Guide: Who is the Chief Officer on a ship?

17 August 2023

Role & Responsibilities of a Chief Officer

The Chief Officer, often referred to as the ship's second-in-command, plays an integral role in the operation and maintenance of the vessel. Their tasks are diverse and far-reaching, encompassing everything from overseeing cargo operations and deck maintenance to assisting the ship's Master in managing the vessel.

One of the primary responsibilities of the Chief Officer is to supervise cargo operations. This duty can vary significantly depending on the type of ship and cargo, often requiring long periods without rest to ensure proper loading and discharging. On certain vessels, particularly tankers, the Chief Officer might spend extended periods vigilantly monitoring volatile cargos to avoid accidents.

Additionally, the Chief Officer takes on an extensive set of tasks such as maintaining logs, managing permits, conducting morning toolbox meetings with the deck crew, overseeing ballast treatment, preparing port paperwork, and handling mooring operations. They also perform duties like coordinating cargo handling, monitoring operations, and other essential tasks. The list is indeed exhaustive and demonstrates the varied and vital nature of the Chief Officer's role.

Another significant responsibility of a Chief Officer could be taking on bridge duty for 4 (or 8) hours per day, although this may not be applicable to all and depends largely on company policy.

Required Certifications, Training & Sea Time for Promotion

As with any professional role, achieving the position of Chief Officer requires certain qualifications and certifications. An aspiring Chief Officer must first hold an Officer Class B' Certificate of Competency (Chief Officer or Chief Mate CoC). It takes at a minimum one year of seatime as a junior officer holding a navigational watch to be eligible for the examination, although the average time is about three years.

Despite the opportunity for career advancement, many seafarers prefer to remain in the role of a 2nd Officer even after acquiring the Chief Mate's license. This preference stems from the significant jump in responsibilities that comes with the promotion to Chief Officer. As many seasoned seafarers would attest, depending on the Captain, you might feel like you are handling two or three jobs instead of one!

Nonetheless, the Chief Officer position offers professional development opportunities and potential career progression to the role of a Master (ship's captain). This progression requires at least one year of sea time as a Chief Officer (or three years as a 2nd Officer) to be eligible for the Master examinations (Class A).

For an in-depth view of the career path leading up to the role of a Chief Officer, we recommend our Second & Third Officer Career article. And for those aspiring to climb the ranks further, our Sea Captain Career article provides an excellent overview.

Career Path & Professional Development Opportunities

The role of a Chief Officer, while demanding, also opens doors to numerous professional development opportunities. With adequate sea time and experience, a Chief Officer can progress to become the Master of the ship. To qualify for the Master's examinations (Class A), one needs at least one year of sea time as Chief Officer or three years as a 2nd Officer.

This career path offers seafarers the chance to continuously learn and grow, taking on more responsibilities, and leading larger teams. It also provides the opportunity to gain a broader understanding of the maritime industry and contribute more significantly to its operations.

However, progressing in one's career is not only about the number of years spent at sea. It also requires continuous learning, staying updated with the latest regulations, technologies, and best practices, and developing strong leadership skills. Aspiring Chief Officers should view each day on board as an opportunity to learn and grow.

Daily Physical & Mental Challenges

Being a Chief Officer on a ship is a role filled with daily physical and mental challenges. They are not only responsible for managing cargo operations but also supervising the deck crew, adhering to the ship's maintenance schedule, liaising with the bosun to understand the crew's daily tasks, and possibly assisting with navigation.

The responsibilities require both physical strength and mental resilience. From overseeing heavy cargo operations to making quick decisions under pressure, the Chief Officer's role tests the limits of both the body and the mind.

The mental aspect of the job can be particularly challenging. Whether it's dealing with a critical decision during a storm, managing crew conflicts, or ensuring stringent compliance with maritime regulations, the Chief Officer needs a sharp mind, the ability to remain calm under pressure, and strong leadership skills. And all these must be balanced with the physical demands of the role.

Leadership & Team Management

Given the complexity and breadth of responsibilities, it is clear that a Chief Officer must be a strong leader. As the leader of the deck department, the Chief Officer takes care of all matters concerning the crew, as delegated by the ship's Master.

The Chief Officer is responsible for at least 10 people on board, which includes both the deck and galley department. The crew size could vary depending on the type and size of the ship, and can sometimes be even larger. This leadership role also extends to the chief cook, who reports to the Chief Officer.

Successful team management requires effective communication, conflict resolution skills, and the ability to motivate and inspire the team. A Chief Officer must be able to delegate tasks appropriately, manage conflicts, and ensure that the crew members are able to perform their duties effectively and safely. Good leadership is crucial for maintaining harmony on board and ensuring efficient operations.

Impact of Technology & Advancements on the Role

The maritime industry has seen significant technological advancements in recent years, which has had a profound impact on the role of a Chief Officer. Advances in cargo handling and navigation systems have introduced new tools and methods, requiring continuous learning and adaptation.

For instance, the introduction of new types of cargo and cargo handling technologies has revolutionised how cargo operations are conducted. This development demands that Chief Officers continuously update their skills and knowledge to stay abreast of the latest technologies.

While these advancements have undoubtedly improved efficiency and safety, it is worth noting that the human element remains essential. It is unlikely that the role of a Chief Officer would be replaced by AI or automation in the near future. The risks and responsibilities that come with the position are enormous, and the potential consequences of mistakes can be catastrophic. For more information on the digitalisation of the maritime industry and the impact of technology, we recommend reading our Digitalised Maritime Industry article.

Role-Specific Risks, Liabilities & Emergency Responsibilities

Being a Chief Officer involves a significant amount of risk and liability. They are responsible for the safety of the cargo and the crew, making them a pivotal figure on the ship. In fact, the Chief Officer is often also the Safety Officer on board, tasked with ensuring compliance with all safety protocols and procedures.

During drills and emergencies, the Chief Officer plays a leadership role in managing situations such as fires or abandoning the ship. These responsibilities are clearly stated and understood beforehand - all crew members are trained in their duties in the event of an emergency within 24 hours of joining the ship.

The magnitude of these responsibilities means that a Chief Officer's role is not without its risks. One major mistake could potentially lead to loss of life, environmental pollution, or even bankruptcy of the shipping company. Hence, the position requires an individual who can handle high-stress situations, make critical decisions under pressure, and prioritise safety above all else.

Compliance with Regulations & International Maritime Laws

Compliance with regulations and international maritime laws is a significant part of a Chief Officer's role. From cargo regulations to crew safety, structural and surveying requirements, the Chief Officer ensures that the ship meets all the necessary standards and regulations.

For instance, the Chief Officer oversees tasks like the periodic inspection of ballast tanks and reporting findings to the company. They are also in charge of managing the garbage on the ship, in line with MARPOL regulations.

Furthermore, the Chief Officer must ensure compliance with key maritime conventions such as SOLAS (Safety of Life at Sea) and STCW (Standards of Training, Certification, and Watchkeeping for Seafarers). Non-compliance can result in penalties, damage to the ship or cargo, injury or loss of life, and reputational harm for the shipping company.

With such a broad scope of regulations to comply with, it's easy to see why the Chief Officer's role is both challenging and indispensable. Keeping up to date with the latest changes in regulations is essential and requires regular training and professional development.

Demand & Supply Trend in the Job Market

The maritime industry has a growing need for skilled and experienced Chief Officers. In fact, the role of a Chief Officer is one of the most sought-after positions on a cargo ship, especially considering the ongoing global seafarer shortage. Many who ascend to the role of Chief Officer eventually progress to obtaining their Master's Certificate of Competency (CoC) and move on to seek employment as a captain. This constant churn keeps the demand for Chief Officers high.

Therefore, it can be said that there is a consistent supply-demand imbalance in favor of the seafarer. Many shipping companies around the world are always on the lookout for competent Chief Officers. For those considering a career at sea, the role of a Chief Officer offers promising opportunities and a rewarding professional journey. You may find our article on Second & Third Officer Career a useful read as well.

Average Salary, Frequency of Shore Leaves & Work-Life Balance

The Chief Officer's salary varies widely, largely depending on the type of ship and the shipping company. On average, salaries range from 8000 to 12000 USD per month. Some companies offer seniority bonuses to those with extensive experience in rank or many years with the company, which could add an additional 500-1000 USD per month.

Many shipping companies offer a re-joining bonus, which is a significant incentive for Chief Officers. This bonus is typically around 1000 USD for every month spent on the previous contract, and is given upon signing the next contract. Additionally, some companies reward their Chief Officers with bonuses when the ship passes an inspection with few or no observations, further increasing the earning potential.

The frequency of shore leaves and the work-life balance of a Chief Officer can greatly differ depending on the shipping company and contract type. On many ships, the standard contract involves working for three months followed by three months off, while some companies still employ a six-month contract.

Work-life balance can be a challenge in this role. Seafarers generally have the flexibility to use their time off as they please, but extended periods away from work may deter companies from re-employing them. Achieving a balance between work and personal life is essential, and requires careful planning and disciplined use of time on leave. You might also find our guide on Seafarer Salaries insightful.

Differences per Ship Type/Industry

While the core roles and responsibilities of a Chief Officer remain fairly standard across the maritime industry, the specific nature of their duties can differ dramatically depending on the type of vessel and sector they are serving in.

In the world of cargo shipping, for example, the specificities of cargo operations can vary greatly. A Chief Officer with experience only on tankers may be unfamiliar with certain types of cargo pumps used on dry cargo vessels. Consequently, their kind of experience can impact their employability, as some employers might seek Chief Officers with more diverse or specific equipment handling abilities. Here, a Chief Officer's ability to adapt to various types of cargo operations can significantly enhance their career prospects.

On the other hand, within the cruise ship industry, the Chief Officer's role takes on a more administrative and bureaucratic nature. Large cruise ships, which operate much like floating cities, may employ up to eight individuals with a Chief Officer’s Certificate of Competency (CoC), each tasked with various roles. The actual Chief Officer in such settings is responsible for specific aspects of ship operations and management, often coordinating various departments for smooth running of the vessel.

In the luxury yacht sector, the Chief Officer's role can be even more diverse. On super or mega yachts, Chief Officers may be called upon to undertake a wider range of duties, which could include anything from managing onboard operations to arranging off-board excursions for guests.

Regardless of the industry, however, the salaries for Chief Officers generally tend to be within the same range. This consistent remuneration reflects the high level of responsibility and expertise associated with the position, regardless of the specific vessel or sector.

In conclusion, adaptability, continuous learning, and the willingness to embrace a range of roles and responsibilities are vital for any Chief Officer looking to make their mark in the diverse world of the maritime industry.

Liveseas' Role

Liveseas plays a pivotal role in helping Chief Officers connect with potential employers in the maritime industry. We offer a platform that allows seafarers to explore and secure career development opportunities. Even if a Chief Officer, or any rank for that matter, is currently employed, Liveseas allows for discreet exploration of other possibilities. The privacy of seafarer profiles is our priority, and they are set to private by default.

Through Liveseas, Chief Officers can gain access to an extensive network of shipping companies looking to hire. Our platform not only offers job search features but also provides valuable resources to aid career progression. Our collection of informative articles, like the Sea Captain Career guide, can provide insights to aspiring Chief Officers and those looking to progress further.

Wrapping Up

To wrap up, here is a quick recap of the key roles and responsibilities of a Chief Officer on a ship:

  1. The Chief Officer is responsible for vessel navigation watch duties and ensures the safe operation of the ship.
  2. They oversee and manage the entire cargo operation, including loading, unloading, and cargo planning.
  3. The Chief Officer is accountable for the stability of the ship and maintains the ship's hull and accommodation.
  4. They are in charge of the cargo carried on board.
  5. The Chief Officer is responsible for the administration and scheduling of work for the deck crew.
  6. They coordinate with other departments and participate in conflict resolution.
  7. The Chief Officer ensures compliance with maritime regulations such as MARPOL, SOLAS, and STCW.
  8. They act as the Ship Security Officer (SSO) and are responsible for the security of the ship.
  9. The Chief Officer is responsible for the overall safety of the deck crew and welfare of the crew onboard.
  10. They handle paperwork related to supply, cost control, purchase orders, and other administrative tasks.
  11. And more!

In conclusion, the Chief Officer is a vital role on any ship, carrying a heavy load of responsibilities. It is a position that demands a high level of skill, knowledge, and leadership. Despite the demanding nature of the job, it offers immense professional satisfaction and substantial financial rewards. It's an excellent career choice for those who are not afraid to take on challenges and have a passion for the sea.

At Liveseas, we support the journey of Chief Officers and all other maritime professionals, offering resources, job connections, and insights to help navigate the exciting and rewarding world of the maritime industry. Explore more about the role of Chief Officer and other seafaring careers on our website.

Embarking on a career as a Chief Officer is more than just a job - it's an adventure.