Marine electricians are responsible for installing and maintaining wiring and electrical systems on ships and boats. They work with pumps, motors, electronics, wiring, and fixtures throughout vessels, and are responsible for installing and configuring generators and shore-power connections to deliver energy to the boat systems.
Marine Electricians Work on Everything From Ski Boats to Cruise Ships
Marine electricians can find themselves working on anything from megayachts to 20-foot runabouts to cruise liners.
No matter the size of the vessel they work on, marine electricians can count on one inconvenient fact: the wiring tends to be run through the least accessible parts of the hull and superstructure.
Common Electrical Systems and Applications
In addition to a wide variety of boats, marine electricians find themselves dealing with a wide variety of systems. Even a single vessel will have many different types of electrical circuits in it, typically including:
- 12/24/32 volt DC
- 110/240 volt AC or up to 480 volts AC on large ships
- Multiple low-voltage electronic systems
- VHF (Very High Frequency) and HF (High Frequency) radio
Since boats are usually disconnected from the electrical grid, marine electricians spend a lot of time working with generators and other alternative power sources such as:
- Engine power take-offs
Virtually all marine electricians spend at least a little time working with electrical motors and engines, either wiring them directly or as power sources for other systems. They may also be responsible for wiring up and testing alarm systems, dealing with everything from low oil pressure to flooding to full wastewater tanks.
Marine electricians who work on board a vessel full-time will be part of the engineering department. They may work long hours when the ship is at sea and are effectively on-call at all times.
Other marine electricians work primarily in shipyards and are mostly concerned with installing or refitting electrical systems in hulls that are being laid down or are in dry dock for major maintenance work. These positions are typically predictable 9-5 jobs although overtime and shift work are sometimes available.
Water and Wear and the Primary Concerns For Marine Electricians
A particular concern for marine electricians is the constant presence of water around the systems they are wiring up.
Stray current can easily be conducted into the water around a ship. With high voltages, this can shock and kill nearby swimmers. With lower current levels, it can quickly corrode metal parts of a hull exposed to the current—a process known as galvanic corrosion.
Dealing with Water Incursion
Even inside a vessel, water poses a constant threat. Flooding or condensation can easily reach appliances or wiring that would be high and dry on land. Almost every connection must be protected in some way from the potential for water intrusion using techniques such as:
- Drip loops
- Heat shrink sealants
- Water-displacing gels and grease
Dealing with Repetitive Motion and Acts of Nature
Chafe and wear are also important considerations in marine wiring. Boats move, repetitively and sometimes violently. Constant rubbing or bending can chafe away insulating coatings on wires and create short circuits. Repeated strain on connections can cause them to snap.
Additionally, consideration has to be made to the fact that boats are designed to travel. Variations in climate, from the freezing temperatures of the North Atlantic to the humid swells of the tropics, can also put unexpected strain on electrical wiring.
Consequently, marine electricians often work with tinned, stranded wiring, which is more flexible and resistant to corrosion than solid copper wire, and with crimped connections, which are less likely to break than soldered connections. Marine cabling also tends to have more robust and chafe-resistant insulating layers. Wiring has to be carefully secured away from fuel lines and sensitive navigation equipment with which electromagnetic energy might interfere.
Correctly designing and running bonding systems help channel this energy away from sensitive components, which is also important for protection against lightening strikes.
Becoming a Marine Electrician
While many other electricians will find a path into the industry through vocational degree programs at community colleges or via apprenticeships, marine electricians typically receive their education at specialized maritime academies. These vocational programs usually offer electrical systems training as part of a broader curriculum of marine engineering. Some, like Virginia’s Tidewater Community College maritime program, for example, offer separate certificates for marine electrical systems.
More important to many marine electricians is certification in the American Boat and Yacht Council’s (ABYC) standards. All reputable ship and boat builders and technicians follow ABYC standards and many advertise their staff as being ABYC certified. Obtaining certification before applying puts candidates a step ahead of the competition.
TWIC or STCW Certification
Marine electricians who are employed aboard vessels at sea will have to qualify for a TWIC (Transportation Workers Identification Card) or STCW (Standards of Training, Certification, and Watchkeeping) rating, depending on the size of the vessel and their particular role. These two Coast Guard-issued documents cover general safety at sea and are required for all merchant mariners regardless of specialty.
Marine electricians who work primarily on vessels in dry dock or at moorings may require the same state-level credentials as any other electrician in their area and will likely proceed through the same apprenticeship programs. These can be located through the National Joint Apprenticeship and Training Committee.
Marine Electrician Salaries
Most jobs for marine electricians are, obviously, near America’s coast lines. Some very large vessels have full-time electricians as part of the regular crew. Otherwise, electricians are likely to find work in large shipyards or with yacht construction and maintenance companies.
Entry-level marine electricians can expect to make between $14 and $20 per hour, as shown by these jobs advertised in August 2016:
- 3rd Class Marine Electrician with Ameriforce – $14/hour
- Marine electrician with Bridgeton Boatworks – $18/hour
A journeyman marine electrician can make double that amount.
- Journeyman marine electrician with NSC Technologies – $41/hour
- Marine Maintenance Electrician with NSC Technologies – $28.72/hour
- High Voltage Electrician with the National Defense Reserve Fleet – $25.29 to $29.52/hour
Major ship construction has largely moved overseas from the United States so relatively few shipyard electricians outside of the defense industry are being hired. A considerable amount of maintenance work is still done by U.S. yards, however, and the recreational boating industry continues to have a strong and unfilled demand for trades of all sorts, including electricians.