Overview of Courses for Aspiring Ship Captains

Becoming a ship's captain (or master) of a vessel is a long and arduous process, requiring experience as a first mate, which requires second mate experience, and so on. Before one can become a deck officer at all, in fact, a good deal of education is necessary. This training and experience lays the groundwork for the diverse skills aspiring ship captains must possess.

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Essential Information

Ship captains must know all about navigation, shipboard operations, and what to do in the case of a variety of emergencies; many of these topics are covered in maritime academy courses. Although education and training requirements vary, most officers and engineers possess a bachelor's degree. Additionally, all captains must be certified by the U.S. Coast Guard.

Here are a few concepts that aspiring ship captains may encounter in their studies:

  • Meteorology
  • Tidal calculations
  • Marlinespike
  • International law
  • Maritime economics
  • Pollution control

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  • Merchant Marine Officer
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List of Common Courses

Navigation Course

Sometimes referred to as terrestrial navigation to differentiate it from celestial navigation, this course introduces students to the fundamental principles of piloting and navigating at sea. Topics include the use and maintenance of a gyro or magnetic compass, chart projection and correction, calculating currents and tides and using electronic navigation equipment. The course may introduce other concepts, such as dead reckoning, set and drift, running fixes and buoyage systems. Navigation usually has a lecture and a lab component.

Celestial Navigation Course

This course deals with the challenges of nautical astronomy when sailing out of sight of land. Students are taught to navigate by sun and star lines, as well as with onboard electronic instruments. Other topics include star identification, latitude by noon sight, great circle sailing and parallel sailing. Calculations for sunrise, twilight, moonrise and moonset are covered, along with mid-latitude, Mercator and plane sailing. Further navigational issues come up when dealing with time zones, which are also covered. Additionally, this course may cover celestial phenomena, the amplitude of the sun and the nautical almanac.

Most maritime education and training programs include advanced courses in both terrestrial and celestial navigation as the student moves forward. Some programs culminate the student's navigation education with a practical course that combines principles from both courses.

Seamanship Course

Also found under names like the able seaman course or the survival at sea course, seamanship teaches students the standard rules and skills essential to nautical operations, including deck equipment, rigging, line handling and basic safety procedures. In addition, students learn about nautical survival and problem solving, covering such topics as boat handling, lifeboat operation, survival swimming and man overboard and abandon ship procedures. Students are also taught nautical nomenclature and terminology, as well as how to perform standard shipboard operations.

Marine Communications Course

Also called visual communications, this course introduces students to the Global Maritime Distress Safety System. All manner of standard emergency communication is covered here, including radiotelephone procedures, flag signaling, light signaling and Morse code. Students are also expected to become familiar with onboard communications equipment and its proper maintenance requirements.

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