Setting sail with the world’s greatest naval fleet Life on a Ship

Ships logically come to mind when most people think of the Navy – and most Sailors can expect to spend some time at sea. But what kinds of ships could you potentially serve on? What are some of the different jobs you could be doing on board? Where might you be going? And what is there to do when not on duty? Here’s a chance to find out.


Serving aboard a ship. Living life at sea. Seeing the far corners of the world. These are things few people in the world get the chance to do. Yet it’s fairly routine for Sailors – something a vast majority have the opportunity to experience. And whether you grew up on a coast, near a lake or landlocked, whether you were always drawn to the sea or grow to love it, it’s an experience that will serve you for a lifetime.   


With close to 300 vessels in operation, the U.S. Navy Fleet is the largest naval fleet in the world – with overall tonnage equal to the next 13 biggest naval fleets around the globe combined. There are many different types of ships you could potentially work on, hundreds of specialized jobs you could be in the position to perform, and some basic realities of working at sea.

Types of Ships

On any given day, around 50,000 Sailors are deployed globally aboard any one of approximately 100 ships. Navy vessels range in size from massive aircraft carriers to small coastal patrol ships. And each has its own capabilities – from launching aircraft to launching missiles, from keeping sea lanes open to delivering humanitarian relief.

Carrier Strike Group

When it comes to ships, the Carrier Strike Group (CSG) is the ultimate operational formation – made up of several different types of ships, employing countless Navy career specialties, representing Navy sea control and power projection at its best. As part of a Carrier Strike Group, you could be serving aboard a centerpiece aircraft carrier, a cruiser, a destroyer, a frigate or a supply ship. Serving undersea aboard a submarine is also a possibility.

Amphibious Ready Group

The Amphibious Ready Group has ships designed to carry Marine Expeditionary Unit troops and equipment. As part of the Amphibious Ready Group, you could be serving aboard an amphibious assault ship, a dock landing ship or an amphibious transport dock such as USS New York.

Other Vessels in the Fleet

You could also find yourself aboard ships designed for other specific purposes. Deploying aboard a state-of-the-art hospital ship on a medical relief mission. Sailing aboard a cutting-edge littoral combat ship on sea piracy patrol off a distant shore. Or surging from sea to shore as a crewmember on a Landing Craft Air Cushion (LCAC).

Shipboard Careers

Career specialties available aboard ships vary greatly depending upon the ship – but all together represent many of the jobs offered in the Navy. Like cities at sea, 5,000-crew carriers have a need for everyone from pilots to air traffic controllers. Nuclear engineers to network engineers. IT specialists to medical specialists. Chefs to chaplains. Smaller ships can have fewer job variations but are often even more specialized.

Some general basics about shipboard service to keep in mind: 

  • Schedules tend to be highly regimented
  • Work is generally organized by respective departments
  • Sailors can earn competitive salaries as well as extra pay for sea duty
  • Those in the Officer and Enlisted ranks follow a more formal chain of command

Among the hundreds of different careers that you can find yourself engaged in aboard a ship, here are some of the exciting fields with opportunities that are in high-demand:

You don't need a college degree to be working with nuclear reactors – but your experience can help you earn one. Meet Nuclear Machinist’s Mate Alicia Ferrell and hear what she has to say about a career in nuclear operations.


Video: Navy Nuclear Trained Machinist’s Mate – Petty Officer Second Class Alicia Ferrell

I am Petty Officer Alicia Ferrell, I am a Nuclear Machinist Mate. Or what some would affectionately call the Navy Nuke. We operate in a reactor plant on either an aircraft carrier or a submarine…to make sure that the ship has lights, power. So that…whatever mission that …

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U.S. Navy

Nuclear-trained Surface Warfare Officers help manage the people and technology that propel the world's ultimate surface vessels around the globe. See what their job is all about.

Surface Warfare Officers (SWO) are the backbone of Navy leadership at sea. Meet LT Eddie Allen – and see what he has to say about being a leader in this environment.


Video: Navy Surface Warfare Officer (SWO) - Lieutenant Eddie Allen

I'm Lieutenant Eddie Allen, I've been in the Navy seventeen years and I'm a Surface Warfare Officer. A SWO, a Surface Warfare Officer, is a ship driver. Someone who mans the ship on the bridge, pretty much takes the ship overseas. A Surface Warfare Officer is unrestricted so, i.e. …

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U.S. Navy

Hands-on work is plentiful and exciting aboard Navy ships, and women in the Navy are more than up to the task. See what Navy Hull Technician Jessica Lambert thinks about her job in the Navy.


When you imagine serving on a ship, it’s normal to wonder about things like where you’d deploy and for how long, when and where you’d work and sleep, what you might do with free time, and how you’d stay in touch with loved ones. Get some insight here.

Travel & Adventure

Sunrises in the Mediterranean. Sunsets in the South Pacific. Port calls in exotic locales around the globe. Adventure is an everyday experience when sailing on a Navy ship. And it allows you to see the world from a perspective that few can relate to.

Ships are homeported at dozens of locations both stateside and abroad. And whether you’re on duty or taking advantage of military vacation perks, the thrill of seeing new places and meeting new people can be yours.


Normally, a Sailor is assigned to a ship for a three-year period, followed by a three-year period of shore duty. But don’t expect to be at sea for three years straight – most ships spend a significant amount of time docked at their home port.

  • Typical deployment for a carrier: 6–9 months
  • Typical deployment for most other ships: 3–6 months

Video: Navy for Moms - Racks - USS Sampson

This is one of three racks videos showcasing life in the Navy. BM1 Jesse Crider from Detroit, Michigan takes you on a tour of the USS Sampson. Request permission to come aboard, meet Command Master Chief Fortson. See where Sailors sleep, shower, and eat. The onboard cash machine, the …

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U.S. Navy

Working Environment

Sailors on ships are exposed to a variety of different work environments – from academic settings to training on prototype units to eventual sea tours and shore assignments. Working aboard a ship involves getting up and going to work, but the day is broken into increments – shifts where you may be doing your job or standing watch or enjoying free time. 

On a typical surface ship, responsibilities are highly specialized and the various departments focus on their duties – whether that’s on the flight deck, on the hanger deck, in the combat information center, in a reactor room or elsewhere.

With a strict chain or common in place, there is generally minimal interaction between Officers and Enlisted Sailors – as well as between Sailors serving different professional functions on a ship. And in contrast to submarines, cross-training between departments on a ship is not part of formal training or normal operations.

Living Quarters

When you come aboard a ship, you will be assigned a “berthing area,” which includes a locker for storage and a “rack” for sleeping. Space is limited but there's enough room to comfortably rest and stow belongings.

Meals are eaten on the mess deck – an area shared by Sailors on board and one that also doubles as a place to relax when free and outside of meal hours.

Learn more about living quarters at sea now.


Video: Navy for Moms - Racks - USS Wasp

This is one of three racks videos showcasing life in the Navy. AO3 Cortes takes you on a tour of the USS Wasp. She works on 20 - 25mm machine guns to rocket launchers in her shop. She shows the CRALTS, the Common Rack and Launcher Test Set which tests out bomb racks and rocket …

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U.S. Navy

Free Time

Working out. Watching movies. Studying for qualifications. Taking online classes. What you do with your free time on a ship is up to you. Days are busy, but there's certainly time to relax, hang out with others, keep in shape and stay connected to those close to you.

And remember – even when assigned to a ship, you won’t always be at sea. Learn more about free time in the Navy.

Keeping in Touch

One of the most important, non-work-related activities on a ship is communicating with loved ones back home. And you should know that on a ship today, there are more ways than ever before to stay in touch with friends and family.

Online access is available, though the speed and extent of it depends upon a variety of factors at any time. Priority of resources always goes to operating the ship and safely conducting the mission. But email is a staple. Use of Facebook and YouTube are permitted at times. And communication via ship phone and Skype – though limited – are popular options. Plus, there are always port stops, where there’s access to mail and packages and the ability to make calls or connect without waiting in line.

All in all, keeping in touch from the middle of the ocean is much easier in the digital age than it was years ago. And technology allows Sailors to have a more real-time relationship with spouses, kids, families and friends.