Cool Jobs Q&A: Second Mate

Maclean’s Cool Jobs series: Sarah Poirier, a second mate for Northumberland Ferries Ltd., on the thrill of working on the ocean


  • Second mate, Northumberland Ferries Ltd., Pictou county, N.S.
  • Education and training: Four-year degree from St. Francis Xavier
    University in English; Three-year advanced diploma from Nova
    Scotia Community College in marine navigation technology; Three summer work terms with Northumberland Ferries Ltd.; Watchkeeping mate certificate from Transport Canada
  • Average yearly income: $15,000-$18,000 (May-October)
  • Years on the job: 4

Describe a typical day on the job.

The boat that I work on is the motor vessel Holiday Island. I’ll start on a p.m. shift at 1:00 till 11:00 p.m., then I’ll grab the a.m. shift the next day. You work for six days straight. Then you’ll get to go home for a day. When we get into an island, I take over from the previous second mate. As second mate, I’m responsible for keeping watch on the bridge, making sure there aren’t going to be any targets, anything we might potentially hit. I also load and unload the boat to Wood Islands, make sure the fire and safety equipment is ready and keep our paperwork up-to-date.

What’s your favourite part?

It’s definitely working on the ocean and getting to be outside a lot of the time. Working with the passengers can be really rewarding. People are travelling from all around the world and it can be really gratifying to hear their stories. For some people, it’s their first time ever being on a boat and it’s a really big deal to them. When I’m walking by passenger areas and I see huge grins on faces, it makes me think: This is a really cool job.

Do you see sea creatures?

We see porpoises all the time, which are basically dolphins. You’ll see them jumping in front of the bows. You do see whales every now and then. They just saw one; it was right in front of the boat. It wasn’t my shift, unfortunately. On some really rough days, we even have fish land on the truck deck.

What’s your most memorable moment?

I’d been a cadet for the last three summers, so putting on my white shirt and my second-mate epaulettes and walking onto the boat as a second mate this year felt amazing. It felt like all my hard work had paid off.

What advice do you have for a young person who wants your job?

They’re hiring people who have gone through cadet programs now. There used to be a time when you could just challenge and write the Transport Canada tests, but it’s not like that anymore. The quickest, most efficient and best way to make sure you get hired is to get yourself to a cadet program. There’s a one in Nova Scotia, in Port Hawkesbury, one in B.C. and another in Newfoundland. There’s also a great nautical school in P.E.I. They don’t offer a cadet program, though.

What are the pros and cons?

Pros: working on the ocean, getting to be outside, getting to see the delight on some of the passengers’ faces, and the money; the money is good. Cons: when we experience mechanical difficulty or bad weather and we have to let people down. Some people really rely on the ferry. If for some reason we have to tie up, I feel really bad.

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