Skip to main content

12 Careers on the water

From rescue swimmers and mechanics to surveyors and pilots, there are many ways to earn a living on and around boats

From rescue swimmers and mechanics to surveyors and pilots, there are many ways to earn a living on and around boats

What boater hasn’t thought of turning his or her weekend passion into a career?

The marine industry offers such a rich tapestry of niches and jobs and career paths that almost any talent, temperament, training or experience, nautical taste or interest can be woven into it somewhere. Be it in business or government, the opportunities to work on or around boats and the water are as diverse as the universe of boats, boaters and boating.

For a young person entering the workforce, marine career paths run the gamut, from crewing on a megayacht to servicing boats at a dealership to designing them for a builder. With the right experience, second-career workers might put their sales knowledge to work as a yacht broker or redirect their hotel management expertise to operating a marina. Do you run your sportfisherman offshore to fish on weekends — and love every minute of it? Maybe there’s a job for you as a charter captain.

Don’t dismiss the thought out-of-hand. There are dozens of ways to earn a living in the marine field doing the things you love to do — or maybe imagine yourself doing as you lay on the sunpad daydreaming.

Kevin Costner and Ashton Kutcher, playing Coast Guardsmen in the 2006 film “The Guardian,” highlighted the challenge, adventure and

danger of a career as a rescue swimmer, jumping from helicopters to help those in distress. It’s demanding work. Fifty percent of trainees wash out in rescue swimmer school, but what a great job for some young, adventuresome type who loves the water, likes to help people, and is a glutton for physical fitness.

Adventure is a big draw of many marine careers. Sign on as a deck hand aboard a megayacht, go to crew school, get some training, work your way up to mate, earn your licenses, get more experience and training, become a captain — see the world. Visit Monaco and Genoa, Antigua and Newport. Hang out with the glitterati. Run high-tech systems on a mini-ship. Not a bad gig. Or become a self-employed delivery captain. Every boat is different. Every job is different. Every owner is different. No boredom here.

“Never a dull moment. I’ve never been to Alaska before,” says Sid Preskitt, 56, of Daytona Beach, Fla., boarding a flight from Las Vegas to Anchorage to run boats for a cable-laying crew in Cook Inlet. A couple of weeks earlier, Preskitt, who holds a 100-ton captain’s license, delivered a worn-out lobster boat from New Jersey to Florida. “You get to see the good and the bad,” he says.

If you like to pore over nautical charts, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration employs crews that go out on 24-foot workboats to survey channels, usually to check a chart’s accuracy but also after hurricanes to identify and remove hazards to navigation. Or if you’re a science buff, you could crew on a university research vessel gathering data in faraway waters.

The novelist Joseph Conrad, who earned a master mariner’s certificate in the British merchant navy, worked 16 years on sailing ships and steamers before settling down to the life of a writer. “The sea has never been friendly to man,” he wrote. It has its dangers, but Conrad also saw the sea as “an accomplice of human restlessness.” If you’ve got the itch to travel and see new things, a career in the merchant marine might be your ticket to work that satisfies.

Today, budding Conrads can graduate from one of the academies, go on to a career in the merchant marine — become a ship’s officer, see the world — then do some writing. Or, after a decade at sea, they might set their sights on the pinnacle of their profession as a harbor pilot, guiding ships into and out of a port. It’s exacting work, very well-compensated but seldom routine when you’re climbing the sides of ships from a pilot boat and guiding them through flotillas of small craft.

Boats are objects of endless toil, fascination and satisfaction for people who like to work with their hands. Boats are labor-intensive, whether you’re building them, fixing them, restoring them or renovating them. The craftsmen and women who work on boats are cornerstones of the industry. If you are of a traditional bent, you can work in wood in a trade that still values exquisite craftsmanship. Or you can build boats with space-age materials — Kevlar and carbon fiber and honeycomb composites — and learn vacuum-bag layup.

“Technical jobs are in terrific demand, even in this slow economy,” says Ed Sherman, education director with the American Boat and Yacht Council. Engine mechanics, electronics technicians, workers in composites and layup, gelcoating, wiring and assembly. Technology is changing so fast that technicians are always learning, always training. Marine service today is sophisticated and high-tech.

Yet the field also has jobs for those with an artistic flair. If that’s you, think about working as a magazine writer, marine photographer, painter, or a yacht designer. There are few skills or disciplines not represented in the marine field. Marine dealers, manufacturers and service providers need lawyers, accountants, insurers, lenders and salespeople to do business. And every marina and boatyard has a general manager — a jack-of-many-trades who is a shrewd businessperson; knows how to run and fix boats; understands the customer; and is schooled in the fundamentals of contract law; environmental, health and safety regulations; and property development.

Yard and marina managers “aren’t just dockmasters running the fuel docks,” says Cayce Florio, training coordinator for the International Marine Institute in Warren, R.I. They are professionally trained businesspeople.

If you like boats and the water — and have the skills or are willing to acquire them — there is a marine-related job with your name on it. “I enjoy the water,” says Keith Knowlton, of Delaware City, Del., manager of a Virginia marina and Delaware boatyard. “That makes it worth doing.”