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.

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Career Definition of a Ship Captain

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.

Educational and Licensing Requirements High school diploma required with opportunities to achieve associate's, bachelor's or master's degrees; a captain's license or other certification may be required
Job Skills Excellent communication, customer service, administrative and problem-solving skills, knowledge of maritime laws and procedures, and ability to work under pressure
Median Salary (2015)* $76,780 (all captains, mates and pilots of water vessels)
Job Outlook (2014-2024)* 10% (all captains, mates and pilots of water vessels)

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

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 10% from 2014-2024. This job growth projection is based in part on the expected increase in freight shipping and the increase in tourism via cruise ships, however most oceangoing cruise ships are headed to international destinations and tend not to employ U.S. workers. Most job opportunities can be found in coastal areas or those near freshwater ports and docks. According to the BLS, the median salary for captains, mates and pilots was $76,780 as of May 2015.

Alternative Career Options

Similar career options in this field include:

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.

Rail companies generally require a high school diploma or equivalent, and 2-3 training period is also 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 2015, train engineers earned an average median salary of $56,240. The BLS projects that this career will decline by 2% from 2014 to 2024.


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 pack and store the fish for sales. Fishers can learn on the job or take a vocational technical program or a 2-year degree program in fishing technology. Approximately 3 out of 5 fishing and hunting workers were self-employed in 2014, according to the BLS. Fishers who operate large commercial fishing boats may be required to complete a U.S. Coast Guard training course. The BLS also reports that this is not a growing career field. In fact, fishers are expected to show little or no change during 2014-2024. The median salary for fishers and related workers was $27,340 in May 2015, according to the BLS.

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