Afloat or ashore…now what?

After years of going to sea on tugs or ships, passing exams, taking the required classes, and jumping through all the “bureaucratic hoops” the time finally comes – the Coast Guard mails you your chief engineer or captain license. 

After the celebration’s over, you ask yourself, “Now what?”

Some continue sailing. Others decide since they have been at sea, maybe it’s time to try something different, like working ashore.

During my career, I have seen a number of chief engineers and captains take shoreside jobs in the maritime industry. 

While each had his or her own reasons for the decision, both personal and professional, one thing they all had in common was the shoreside job they wanted would have to utilize the expertise they’d gained.

Most of the sea-going chief engineers I know who made the transition to a shoreside job, started by becoming a port engineer. Port engineers are in charge of day-to-day engine department operations, including maintenance, repair, and staffing for a company’s entire fleet. 

The greater the number of vessels a company has, the more port engineers they usually hire to help keep them operating. Port engineers support the onboard chief engineers by making sure any needed parts and supplies have been ordered, purchased, and are waiting when the vessel arrives at the dock or anchorage. 

In addition to accompanying the U.S. Coast Guard during certification inspections, port engineers also use their extensive knowledge and expertise of mechanical engineering and naval architecture to identify, initiate, and manage big projects such as shipyard drydock overhauls and major vessel repairs that are needed.

An experienced sea-going engineer is highly sought after for jobs ashore, often with the same companies with which they’ve sailed. 

A case in point is my old shipmate Gary, who was the chief engineer on an oceanographic ship I sailed on as chief mate. Compared to a typical vessel it was very specialized, equipped with two azimuth stern thrusters, a retractable bow thruster, and a Dynamic Position System capable of holding the ship in place within one meter. 

Being the chief engineer requires a great amount of detailed knowledge to keep its many systems operating properly. With the extensive experience he gained on their ships, Gary had no problem making the transition shoreside to become that same institution’s port engineer, and over the last five years has been doing a great job in charge of engineering matters for them.

For captains onboard sea-going vessels who want to come ashore, a port captain position can be just the ticket. It could be said a good port captain helps keep a maritime company’s fleet “afloat,” by overseeing both the regulatory and personnel aspects of ship operations. 

The regulatory side includes managing drug testing programs, ensuring that safety and emergency equipment onboard the ships are compliant, and for company vessels working overseas that the necessary legal and diplomatic requirements have been met. 

With regard to the personnel side, the port captain verifies that the proper number of crewmembers carrying the necessary credentials are onboard, and have the supplies needed to do their jobs. 

From my experience, a good port captain also maintains mutual communication with every person on the vessels, from masters to deckhands.

When I began my career as a deckhand on a tug, working out of the port of Long Beach, California, Robert was our port captain. Being in charge of a diverse fleet of vessels, not only did his sea-going experience help things run more efficiently, but having been a captain himself he knew how to deal personally with those of us on the boats. 

One time when we were tied up at the dock, I was doing some painting and general maintenance. He came aboard to check some safety equipment and saw me working. “Looks good, Kelly,” he said. Years later, I still appreciate his words, and it’s no surprise to me that Robert currently holds a senior corporate position with a big tug outfit.

Normally, a sea-going chief engineer or captain needs one year of applicable sea time in the last five years to renew their license. 

By working ashore, they can avoid that requirement. In accordance with 46 CFR 10.227, the U.S. Coast Guard allows those who work for three out of the previous five years in a shoreside position “closely related” to the operation, construction, or repair of a vessel to renew their license without any sea time. 

Taking advantage of this, someone working as a port engineer or a port captain can return to sea if they so desire, without penalty.

Attaining a chief engineer’s or captain’s license is a great achievement. To those who have already obtained one – congratulations! 

For those who have the ambition to do so in the future – I wish you well on your journey! Just remember, after you have seen all those places you dreamed of, there are maritime jobs ashore that can take you to places no vessel ever could…

Till next time I wish you all smooth sailin.’

Capt. Kelly Sweeney holds the license of master (oceans, any gross tons) and has held a master of towing vessels (oceans) license, as well. He has sailed on more than 40 commercial vessels and lives on an island near Seattle. He can be contacted by email at