What Is the Job Description of a Cruise Ship Captain?

Explore the career requirements for a cruise ship captain. Get the facts about job duties, education requirements, licensure, salary, and job outlook to determine if this is the right career for you. Schools offering Driver Training degrees can also be found in these popular choices.

What Is a Cruise Ship Captain?

Cruise ship captains command large marine vessels that carry passengers on journeys for sightseeing and pleasure. They supervise the activities of crewmembers, and they oversee the loading of passengers and their baggage. At all points during the cruise, they make sure that all cruise employees follow safety and security procedures. At the same time, they may also have friendly interactions with cruise passengers and answer any questions they have about the journey, in order to ensure that they have a positive cruise experience.

The table below provides an outline of the general requirements for this career.

Training Required On-the-job training and experience required, attending a marine academy is helpful
Key Responsibilities Organize crewmembers, ensure navigational systems and engines are well-maintained, ensure safety equipment is in good condition, oversee the loading and and unloading of passengers.
Licensure Required Licensure is required by all states.
Job Growth (2014-2024) 10% for captains, mates, and pilots of water vessels*
Average Salary (2015) $83,150 for captains, mates, and pilots of water vessels*

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

What Job Duties Would I Have as a Cruise Ship Captain?

Cruise ship captains command passenger ships that are used for leisure, and they organize crewmembers operating various engines and repairing equipment. As a captain, you'll ensure that navigational systems and engines are well-maintained and that safety equipment, like life preservers and fire extinguishers, are in good working order. Other responsibilities include overseeing the loading and unloading of passengers, ensuring compliance with local and international laws and policies, determining the position and speed of the ship, measuring water depths and charting courses. You'd steer the cruise ship with the aid of radars, lighthouses, buoys and radio equipment. The job also involves enforcing safety procedures and communicating with other nearby vessels through the use of radios, flags, whistles or flashing lights.

What Education Will I Need?

You work your way up to the position of captain by gaining experience. You'll want to become a deck officer or engineering officer; to qualify for either position, you'll need to pass a written exam. You can either work as a deckhand to amass the many, necessary hours of experience and training needed to take the exam, or you can enroll in a U.S. Merchant Marine Academy (USMMA). Seven academies exist, and you may help your chances of entering the USMMA by graduating from one of 18 maritime high schools.

If you choose to attend a USMMA, you can acquire a 4-year bachelor's degree along with a Merchant Mariner Credential (MMC) as deck officer or an engineering officer. You can pick from seven majors, including maritime operations and technology, marine engineering and shipyard management, logistics and intermodal transportation, marine transportation, marine engineering, dual license and marine engineering systems. No matter the major you pick, you'll go to train at sea towards the end of the program.

As a graduate of a USMMA, you'll have the option of becoming an ensign in the Merchant Marine Reserve, Coast Guard Reserve or U.S. Naval Reserve. While earning these credentials is a start, it still takes additional training and years of experience to advance higher in the ranks and become the captain of a vessel.

How Do I Become Licensed?

The U.S. Coast Guard mandates that all mariners must have acquired a Transportation Worker Identification Credential (TWIC), as well as an MMC, the latter of which is available through the USMMA program. You can apply for a TWIC, which certifies citizenship or residency status, through the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (www.tsa.gov). Obtaining a TWIC requires, in part, that you pass security assessments, provide fingerprints and take digital photographs. Requirements for the MMC escalate as job specialty and vessel size increases (www.uscg.mil). You may need to submit to a medical examination and drug testing prior to applying for licensure.

What Would My Salary and Career Prospects Be?

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported that captains of water vessels who worked in the deep sea, Great Lakes and coastal water transportation industry earned annual mean salaries of $82,390 in May 2015 (www.bls.gov). Overall, the BLS expected employment for water transportation jobs to grow 9% over 2014-2024. Captains specifically were anticipated to have a 10% increase over the decade. U.S. passenger cruise ships were predicted to have new job opportunities, particularly ones that travel to Hawaii.

What Are Some Related Alternative Careers?

There are many positions available on the crew of a cruise ship that you could choose from. For instance, as the first mate, you would be in charge of passenger- and cargo-related issues, such as checking that all passengers return to the ship after a sightseeing excursion on the cruise itinerary. Since most cruises last for multiple days, you would also take over when the captain is off-duty. Alternatively, you could consider a job as a ship engineer. These professionals monitor the propulsion system, calculate refueling needs and make basic repairs when required. For a job as a first mate or a ship engineer, you need to meet standards set forth by the U.S. Coast Guard.

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