The Bridgeport and Port Jefferson Steamboat Company's Park City ferry. Bridgeport Ferry Co.

Looking for a career in transportation with good pay, incredible job security, free room and board and a chance to “sea” the world? Check out the U.S. Merchant Marine.

Though the U.S. is heavily dependent on overseas imports, most of the big container ships and tankers serving our ports are not American. But under federal law, any shipping between U.S. ports must be on vessels owned, built, flagged and staffed with U.S. crews.

Although there are only about 200 U.S. vessels that meet those “Jones Act” criteria, they all need crews. So how do you break in to this biz? There are two routes:

Going to school: Locally we have two Maritime Academies: one operated by the State University of New York is in the Bronx, under the Throgs Neck Bridge. There’s also the prestigious federal Merchant Marine Academy at Kings Point NY and similar four-year schools in Maine, Massachusetts and California. You’ll graduate with a bachelor’s degree ready to serve at sea starting at the level of third mate.

Hawsepiping: This is the harder way to get aboard. You start basically as an apprentice (ordinary seaman) for 365 days at sea doing things like cleaning toilets and literally “learning the ropes.” Then you take a Coast Guard exam and after another 180 days service you become an Able Seaman.

After another year you take a test for your Mate’s license. Then you can “touch the mahogany,” using the tiller on the bridge to steer the vessel, always under guidance of a captain. You then work as a mate for 365 eight-hour days and take another test to become a captain. If you can’t pass that test on three tries, you have to wait another year (presumably hitting the books again).

“We’ve got to get them started when they’re young,” says Captain Jim McGuire, port captain for the Bridgeport and Port Jefferson Steamboat Co. “If you’re right out of high school you’ll have time to build a career.” But he admits he does work with middle-aged seamen who left careers in computers or the law to work afloat. There’s no mandatory retirement age, but you do have to take a physical every five years.

But how’s the pay?

Ordinary seamen earn “a bit better than at McDonald’s” says McGuire. After five years on the job, Able Seamen make about the same as office workers. And Mates (second in command to the Captain) pay “about the same as a mid-level management job.”

And there is a whole slew of other opportunities in engineering.

McGuire’s crews on the Bridgeport–Port Jefferson ferry work three days on and three days off. They work 12-hour shifts with mandatory rest periods and actually live onboard the ferries. They share a bunk room, lounge and mess, taking turns to cook.

Last year all crew members got a 10% wage hike and handsome 401K bonuses as well as full medical coverage.

McGuire says the job has other perks too: you get to work outdoors, meet lots of people (the passengers), have great job security and, if you don’t like the crew meal, you can eat for free at the snack bar.

Jim Cameron is founder of the Commuter Action Group and advocates for Connecticut rail riders. He writes a weekly column called "Talking Transportation" for CT Mirror and other publications in the state. Read past Talking Transportation columns here. Contact Jim at the Commuter Action Group.