How to Become a Sea Captain

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Captains must keep passengers safe when traveling.
Captains must keep passengers safe when traveling. (Image: Photos.com/Photos.com/Getty Images)

Sea captains have a storied place in history; many people think of salty sea dogs steering boats through storms, fending off pirates or hobnobbing with glamorous cruise ship guests. Today, sea captains might take charge of private yachts, tugboats, aircraft carriers or research vessels. It’s tough work; captains must effectively manage crew, keep the boat safe, adhere to laws governing transport and travel and have superior knowledge of weather and current patterns.

Things You'll Need

  • Sea log
  • Credentials
  • CPR certification
  • Drug test
  • Medical exam results
  • Business cards

Climb aboard a boat. At the minimum, sea captains must maintain physical equanimity while at sea — even during massive swells and wind chop. If you’re the kind of person who gets green in the face just looking at an anchored boat, becoming a sea captain isn’t a realistic option for you.

Earn your hours. Prior to earning certification as a sea captain, you’ll need to accumulate a certain amount of hours at sea. These hours don’t have to include hours that you’ve worked as a boat crew member; working as a restaurant server or poker dealer on a floating restaurant or casino counts toward those hours if you’re at sea. Make sure to log dates, times and vessel numbers; have the captain or other authority figure sign off on each entry. Alternatively, you can ask an employer to sign a letter certifying that you’ve accumulated the requisite number of hours for the licensure that you seek.

Enroll in U.S. Coast Guard-approved training classes. It’s possible to take the captain’s licensure exam without having completed coursework, but the vast majority of sea captains enroll in training courses for help learning classic navigation, boat safety, emergency procedures, travel rules and laws for boating at sea. Classes might include homework assignments to prepare you for passing your state’s written exam.

Apply for licensure. The U.S. Coast Guard requires captains to hold a Merchant Marine Credential, known as the MMC. Additionally, captains must apply for the Transportation Worker Identification Credential, known as the TWIC. When applying, potential sea captains must submit additional documentation including CPR certification, medical exam results and drug test results.

Visit local yacht clubs, marine businesses, sailboat rental enterprises and other businesses to distribute your business card and copies of your credentials. Boating communities can be quite small, so present yourself professionally and with confidence.

Tips & Warnings

  • Build a positive reputation by arriving on time. Schedule captain appointments in a calendar book when first accruing gigs; inspect the boat beforehand so that guests and passengers can depart at scheduled times.
  • Sea captains must be comfortable taking authority, since the safety of all passengers depends on their good judgment. Monitor the weather, advise guests about appropriate behavior and explain expectations to crew members so that there's no surprises at sea.

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