Read a history book about the British Isles, and you’ll hear about the remarkable exploits of the Royal Navy. From Trafalgar to the Battle of Jutland, the Royal Navy was the preeminent naval power for centuries, dominating the global oceans.
What’s less appreciated is the Merchant Navy – once a considerable part of Britain’s naval power, it continues to be a major player in global shipping.
For individuals looking to pursue a career at sea, there’s a lot of confusion between the Royal and Merchant navies – including what they are, how they join, and what their roles encompass. Learn more below.
What is the Difference Between the Royal Navy and the Merchant Navy?
The Royal Navy (RN) is an esteemed organisation that functions as the United Kingdom’s naval warfare force. First founded by Henry VIII in the 17th century, it became the world’s greatest sea power, controlling all major trading routes.
The Royal Navy, then and now, serves two crucial functions: (1) it projects force abroad, and (2) it protects Britain’s maritime commercial interests, i.e., the Merchant Navy. Despite being separate organisations, since their inception, the two have worked in tandem. Individuals were often drafted from the Merchant Navy into the RN or pursued a career in the merchant fleet following their tenure in the RN.
On the other hand, the Merchant Navy (or Merchant Marine) isn’t strictly a distinct fleet. Rather, it refers to the maritime register of UK-registered ships and their crews. These ships fly the Red Ensign. It covers an immense variety of vessels, including tankers, bulk carriers, ferries, and even cruise ships.
The Merchant Navy’s Current Role
Today, the Merchant Navy operates primarily in commercial operations. However, even in recent history, it’s played a critical role in national defence. For example, in the Falklands War, the Merchant Navy supplied 40 vessels, including transports, tankers, and other ships, to support the Royal Navy. In fact, SS Atlantic Conveyor was lost in the conflict – the first loss since WWII.
Most merchant crew members won’t see any military action, however. Instead, they’ll primarily transport vital goods, including:
- Food and drink
- Oil and gas
- Cars and machinery
- Clothing and textiles
- Timber and building materials
- Medicines and supplies
In some cases, the Merchant Navy also transports goods to support the UK’s military operations. A common example is supplying military bases overseas, such as Gibraltar, Cyprus, the Falkland Islands, Belize, and more.
Additionally, cruise liners count as part of the modern merchant shipping fleet. These provide holiday and leisure activities for paying passengers.
Departments of the Merchant Navy
Royal Marines. Royal Navy officers. Royal Navy ratings. Engineering. The different components of the RN are well-known, even to the average person. However, did you know the Merchant Navy is also split into different departments? These include:
- Deck Department: Takes charge of navigating, running, and upkeeping the vessel.
- Engineering Department: Oversees the functioning and maintenance of the ship’s mechanical systems.
- Electrical Department: Manages the operation and maintenance of the ship’s electrical systems.
- Steward Department: Handles catering, housekeeping, managerial, and administrative duties on the ship.
How To Pursue a Career in the Merchant Navy
Joining the Royal Navy simply means meeting the eligibility criteria, selecting what you would like to do, and passing the relevant tests. The exact requirements differ from role to role.
The Merchant Navy functions slightly differently.
To become an officer in the Merchant Navy, applicants must undergo 3 years of training at an approved maritime college in the UK. Usually, a UK shipping company covers the costs of the ‘cadetship.’ Alongside this education, cadets are expected to gain practice experience on board a ship. This hands-on training allows cadets to practice what they have learned in the classroom in real-world situations.
After completing their training, cadets are eligible to take the Officer of the Watch (OOW) exam – a key part of becoming a certified officer.
Officers are one possible career in the Navy. However, working under officers are ‘Ratings.’ Officers supervise and manage ship life, whereas Ratings carry out the day-to-day ship operations. Becoming a Rating does not require a formal education. Training is provided on the job, and Ratings work their way up through the ranks over time. Common Rating positions include deckhands, engine room assistants, and catering staff.