It wasn't a typical college test. 

Last summer, as heavy rain pounded down and fog hugged hulking cargo ships ahead, Luke MacNutt faced one of the busiest harbours in the world. 

With the captain of the research vessel on his right and a local harbour pilot on his left, MacNutt navigated an 82-metre ship into Singapore's port. 

"They stick me on the wheel," he said. "There's huge ships passing in front of me, behind me, beside me.

"They're both giving me orders and I'm just doing everything I can to keep my composure and it turned out really well. I made it through." 

MacNutt, 29, is in his third year of a marine navigation course, part of Nova Scotia Community College's Nautical Institute. 

Singapore port from research ship

Luke MacNutt says a highlight of his two summer work terms was steering a ship into Singapore's port, one of the busiest shipping ports in the world. (Submitted by Luke MacNutt)

The course requires spending 12 months working on a ship. The past two summers MacNutt gained international experience — first on a research ship doing survey work and mapping in the Hawaiian Islands, then on a vessel that travelled between Australia, Indonesia, Singapore, the Marshall Islands and Hawaii. 

Prerequisite: be willing to travel

"You get a really good sense of how the ship operates from the ground up," he said from the NSCC campus in Port Hawkesbury, where he's spending the winter finishing his last semester. 

During the winter months, students attend classes and work with navigation and engine simulators. 

MacNutt says the program has blended his love for travel and the sea — he spent much of his 20s teaching diving. 

"I got to steer the ship under the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco my first year as well. Those are pretty special things that not a lot of people get to do."

Vivek Saxena, the academic chair of the NSCC Nautical Institute, says MacNutt's experience isn't that unique among marine engineering and marine navigation technology students. 

Golden Gate bridge by boat

The academic chair of the NSCC Nautical Institute says students can end up anywhere in the world, but have to be prepared to spend weeks at a time at sea. (Submitted by Luke MacNutt)

This past summer one student sailed on a ship from Gibraltar back to Canada, others worked on commercial vessels in the Great Lakes and ferries in the Maritimes. 

"They're on different types of vessels across Canada, across the world basically," he said. "When you're a seafarer you're working internationally, you never know what country you're heading to."

The downside of the work — besides unpredictable weather and challenges on the ship — is long stretches of time away from friends and family, Saxena says. 

To be successful, he says students need to enjoy working with their hands, have a sense of adventure and a background in physics and math. 

About 24 students enter the program each year and Saxena says there's plenty of demand for their skills, since the program offered by the college is one of just a handful in the country. 

From cruise to container ships

The Coast Guard College in Sydney offers a similar program but graduates go on to work for the Coast Guard, not commercial ships.

This summer MacNutt will fly to Fiji and spend his final work term at sea in the Pacific. He will take a Transport Canada exam and he's not worried about finding work.

He says he's open to working in the oil and gas industry, cruise ships, container ships and tankers — either on the East Coast or abroad.

"There's a lot of possibilities," he said. "Coming out of the course, you know there's going to be opportunities for you. You're going to be spending your money on school but you know you're going to be rewarded for it at the end of the day."