Seafaring may have lost its romance, but the merchant navy still has challenges, says Claire Smith

Working the banana boats," says Captain Adrian Scales, nostalgically, "that was the best job in the world. Being paid to go to the Caribbean, pick up bananas and bring them back across the Atlantic. I spent my first Christmas away from home in Grenada."

Scales's great-grandfathers were both sea captains, so joining the merchant navy seemed to be a natural progression from his boyhood passion for sailing dinghies on his local reservoir.

However, according to Angus Ferguson, senior lecturer at Glasgow College of Nautical Studies, many of the merchant navy cadets who sign up for the HND in nautical science (a three-year degree course is to be introduced in 2006) only earn their sea legs on the course. "And some spend a lifetime at sea and still get seasick," he says, laughing.

In the UK, each cadet is sponsored by a big shipping firm - Maersk Sealand, Clyde Marine, BP Shipping, Texaco, P&O Cruises - which pays £8,000 for their education at one of the four nautical colleges: Glasgow, Blackpool and the Fylde in Fleetwood, South Tyneside College and Warsash Maritime Centre in Southampton. The companies then send them off to sea for the requisite 12 months of the four-year HND course.

It's on the high seas that the cadets get first-hand experience of the deck officer's job - to navigate the safe passage of the ship and to ensure the safe carriage of the cargo, be it oil, passengers or bananas. Merchant navy officers also work on Antarctic research vessels, diving-support vessels surveying underwater pipelines, and anchor-handling vessels that move oil platforms from one drilling well to another.

Work patterns vary, though on container ships and oil tankers officers tend to be at sea for three months, followed by two months at home. It's a great way to see the world, though with some of these ships too big to fit into a harbour, you can end up being at sea for three to four months at a time without seeing a port, warns Scales. And in this cut-throat world of profit margins, officers spend less time onshore than in the past - a four-week trip to the Far East may involve just 18 hours' port time.

So what do cadets do when they're out at sea? "Watch videos, listen to music, do distance learning courses. I tried a couple of languages when I was in deep sea," says Scales. But with no alcohol on board, and with officers on a typical four hours on, eight hours off shift cycle, there isn't much room for relaxation.

"In truth, it's not as romantic as it used to be," says Scales. "Most of the jobs where you spend time in port have gone over to foreign nationals, because they are cheaper to employ. But there is still a lot of appeal. In any other business, you never see the MD. On a ship, you start off as a cadet with a starting salary of about £17,000 working alongside the captain. Within 10 to 15 years you can be in his shoes: in charge of a £35m vessel, earning up to £50,000 and only working six months a year."

But it's not just the wages and days off that appeal. "There's a lot of camaraderie," says Scales. "When you go to sea, what you've got is what you've got. You have to make do. If things go wrong, there's so few people to work with, you have to rely on everyone to pull their weight. You're the first aider, the fire fighter, the navigator, and no day is ever the same."

So, it's a great job for an independent spirit who likes a challenge and working in a team. But who wouldn't fit the job? "It doesn't suit mummy's boys," Scales says. "If you're a person who likes to be pampered, it's not the career for you. You need common sense, an even temper and steady grounding because it can get lonely being away for so long."

Nor would it suit someone who didn't like exams and assessments. Although you can start training at 16 with just four GCSEs - maths, English and science are essential - like airline pilots, merchant navy deck officers' skills are constantly being reassessed throughout their careers. After the first 18 months at sea, officers return to college for a further four months' training to get their Chief Mate qualification. Then it's back on the waves for a further 18 months before taking the four-week Master Unlimited. Only then are they qualified to be a ship's captain, and every five years they have to have their licences re-endorsed.

For more information, contact the Merchant Navy Training Board: 020-7417 2800;