The Role of an Oiler (or Motorman) on ships

04 January 2024

The Role of an Oiler in the Maritime Industry

In the vast expanse of the maritime industry, the job of an Oiler, or Motorman as they are also known, is a key cog in the wheel that ensures a ship operates smoothly and efficiently. A ship is like a floating city, with various departments working in tandem to keep it sailing, and the engine room is the heart of this city, supplying the power to move and operate various machinery on board. As an Oiler, your role is much like that of a diligent caretaker, assuring that the heart continues to beat with rhythm and vigor.

Role & Responsibilities

Often overlooked but extremely crucial, an Oiler shoulders the responsibility of overseeing the functionality of machinery in the engine room. Just as our hearts need to function effectively for us to perform our daily activities, the ship's engine room needs to operate efficiently to ensure the ship's smooth sailing. To this effect, an Oiler's role is paramount.

One of the primary responsibilities of an Oiler is to clean, maintain, and operate the machinery in the engine room. And yes, when we say clean, we mean a LOT of cleaning. The importance of cleanliness in the engine room cannot be overstated. From preventing the build-up of dirt and grime that could affect machinery performance, to ensuring a safer work environment, cleaning is a task that occupies a significant part of an Oiler's day.

  • Cleaning, maintaining, and repairing machinery and equipment in the engine room is not only about enhancing the efficiency of the ship but also ensuring the safety of all on board.
  • The Oiler also takes care of the proper lubrication of machinery, which is crucial to prevent overheating and friction that could lead to mechanical failure. The task also involves the correct fueling and cleaning of machinery, which, while sounding simple, is highly important for maintaining the machinery in optimal working condition.
  • The role of an Oiler involves following orders from the duty engineer and often sharing their shift hours. Timely compliance with orders is necessary to ensure the smooth and continuous operation of the engine room.

An Oiler's role becomes even more pivotal on a UMS (Unmanned Machinery Spaces) ship at sea. With no one to monitor the engine room continuously, the Oiler is expected to be vigilant and proactive. Typical work hours range from 8am-5pm, including an additional hour from 11pm-12am for a safety inspection of the engine room. While at port, the shifts change to a pattern of 4 hours on and 8 hours off, with an additional 4 hours of overtime during the day.

It's not just about the hours, though. The role of an Oiler demands considerable physical exertion due to heavy manual labor. Working conditions can be challenging, with exposure to high heat and extreme noise levels. Occasionally, there are some unpleasant tasks too, like cleaning sludge or sewage treatment tanks, or managing leaking fuel tanks. Yet, these tasks, however laborious and challenging, are vital to the efficient operation of the ship and the safety of all on board.

Required Certifications, Training & Sea Time for Promotion

The maritime industry follows a well-structured and regulated process for promotions and career advancement. To join a ship as an Oiler, one needs to have some basic training and certification under their belt. The International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers (STCW) often lays out the foundation for these requirements.

These STCW requirements may be supplemented by additional ship-specific STCW courses, such as a tanker safety course. Depending on the type of ship and the specific requirements of the company, additional engine-related certifications may also be necessary. But rest assured, these certifications not only enhance your professional skills but also increase your value in the maritime job market.

Starting the career journey as a Wiper is the first step towards becoming an Oiler. This role requires at least 12 months at sea to gain practical experience and understand the nitty-gritty of the maritime world. As a maritime rating, no Certificate of Competency (CoC) is required at this stage. The accumulation of a total of 36 months at sea, with 12 of those months under an approved training program, paves the way for an Oiler to step up to the role of a 4th or 3rd Engineer.

This progression isn't just a matter of sea time; it involves intensive studying and the passing of multiple exams, including ones on practical marine engineering, physics, maths, etc. This hard work and dedication are not only about personal growth but also contribute to making the maritime industry safer and more efficient.

As you can see, the path to becoming an Oiler is as much about gaining technical knowledge as it is about developing a strong work ethic and a commitment to safety and efficiency. After all, the engine room is the heart of the ship, and as an Oiler, you are its diligent caretaker.

To learn more about the roles within the engine department, check out our article Ranks in the Engine Department of a Cargo Ship.

Skills Required for an Oiler

In the world of maritime, every role comes with its unique set of requirements and expectations, and the role of an Oiler is no exception. To be effective in this position, there are certain skills and qualities that an Oiler must possess.

Technical Skills

As an Oiler, you are expected to be adept at the operation and maintenance of different types of marine machinery. This involves an understanding of various technical components like pumps, engines, generators, purifiers, and more. Familiarity with the principles of thermodynamics, fluid mechanics, and materials is also vital. Moreover, basic knowledge of electrical systems and instrumentation is a must, as these are integral parts of most machinery.

Physical Fitness

The job of an Oiler is physically demanding, requiring individuals to be in good health and fitness. It involves lifting heavy equipment, climbing ladders, bending, and even working in confined spaces. Therefore, a good level of physical fitness is mandatory. Regular health check-ups and fitness tests are usually a part of the job, ensuring that you are fit and ready for duty.

Interpersonal Skills

In the tight-knit community of a ship, good interpersonal skills are crucial. An Oiler needs to work harmoniously with the engineering team, following instructions from the engineer on watch and coordinating with fellow oilers and fitters. In a high-stress environment like the engine room, effective communication and teamwork can make a significant difference.

Problem-Solving Skills

Being an Oiler isn't just about following orders; it's also about finding solutions to problems as they arise. The ability to troubleshoot issues with machinery, whether they're related to lubrication, overheating, or other problems, is essential. This often requires a keen eye for detail and a logical approach to problem-solving.

These skills form the backbone of an Oiler's role and are necessary for achieving success and growth in this career. So, if you are contemplating a career as an Oiler, make sure to hone these skills and qualities.

Pros & Cons of Being an Oiler

Like any other job, being an Oiler has its share of ups and downs. Here are some to consider:


  • Adventure: If you have a penchant for travel and adventure, working as an Oiler can be a rewarding experience. The job allows you to travel the world, visit different countries, and experience diverse cultures.
  • Good Pay: For the amount of work and responsibility that comes with the role, the maritime industry offers good pay. This, combined with tax benefits in many countries, makes it a financially rewarding career.
  • Opportunity for Growth: The structured career path in the maritime industry provides opportunities for growth and advancement. With experience, hard work, and the right certifications, an Oiler can advance to higher positions like 3rd, 2nd, or even Chief Engineer.


  • Physically Demanding: As mentioned earlier, the job of an Oiler is physically demanding, involving long hours and strenuous tasks.
  • Long Periods at Sea: Working on a ship means spending extended periods at sea, which can be tough. It requires staying away from family and friends for months at a time.
  • Risks: The job involves certain risks, including exposure to harsh weather conditions, machinery hazards, and potential accidents. Safety is a significant concern and demands constant vigilance.

Before you decide on becoming an Oiler, it's crucial to weigh these pros and cons carefully.

How to Become an Oiler?

So, you're intrigued by the role of an Oiler and considering it as a career option. The question is, how do you get started? Let's explore the steps to becoming an Oiler.

Acquiring Basic Certification

The first step in becoming an Oiler is to acquire basic training and certification. The International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers (STCW) is a fundamental certification that is recognised worldwide. The STCW covers essential aspects like personal safety and social responsibilities, basic first aid, fire prevention and firefighting, and personal survival techniques.

Getting Ship-Specific Certification

In addition to the basic STCW certification, ship-specific STCW courses, such as a tanker safety course, may also be required depending on the type of ship you'll be working on. There are different types of vessels, like tankers, cargo ships, and cruise ships, each requiring specific training and certifications.

Gaining Sea Time

After you have acquired the necessary certifications, the next step is to gain sea time. You'll need to start as a Wiper, the entry-level position in the engine department, and accumulate a specific amount of time at sea (usually 6 to 12 months). This experience provides a hands-on understanding of the ship's operations and gives you the opportunity to apply what you learned in your training.

Progressing to the Role of an Oiler

Once you have gained sufficient sea time and demonstrated your competence, you can progress to the role of an Oiler. The progression usually involves an internal examination and approval from the ship's chief engineer or the maritime authority of your country.

These steps are general guidelines and may vary depending on your country's regulations, the shipping company, and the specific requirements of the ship.

Working Environment of an Oiler

Working as an Oiler means spending most of your time in the engine room, ensuring the ship's machinery and equipment are running smoothly. But what does this environment actually look like?

The Engine Room

The engine room of a ship is a bustling place filled with various types of machinery, including the ship's main engine, boilers, generators, pumps, and purifiers. It's a noisy environment with the constant hum of machinery and occasionally high temperatures. Safety gear like earmuffs, gloves, and safety shoes are necessary to protect against potential hazards.

The Routine

On a typical day, an Oiler's duties may include cleaning machinery parts, checking and adjusting lubrication, assisting in routine maintenance, and complying with the duty engineer's orders. While at sea, Oilers usually work from 8 am to 5 pm, with an additional hour for a safety inspection of the engine room. At port, the shifts change to 4 hours on, 8 hours off.

Emergency Duties

In the event of emergencies like equipment failure, fire, or flooding, Oilers have substantial emergency response responsibilities. They are often part of the emergency response team, ready to act swiftly and effectively to ensure the safety of the ship and crew. For more insights into the responsibilities during emergencies, read our article on Emergency Preparedness at Sea.

The Importance of Teamwork

Lastly, it's crucial to remember that an Oiler's job is not a solo endeavor. It requires close collaboration with other members of the engine department, particularly the duty engineer. Together, they ensure the smooth and efficient operation of the ship's engine room. This highlights the importance of teamwork and good communication in this role.

The Future of the Oiler Role

With the advancements in technology and automation, the maritime industry is changing rapidly. So, how does this affect the role of an Oiler? Let's delve deeper into the impact of technology on this role.

Adapting to Technological Advances

Technological advancements are transforming the landscape of the maritime industry. The engine room, once filled solely with mechanical machinery, is now becoming increasingly automated and digitised. While the primary responsibility of learning and implementing new technologies falls on the engineers, Oilers too need to adapt and evolve with these changes. Understanding these new technologies can make their job easier and improve their efficiency. You can learn more about the digital transformation in the maritime industry in our article on The Digitalised Maritime Industry.

The Emergence of High-Tech Tools

Today, high-tech tools are being introduced in the engine room for monitoring and controlling machinery. These systems allow for more precise and efficient operation and maintenance of the ship's machinery. As such, familiarity with these systems and an openness to learn and adapt are becoming increasingly important for Oilers.

Continued Importance of the Role

Despite the advancements in technology, the role of an Oiler remains crucial. The automation of machinery doesn't negate the need for human supervision and intervention. Oilers still play a vital role in the physical maintenance and operation of the engine room. Their ability to detect abnormalities, fix problems, and ensure smooth operations remains critical to the safe and efficient functioning of the ship.

Career Opportunities for an Oiler

Now that we've understood the responsibilities, challenges, and future trends related to the Oiler's role, let's discuss the career opportunities available for an Oiler in the maritime industry.

Promotion Opportunities

With experience and further training, an Oiler can move up the ranks to become a 3rd or 4th Engineer. This career progression requires additional sea time, often 36 months, with a portion of that time spent following an approved training program. This progression also requires passing a set of examinations covering subjects such as marine engineering, physics, and maths.

Transition to Shore-Based Roles

The experience and skills gained as an Oiler can also facilitate a transition to shore-based roles. These roles might include working in a shipyard, at a maritime training institute, or even in a shipping company's office. Experience in the engine department can be a valuable asset in these roles, making an Oiler well-equipped for a broad range of opportunities both at sea and ashore.

Liveseas: Your Partner in the Maritime Journey

At Liveseas, we aim to be your trusted partner in your maritime journey. Whether you are an aspiring Oiler or a seasoned maritime professional, we are here to help. Liveseas connects seafarers with shipping companies around the world. We are committed to creating meaningful connections within the maritime industry and supporting you in finding fulfilling roles.

If you are looking to get started or advance your career in the maritime industry, be sure to check out our comprehensive guide on Joining the Merchant Navy. We also provide a wide array of resources and articles to keep you informed about the latest trends and developments in the industry.

In conclusion, an Oiler plays an integral role in the maritime industry. They work tirelessly to ensure the smooth operation of the engine room, the heart of the ship. Their work is challenging yet rewarding, offering a unique and fulfilling career path. As technology continues to advance, the role of an Oiler is evolving, with new skills and knowledge becoming increasingly important. Yet, the core aspects of their role - hard work, dedication, and a keen eye for detail - remain as vital as ever.