bridge lit up by lights at night

Finally on day four, oil bunkering was performed while the vessel was berthed at Kumport Terminal, also in Turkey.

Life on a container ship: Days 5, 6 and 7

By her fifth day, our representative was really starting to get a feel for life at sea and all it involves, and she spent part of the day visiting various lockers and stores where small equipment, tools, food and other necessities are kept.

The ship’s provisions are divided into separate, temperature-controlled sections for goods such as vegetables and meat, and are kept in order by the Messman - the crew member responsible for basic kitchen tasks, serving meals, and making sure the officer and crew messes are clean and tidy.

a man in orange overalls holding a vacuum cleaner.

She also visited the bunker station. This room within the engine room has a gateway to the vessel’s portside through which bunkering of fuel and lube oil is performed. Sludge discharging is also done through the bunker station.

During day five, two night watches were stood by the Third and Second Officers. During the Second Officer’s watch a few distress signals were received, however the vessel was situated too far away from the incident so she wasn’t nominated for rescue operations.

On day six the port of Constanta, Romania was reached and on day seven our colleague’s voyage was over and the vessel returned to berth in Odessa.

Odessa port.

Another week at sea over, a fascinating insight for a shored based employee into life on a container ship, countless products and parts delivered to their respective ports, and another job well done by the Master and crew of this hardworking vessel.

If you just have a passing interest in the maritime industry and what it would be like to live and work on a cargo ship, we hope you found this blog pot interesting.

If you're actually interested in a career at sea, or you're a working on a ship already and you'd like to read posts about seafarer jobs, writing seaman resumes, health and wellbeing while working at sea and more, please take a look at our seafarer blog which has hundreds of articles written especially for you.

smiling crew on the deck of a vessel

You can also find our latest seafarer job vacancies here.

Meanwhile if you're an employer, crew planner or manning agent...carry on reading.

How Martide makes life easier for shore-based employees

Martide is an end-to-end software solution that was created specifically for small to medium-sized shipowners and managers who are looking for a more integrated and intuitive way to run their maritime recruitment and crew planning operations.

We help employers and manning agents find and recruit seafarers for their vacancies, whilst also streamlining their processes by pulling all aspects of recruitment and planning into one centralized platform.

arm holding a wrench and the word 'strategy'

From posting your job adverts, to building a global seafarer database, to managing your recruitment process in an easy, visual, step-by-step building block approach, to tracking applicants, to more efficiently planning crew - Martide helps you work smarter, not harder.

Best of all, many of our features and functions are completely free to use - including posting job adverts on our website.

If you'd like to find out more about how we can help your small to mid-sized shipping company's maritime recruitment and crew planning departments find, recruit and manage seafarers more effectively - or you're a manning agent who would like to set yourself apart from your competitors - get in touch with us today.

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We offer a free, no-strings attached demo of our software solution, so you really haven't got anything to lose!  We look forward to speaking to you.

This blog post was originally published on October 18th 2019 and updated on December 21st 2021.

Eve Jones

Eve Jones

I am a content writer at Martide, helping to keep you up-to-date on all things maritime recruitment and shipping industry related through our regular blog posts.