Become a Boat Captain: Step-by-Step Career Guide

A boat or ship captain, also known as a merchant mariner, commands and supervises the crew of civilian owned vessels, which include deep-sea merchant ships, cruise ships, barges, ferries and tugboats. Captains operate ships over various types of waterways such as oceans, rivers, canals and harbors, and they oversee piloting functions like safety, course, speed and position of vessels.

Should I Become a Boat Captain?

A boat captain loves spending long periods of time on the water traveling to different locations. Additionally, a captain must have good leadership qualities and a vast knowledge of maritime law and practices.

One way to become a boat captain is to start as a deckhand, so you can acquire experience and accumulate the needed credentials for promotion. Alternatively, you can attend a maritime school or merchant marine academy. All of these paths assist you in learning about the daily operation of a ship and the jobs duties of the crew, as well as safety regulations and procedures.

Career Requirements

Degree Level Bachelor's degree
Degree Field Maritime transportation
Experience Work as a deckhand
Credentials Merchant Marine Credential (MMC) exam, Transportation Worker Identification Credential (TWIC) which consists of security clearance and a background check
Salary $72,340 per year (2014 median salary for all captains, mates, and pilots of water vessels)

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Step 1: Attend a Maritime High School

During the past decade or so, 19 maritime high schools have come into existence across the United States. The goal of these schools is to prepare students for work in the water transportation field or to enter bachelor degree programs in maritime studies. Typically, these schools offer courses that can include introduction to general maritime studies, maritime skills, and maritime career preparation.

Step 2: Acquire a Bachelor's Degree

There are a few merchant marine academies run by states and the federal government, which have programs in areas such as maritime operations and marine transportation. Typically, a major in marine transportation is tailored for students interested in becoming ship captains. Overall, this major includes a combination of courses in nautical science and business. Some specific courses include terrestrial and celestial navigation, sea-power history, safety, naval leadership, naval and sea law, maritime communications, and ship structure. Lengthy training is given aboard ships as part of these programs.

Step 3: Obtain Experience

An alternative step to acquiring a bachelor's degree is gaining extensive work experience aboard ships. Thousands of hours of work as a deckhand is required to obtain the credentials needed to become a boat captain. However, the credentialing exams are difficult and, without a bachelor's degree, can require extensive study. In general, captains of deep-water vessels usually obtain a bachelor's degree, while captains of supply boats and those navigating inland waters and rivers can usually attain their positions through experience.

Step 4: Acquire Credentials

Two credentials are required to operate vessels: the Merchant Marine Credential (MMC), issued by the United States Coast Guard; and the Transportation Worker Identification Credential (TWIC), issued by the U.S Department of Homeland Security. The MMC requires the passage of an examination as a condition of issuance and is, in effect, the captain's license. At a merchant marine academy, acquiring the MMC may be a condition of graduation. The TWIC is basically a security clearance from the U.S. government and requires a background check.

Step 5: Become a Deck Officer

Before advancing to the position of ship or boat captain, extensive experience on these vessels is required. Once a person has a degree and the appropriate credentials, jobs can be secured as a deck officer or third mate. When the captain is not on watch, deck officers or mates supervise the routine operations of the ship. This can be an essential learning step for gaining the experience needed to captain a ship.

There are also positive prospects for future employment in this field. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) predicted that boat captains would see employment increase by 14%, which was faster than average, between 2012 and 2022.

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