Become a Ship Captain: Education Requirements and Career Overview

Find out how to become a ship captain. Research the education and training requirements, and learn about the experience you need to advance your career as a ship captain.

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Do I Want to Be a Ship Captain?

Ship captains take care of the business, navigation and operation of all types of vessels. The captain works with officers and crews to set a ship's speed and course, monitor a ship's positions and avoid hazards. Captains also ensure their ships' engines and equipment are maintained and that proper safety procedures are followed. Additionally, they might supervise passenger and cargo loading and discharge, keep logs and document pollution control efforts. Ship captains might spend extended periods of time away from home.

Job Requirements

A bachelor's degree is commonly required for water transportation workers, as is credentialing from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Below are some of the common requirements necessary to become a ship captain:

Common Requirements
Degree Level Bachelor's degree*
Degree Field Marine transportation, marine engineering, maritime operations and technology, logistics and intermodal transportation, marine engineering systems, marine engineering and shipyard management***
Experience 3- 4 years as a deck crew member*
Key Skills Hand-eye coordination, strong communication skills, mechanical ability, visual and hearing ability**
Computer Skills Navigational software, facilities management software**
Technical Skills Marine communication system operation, ability to operate a ship's mechanical equipment**
Additional Requirements Physical strength*

Sources: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, **O*NET OnLine, ***U.S. Merchant Marine Academy.

Step 1: Choose a Career Path

Prospective ship captains can follow one of two career paths. Captains of supply boats on inland waterways or rivers often start with entry-level work as deckhands and obtain on-the-job training. They then advance through the ranks by gaining experience and passing rating exams. Alternatively, captains of deep-water vessels often gain formal training from merchant marine academies before being promoted to captains.

Step 2: Attend Coast Guard-Approved Academy Training

The U.S. Coast Guard regulates entry, training and licensing for most water transportation occupations, including ship captains. Students who select the academy training career path may enroll in the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy or one of the state academies. These schools offer 4-year programs that lead to Bachelor of Science degrees and prepare students for the licensing exam. Coursework may include meteorology and electronic navigation, as well as topics such as ship construction and maritime law. Upon graduation, candidates may pursue a license to become a deck officer or third mate.

Step 3: Gain Experience as a Deck Officer

Academy graduates may go on to serve as deck officers or third mates in the U.S. Strategic Sealift Officer Program (formerly the Merchant Marine Reserve), the Coast Guard Reserve or the Naval Reserve. Deckhands who did not graduate from marine academies, on the other hand, generally must obtain many hours of work experience before being promoted to deck officers. As they continue to gain experience and receive on-the-job training, deck officers may qualify for promotion to captain.

Success Tip:

  • Consider taking continuing education courses. Maritime academies offer continuing education courses for professional development. These classes may help deckhands learn new skills or keep abreast of new technological developments, like global marine distress safety systems. Some programs may also prepare workers for recertification examinations, like those for radar systems.

Step 4: Earn Credentials

The U.S. Coast Guard requires all mariners to obtain a Transportation Worker Identification Credential (TWIC) from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. The credential verifies that a mariner is a permanent resident or U.S. citizen and has passed a security screening.

The majority of mariners also need to earn a Merchant Mariner Credential (MMC) through the US Coast Guard. Requirements for the MMC may vary according to the type and size of the ship on which the candidate will work and the type of water the ship will navigate. In general, an applicant must pass a background and character reference check, complete a training course, pass an exam, pass a drug screening and complete a vision test and physical.

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