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Life on a Ship

US Navy servicemen prepare to lower the ensign on the flight deck of the USS McCampbell.

Life on a Ship

Deploy & Defend
Learn about the vessels of America's Navy.

Most Sailors can expect to spend some time at sea. And that means living on a ship. But what kinds of ships could you potentially serve on? What are some of the different Navy careers you could be doing on board a ship? Where might you be going? And what is there to do when not on duty? Here’s a chance to find out.

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 one of several ships:

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 one of the following ships:

The following are other types of vessels in the fleet that you could be serving aboard:

Specialty careers 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:

Information & Technology

Explore opportunities within the Information Dominance Corps – including highly technical work in anything from intelligence to cryptology to meteorology. Discover if a job in information and technology suits your needs. 

Engineering & Applied Science

Drive ships. Become an expert in operating sophisticated electronics and weapons systems. Or help maintain any of the critical machinery on board. Does a career in engineering and applied science appeal to you? 

Aviation

Fly fighter jets and aircraft. Launch them from and land them on the deck of a ship. Or be part of a team that ensures that they are ready to perform structurally and mechanically. Take to the skies with an aviation career in the Navy. 

Health Care

Be more than a health-care professional who practices medicine, nursing or dentistry. Do more and jump-start your health-care career aboard a ship at sea and discover the world.

Launch a future in any of more than 60 fields. Explore all the career opportunities America's Navy has to offer.

Working in Nuclear Operations

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

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. 

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.

Deployment

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

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.

Beyond the opportunity to visit other countries and interact with other cultures, the chance to potentially contribute to humanitatarian efforts is a reward all its own.

A Family at Sea

When you join the Navy, you're joining more than an organization. You're gaining a family of brothers and sisters ready and willing to fight for a common goal. Be a part of something great.

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.

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.
  • Email is a staple.
  • Use of social media is permitted at times.
  • Communication via ship phone and internet – though limited – are popular options.
  • 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.