Working inland waters comes with payoff in good times or bad

My wife and I had been enjoying our vacation at Lake Chelan, Wash., on the eastern side of the Cascade Mountains. On Saturday morning, as we were waiting to get a table for breakfast at the Apple Cup restaurant, I struck up a conversation with a young couple next to us. It turned out that he was working as a deck hand on Lady of the Lake, a famous passenger vessel that makes regular runs on Lake Chelan during the summer. I asked him how he liked being a deck hand. He replied, “It’s all good. My family lives near here so it is easy for me to get to work, I’m making some college money and I met my girlfriend on one of the cruises earlier this summer.”

It might seem surprising that work as a deck hand can be found on a commercial vessel operating on a lake 200 miles from the nearest salt water, but roughly one-third of the nearly 80,000 U.S. merchant mariners work on our nation’s inland waters. Defined in 46 CFR Part 7 and in Rule 3 of the Nautical Rules of the Road, inland waters comprise more than 12,000 miles of commercially navigable areas — places such as Puget Sound, Boston Harbor and the Missouri River. There are thousands of U.S.-flag vessels plying their trade on these inland “marine highways,” including towboats pushing barges, tour and dinner boats carrying passengers, and dredges deepening channels. They are vital to our nation’s economy. According to recent government statistics, in just one year, U.S.-flag vessel operators on inland waters carried more than 50 million passengers and 604 million tons of goods — providing tens of thousands of employment opportunities for commercial mariners.

In the first week of June, I spoke to a group of maritime students in Seattle. They asked me about the slowdown in the Gulf of Mexico because they were concerned that many companies were not hiring now as a result. Reminding them that, as newcomers who will be soon entering the industry for the first time, it was important to leave no stone unturned — and to not ignore the inland companies when searching for that elusive first job. I told them how Dale, a graduate of an East Coast maritime academy with an unlimited third mate’s license, did just that a few years ago.

At a time when other mates were flocking to the Gulf of Mexico, Dale found work on inland waters, landing a deck officer job on riverboats carrying up to 600 passengers. Dealing with close-quarters traffic situations and the complexities of inland navigation on busy river routes were all part of his daily routine. After a few years on inland passenger vessels, he was recently offered and accepted a higher-paying mate’s job on a busy inland dredge, something that would not have happened had he not had an abundance of “inside” experience. Now, at a time when many of his classmates have been laid off from their jobs in the Gulf of Mexico, Dale is making good money with benefits and an even time schedule.

Today, there are other reasons why choosing a job on inland waters can be an attractive option, especially for entry-level mariners. With the implementation of the Manila Amendments to the International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers (STCW), before being able to even apply for an ordinary seaman, wiper or food-handler position on a deep-sea STCW-compliant vessel, a mariner needs to have the following: a Transportation Worker Identification Credential (TWIC) card, a merchant mariner credential (MMC), a U.S. Coast Guard-issued medical clearance card and STCW classes/endorsements in basic training and security awareness. Obtaining these required documents can take months and cost thousands of dollars — a tough row to hoe for many, especially someone just starting out in the business.

In contrast, entry-level crewmembers in the inland sector have few such hurdles to overcome. No MMC, no USCG medical clearance card, no basic training class and no security awareness course are needed. In fact, many U.S.-flag inland vessel operators do not even require a TWIC card to apply for a job. A large inland tugboat company I know of based in Louisiana will hire entry-level deck hands who hold only a valid driver’s license and can pass a drug screen — and there are many other U.S.-flag inland companies that have similar hiring policies.

When hiring is at a low point in other sectors of the industry, there are often jobs to be found “inside,” so working on inland waters can be a fine choice for experienced mariners as well. In the mid-1990s, after spending years sailing on oceangoing STCW-compliant tankers and a ro-ro ship, work slowed down enough that I was concerned that I would be laid off soon. That prompted me to start exploring different areas of the industry, and I found work as a mate on high-speed passenger vessels, never going beyond inland waters the entire time I was on board. When hiring improved offshore I returned to coastwise and oceangoing vessels, thankful for the experience I had gained while working inland.

Later, I found work one winter on an STCW-compliant 274-foot oceanographic ship. Hand steering and making just 2 knots good, we were getting slammed during the trip back to Seattle from Hawaii, fighting 40- to 50-knot winds and 20- to 30-foot seas. With a wastebasket handy in case I lost my lunch, I was on the bridge trying to keep from getting thrown into a bulkhead from the 30-degree rolls when a few thoughts flickered through my mind. The first one was of all the calm pleasant trips I had made on inland passenger vessels. The second was how I could go home almost every night on that job. The third was a question: “Is the little bit of extra money I’m making out here worth all this?”

Till next time, I wish you all smooth sailin.’

Kelly Sweeney holds the licenses of master (oceans, any gross tons) and master of towing vessels (oceans), and regularly sails on a wide variety of commercial vessels. He lives on an island near Seattle. You can contact him at

By Professional Mariner Staff