How Can I Become a Ship Captain?

Research what it takes to become a ship captain. Learn about required training, job duties, salary, and job outlook to find out if this is the right career for you. Schools offering Driver Training degrees can also be found in these popular choices.

What Is a Ship Captain?

A ship captain is in command of a water vessel, such as a ferryboat, tugboat or fishing boat, as well as the vessel's crew. As a captain, you might navigate your vessel on oceans, rivers, straits or harbors. Depending on the type of ship, you would also be in charge of supervising the loading and unloading of cargo and/or passengers. In addition, you would be responsible for making sure that all safety protocols are strictly adhered to, that all necessary maintenance tasks are carried out, and that any necessary repairs are made and paid for.

The table below outlines the general requirements for becoming a ship captain.

Degree RequiredDepending on the position, a bachelor's degree from a merchant marine academy may be required
LicensureTransportation Worker Identification Credential from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and a Merchant Marine Credential
Key ResponsibilitiesOperates non-military vessels; ensures the safety of passengers, the crew, and cargo; oversees loading; commands the ship
Job Growth (2014-2024)10% for captains, mates, and pilots of water vessels*
Average Salary (May 2015)$83,150 for captains, mates, and pilots of water vessels*

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

What is It Like to Be a Ship Captain?

A ship captain is in command of a water vessel, such as a ferryboat, tugboat or fishing boat. As a captain, you might navigate your ship on oceans, rivers, straits or harbors. It could be your responsibility to manage crew members, consult maps and oversee navigation. You may determine the best course based on weather and warn the ship pilot about potential hazards. You might also be responsible for ship and equipment inspections, customs issues or cargo movement.

Ship captains control a ship's speed, give directions and ensure crews adhere to safety protocols. This job may also include other administrative responsibilities; for example you may keep accurate logs, hire new employees and oversee the boarding of passengers.

What Kind of Education Do I Need?

Many captains start as deck hands or officers. In order to be a deck hand, you typically must have a bachelor's degree in marine transportation. These programs might include a few years of classroom instruction combined with one year of instruction at sea. You could learn about seamanship, navigation, ship terminology and maritime business. Other areas of study could include firefighting, naval architecture, sea law and cargo management. These programs can also prepare you to test for deck credentials.

Water transportation in the United States is regulated by the United States Coast Guard, who requires ship captains to have two certifications. The certifications required are the Merchant Mariner Credential (MMC) and the Transportation Worker Identification Credential (TWIC). Ship captains generally complete an extended apprenticeship, which is often offered by the company employing them.

How Is the Job Market and Pay?

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported that employment for ship captains, mates, and pilots is expected to increase 10% between 2014 and 2024 (www.bls.gov). Growth in the tourism, gas and oil industries will contribute to this growth, according to the BLS. Additionally, water transportation positions were expected to grow in the Great Lakes region. The average annual salary for ship captains, pilots and mates was $83,150 as of May 2015, reported the BLS. Top earners in this field earned upwards of $134,950. The lowest-paid ship captains earned $38,310 or less.

What Are Some Related Alternative Careers?

Instead of working as a ship captain, you could work as a mate or deck officer. These crew members take over the ship whenever the captain is off-duty, such as on multi-day journeys. The top deck officer is the first mate, who is also in responsible for the oversight of cargo and passengers on the ship. The second mate controls navigation, while the third mate guarantees safety. Alternatively, if you are interested in the mechanics of water vessels, you could become a ship engineer, where you would operate the ship's propulsion system. To work as either a deck officer or ship engineer, you need to meet specific standards set forth by the U.S. Coast Guard.

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