Become a Boat Captain: Step-by-Step Career Guide

A boat or ship captain, also known as a merchant mariner, commands and supervises the crew of civilian-owned vessels, which can include deep-sea merchant ships, cruise ships, barges, ferries and tugboats. Captains operate ships over various types of waterways - including oceans, rivers, canals and harbors - and oversee piloting functions like safety, course, speed and position of vessels.

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Step 1: Attend a Maritime High School

During the past decade or so, 19 maritime high schools have come into existence across the United States. The goal of these schools is to prepare students for work in the water transportation field or to enter bachelor degree programs in maritime studies. Typically, these schools offer courses that can include introduction to general maritime studies, maritime skills, and maritime career preparation.

Step 2: Acquire a Bachelor's Degree

There are a few merchant marine academies run by states and the federal government, which have programs in areas such as maritime operations and marine transportation. Typically, a major in marine transportation is tailored for students interested in becoming ship captains. Overall, this major includes a combination of courses in nautical science and business. Some specific courses include terrestrial and celestial navigation, sea-power history, safety, naval leadership, naval and sea law, maritime communications, and ship structure. Lengthy training is given aboard ships as part of these programs.

Step 3: Obtain Experience

An alternative step to acquiring a bachelor's degree is gaining extensive work experience aboard ships. Thousands of hours of work as a deckhand is required to obtain the credentials needed to become a boat captain. However, the credentialing exams are difficult and, without a bachelor's degree, can require extensive study. In general, captains of deep-water vessels usually obtain a bachelor's degree, while captains of supply boats and those navigating inland waters and rivers can usually attain their positions through experience.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) predicted that boat captains would see employment increase by 14%, which was faster than average, between 2012 and 2022. As of May 2012, captains had a median salary of $66,150, the BLS noted.

Step 4: Acquire Credentials

Two credentials are required to operate vessels: the Merchant Marine Credential (MMC), issued by the United States Coast Guard; and the Transportation Worker Identification Credential (TWIC), issued by the U.S Department of Homeland Security. The MMC requires the passage of an examination as a condition of issuance and is, in effect, the captain's license. At a merchant marine academy, acquiring the MMC may be a condition of graduation. The TWIC is basically a security clearance from the U.S. government and requires a background check.

Step 5: Become a Deck Officer

Before advancing to the position of ship or boat captain, extensive experience on these vessels is required. Once a person obtains a degree and the appropriate credentials, jobs can be secured as a deck officer or third mate. When the captain is not on watch, deck officers or mates supervise the routine operations of the ship. This can be an essential learning step for gaining the experience needed to captain a ship.

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