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This could be you. Photo by pizzodisevo.

I became a licensed captain because I wanted to charter my family’s sailing schooner.

My dad is a 30-year veteran but refuses to adhere to the standards of a Federal license.

As a result, I’m the captain aboard my father’s ship, he is the skipper. I am ‘in command’ while he is ‘in charge,’ and legally it’s my ass on the line if anything happens to our passengers or the vessel.

Being a boat captain has its perks. You are the Top Dog, The Man in charge, the alpha-chicken in the boat world’s pecking order. You can work anywhere on the coast, you aren’t held to the same social standards of a regular boss, and occasionally you get to wear a great hat.

The downside is that work hours and free-time are highly irregular. Your social perspective may be skewed by seamen-like shore leave. And relationships suffer because you can’t just call home from sea.

Furthermore, unless you get a gig on a private mega yacht, or racing in the America Cup, chances are you’ll end up working on a ferry or tug boat. Small boat captains don’t make that much money, though it is more lucrative than being a deckhand.

There are two ways to achieve the title of “Boat Captain.” one of them is to buy a boat, take it on the water, and declare yourself ‘captain.’ The other is to apply for a license through the U.S. Coast Guard. Commercial fishing boat skippers don’t need licenses, neither do pleasure yachters, but to become a captain, and be paid under that title, mariners must be licensed.

The irony of this is that applicants don’t have to actually prove they can drive, sail, or dock a boat. Driving tests remain a landlubber’s milestone.

Applicants need 360 days on the water, at four hours each day, documented within the last five years.

Time is the most discerning prerequisite to becoming a boat captain. Applicants need 360 days on the water, at four hours each day, documented within the last five years. If your sea-time was spent under the command of another captain (licensed or not), you will need their signature on the documentation.

If you are a cook, a deckhand, or a maid aboard a vessel, you are getting sea-time regardless of actual boat-related duties. Yes, you may work as a blackjack dealer aboard a cruise ship and be getting all the sea-time you need to become a captain.

Applicants also need three character references, from boat captains or others, but note the importance of appropriate references, especially since all materials are filtered through a Federal Government bureaucracy. My references were from a licensed captain and former boss, an uncle who is a commercial fisherman, and a friend who participates in sail racing, all three owned their own boats.

Requirements beyond these two are either physical or legal. You need to pass a five-substance drug test, a physical exam, and have CPR/First Aid certification. Most boat companies require these physical marks anyway and will likely pay for the test and certification.

A thorough background check and finger printing are also required, and don’t forget to bring your Social Security card to the licensing office. This process is not for the bureaucratically squeamish. Check out this site for the top 10 reasons an application might be delayed.

Studying up. Photo by teleniek0.

Finally, there are the tests—60 multiple choice questions on deck and safety procedures; 20 questions on general navigation; 10 navigation problems, complete with triangulation and slide ruler; and another 30 multiple choice questions on “rules of the road.”

I paid $1,100 for a six-week course in the basement of the local yacht club; otherwise the Coast Guard licensing fees are about $255, including the application, exam and processing fee. In a room of 20-odd men I was the only girl and the second youngest student.

Since I was fresh out of college I realized within a couple of weeks that I could have studied on my own and passed the tests. This was not the case for my older peers and I don’t recommend taking the exam without some tutorial. Check out exam questions here. You can also take the test at a regional exam center located through the Coast Guard licensing website.

For job opportunities go to Or just start walking the docks. Remember, having your license doesn’t guarantee your qualifications, and nothing speaks louder than experience on the water.

Darcey Maher grew up migrating between three coastal cities on the Pacific rim and picks up local jargon way too fast. She is a sometime editor, freelance writer, and a restless boat captain. Her writing has appeared in the Sitka Sentinel, Bellingham Weekly and Planet Magazine. When not shirking landlubber responsibilities, she is running her charter business, SailMycia, on trips through the Inside Passage of the Northwest coast.

About The Author

Darcey Maher

Darcey grew up migrating between three coastal cities on the Pacific rim and picks up local jargon way too fast. She is a sometime editor, freelance writer, and a restless boat captain. Her writing has appeared in the Sitka Sentinel, Bellingham Weekly and Planet Magazine. When not shirking landlubber responsibilities, she is running her charter business, SailMycia, on trips through the Inside Passage of the Northwest coast.

  • Tim Patterson

    Awesome. I don’t think I’ll ever be a wildland firefighter, or a boat captain, or a commercial fisherman, but I am LOVING these posts.

    Great job, Darcy.

  • Vladimir

    can you please email me all what I need…and who and where to contact…

  • cahbreis

    Hi Darcy,

    Really enjoyed your post. I was wondering if you had an suggestions for people wanted to accumulate 360 days on the water in 5 years time. Any suggestions?

  • Logan


    Please explain to me something, I know there are several captains licenses for boating, could you explain them for me?

  • Logan


    Are there any age requirements?

  • Logan

    Haha sorry another question:

    Which license do YOU have?

  • Captain Pete Peterson

    I just completed a trip from Florida to Homer, Alaska 7200 nm. I have a few photos on my web site from this trip. I noticed that you have a boat in the Inside Passage. I thoroughly enjoyed this area, the entire trip from Victoria to Homer was probably one of the most beautiful areas I have ever visited and I have over 175,000 miles experience. I would love to return to this area more often if you know of anyone needing a boat delivered in this area or needing a full time Captain for the season please let me know. I have a 100 ton Captain and Master License which I will soon upgrade to a 200 ton over the winter.

  • Praneeth

    Iwant to be a ship capton

  • http://google Akili Schneider

    I am seriously pusuing a career as a captain of a boat. Unfortunately I live in Las Vegas, Nevada and there are no open waters here. I am seeking guidance to begin my career as a captain, please advise me of any step by step procedures that I can follow to begin this challenging career.
    Thank you

  • Capt. John

    I agree with the last paragraph in this article. It is important when hiring a boat captain to get references that can verify his boat handling experience. It may even sound trival but when interviewing a captain have him take your vessel on a run in and out of the marina and see if he can dock without to much trouble. Anyway, good article.

  • http://none gene

    hoping there’s also a certification sytstem like this here in philippines…i have the desire also to be a ship captain and master license holder..

  • Howard Veliosi

    This is a complex subject, and it gets more complex and bureaucratic by the day. There are many credentialing and certification requirements, depending on the size and geographic operating area of a vessel. There are licenses where a captain is an operator of an uninspected passenger vessel, called an OUPV, or 6-pack license. You see those in the charter fishing industry. There are also licenses for 100 ton, 200 ton, 500 ton, and 1600 ton licenses, which you see in a lot of cases with tugs and ferries. On ocean going vessels, the captain generally holds an unlimited tonnage unlimited ocean master license, which is usually at the culmination of years of sea time as third officer, second officer, and first officer. For someone new to the industry, there are a number of other positions, some of which require some sea time and experience, and some of them into which a person can walk in off the street. This is covered pretty decently in the book So You Want to Work on a Boat, which is featured on Another good source of information for breaking into the industry can be found in the trade magazines, where companies post openings for deckhands, engineers, oilers, QMEDs, mates, captains, cooks, port engineers and other positions that arise in the industry. Again, there could be some expenses involved in credentialing for things such as an MMC (merchant mariner credential), TWIC (transportation worker identification credential), and STCW certification. Also, anyone who’s considering this should explore the different types of vessels. There are certain advantages and disadvantages to working on different types of vessels that it’s best to learn about beforehand.

  • Muhammad Sohail

    hey I have finished my secondary school now I am in collage there are two years in collage so my uncle told me after these two years apply in marine academy here you will study two years after it you will be a 3rd engineer so it is good I mean this profession is good or boring.

  • Obet More

    I also want to be a captain when I grow up, but I am in grade7 now we had an career day today and it was intresting.

  • Ollie Macizo Crouch


  • SailorBrad

    I work offshore as an Able Bodied Seaman. I am a second level deckhand (AB) This article is somewhat discouraging about pay. Yes, maybe inland captains and other crew don’t make much money but I clear 60k a year and my company is considered low paying. In Louisiana, they are paying 325 a day for AB’s. That is close to 90k a year. So, if deckhands are making 90k and the average person in the US is making 30k; is that not a lot of money? Captains are way above that and they make lots and lots of money. It depends on where you work and what size vessel you are commanding. The author seems ill informed or else pay and requirements have changed dramatically since this was written.

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