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Elle Watson

Phase three merchant navy deck officer cadet


Photo of Elle Watson

What made you decide to become a merchant navy deck officer?

For as long as I can remember, I’ve always had a keen interest in navigation, cartography, and generally knowing my way around, to the extent that I was nicknamed ‘Pigeon’ at a young age, because my sense of direction was like that of a homing pigeon. I also come from a seafaring background, as both my parents are ex-Royal Navy medics and are now high up in the local Royal Naval Association, so I have grown up with tales of life at sea. 

The maritime industry and careers at sea sometimes seem to be like a ‘best kept secret’ – how easy was it to find information about officer cadet training?

The recruitment process is fairly simple, once you know what’s to be done. For those who don’t know, there are three areas you can study as a Merchant Navy officer cadet: deck (which is what I’m doing), engine, and electro-technician.

Unlike university applications, you apply to a shipping company for a cadetship and if you’re successful they’ll choose which college you go to. You can request a specific college, but some companies may choose to send you far away to prepare you for being away from home, like you would be at sea. 

Being away from home for the first time, for some, can be quite daunting. Were there any activities to help you get to know others in the cohorts when you got to Warsash? 

Every phase one cadet has to live on campus; this not only make it easier for us all to get to know each other, but it’s also normal to share cabins on board ship, so it gets you used to sharing a sleeping and living space with someone. On the first night we arrived there was a band put on in our campus bar. 

We had morning muster every day for the first few weeks which took place at 8am and involved everyone in the phase. Our first week was induction and was mostly introductions and safety presentations, but our first Friday was the day we really got to know each other better, starting with paintball and ending with a night out in Southampton organised by Solent SU.

How did you find your first sea phase? Was it what you expected? 

I think my sea phase was both exactly what I expected and yet completely different. Coming from a seafaring background I’d been told many stories about what life at sea is like so I did have an idea of what to expect.

I was on two ships during my sea phase, spending about three months on each. My first ship was the Trinity House Vessel Galatea, which is a buoy tender operating around the UK coast. The second was Condor Ferries’ Commodore Goodwill, a ro-ro freight ferry operating between Portsmouth and the Channel Islands.

My time on the THV Galatea will always stay with me. The crew made me so welcome, especially as I was extremely nervous about being on my first ship. I worked with both the officers and the crew while on board, all of whom were very happy to teach me and answer any questions I had. 

There are many moments that stick out, ranging from hanging off the side of a light vessel in the middle of the Dover Strait in four-metre swell, to helicopter operations off Lundy, Eddystone Lighthouse and the Isle of May, and surveying a fishing vessel that had sunk the night before in the Dover Strait.

The two ships had completely contrasting environments, primarily in terms of crew nationality. I had no issues with this, especially as I adore learning about different languages and cultures, but it did prove to be harder circumstances to work in, with language barriers and different views coming in to play. 

The number of female ship’s officers is still very small, although we are seeing more women enter the industry. What advice would you give to any aspiring female deck or engineering officers? 

Do it! And stick with it! I’ve seen both positive and negative aspects of being a female at sea, from being treated slightly better than the male cadet I was with because I was in the minority – not in the sense of respect, but because those providing training wanted me to succeed more as I was female and I was proving that females can be officers – and good ones at that.

Simulation centre
Simulation centre
Solent University is home to the UK's largest ship and port simulation centre at our Southampton campus. It enables seafarers to train on the very latest specialist facilities using Wärtsilä technology.
Marine engineering
Applying for an officer cadetship
If you wish to undertake an officer cadetship and you meet the necessary entry criteria, the next step is to apply directly to a shipping company to sponsor you (do not apply to Solent or through UCAS).
Simulation centre
Simulation centre
Our new maritime simulation centre ensures we continue to deliver the very highest standards of professional ship and port training. All deck officers undertaking our certification programmes have to complete mandatory specialist courses on these bridge simulators and ECDIS equipment before finally gaining their professional certification.
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For over 70 years, we have provided first-class education, training, consultancy and research services to the international maritime, superyacht and shipping industries - covering career qualification programmes, STCW safety courses, continuous professional development, and more.
Timsbury lake
Timsbury Lake
We have invested £43 million in our maritime training and education facilities. Our new maritime simulation centre will sit alongside Timsbury Lake, one of the world's leading scale model ship handling centres, as well as our new training centre for officer cadet education.