Ship Captain: Job Duties and Information About Becoming a Ship Captain

From cruise ships to freighters, all sea-going vessels sail under the command of a captain. Learn about education and training requirements, as well as the economic outlook for ship captains.

Career Definition

Ship captains are in charge of the operations of sea vessels, such as cruise ships, fishing boats, tugboats, freighters, barges or ferry boats. They maintain logs detailing a ship's course and speed, weather conditions and other factors that influence movement of the ship. Ship captains also manage a ship's crew, supervise loading and unloading of either passengers or cargo and may be involved in the hiring of crew members. In many cases, work as a ship captain takes one away from home for extended periods of time.

How to Become a Ship Captain

Required Education

A ship captain must possess at least a high school diploma, though associate's, bachelor's or master's degrees in marine science or marine engineering are offered by many maritime colleges or academies. Courses in these degree programs can include management, logistics, navigation and maritime safety and laws. Experience is another route one might take to become a ship captain, such as spending years as a deckhand or officer. Depending on the type of vessel commanded, a captain's license from the United States Coast Guard may be required.

Skills Required

Ship captains must have excellent communication, customer service, administrative and problem-solving skills. They must have the ability to adapt to changing conditions and respond to emergency situations. Ship captains also need to have knowledge of maritime laws and regulations.

Career and Economic Outlook

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), jobs for captains, mates and pilots of water vessels are projected to grow by 14% from 2012-2022. This faster-than-average job growth projection is based in part on the expected increase in freight shipping and the increase in tourism via cruise ships. Most job opportunities can be found in coastal areas or those near freshwater ports and docks. According to the BLS, the average salary for ship captains was $73,760 as of May 2012.

Alternative Career Options

Train Engineer

For those who want to be in control of a mode of transportation, but who prefer to work on land, becoming a train engineer or operator may be a better career option. Train engineers, also called locomotive engineers, control the movement of trains that carry passengers or freight. There are no education requirements for train engineers, but a 2-3 month training period is typically required. Also, train engineers must be certified by the Federal Railroad Administration, which requires passing tests to prove competency and physical ability. As of May 2012, train engineers earned an average annual salary of $54,830. The BLS projects that this career will decline by 4% from 2012 to 2022.


Those interested in working on water vessels for long periods of time may prefer to catch fish rather than steer the boat. Fishers locate and catch fish, as well as packing and storing the fish for sales. Fishers can learn on the job or complete courses or a 2-year degree program in fishing technology. Fishers who operate large commercial fishing boats may be required to complete a U.S. Coast Guard training course. Over half of fishers were self-employed in 2012, according to the BLS. The BLS also reports that this is not a growing career field. In fact, fishers are expected to decline by 5% during the 2012-2022 decade. The average salary for fishers and related workers was $36,900 in May 2012, according to the BLS.

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