How to Become a Boat Captain

Four Methods:EducationExperienceGetting Your LicenseGetting a Job

Becoming a boat captain can be a time-consuming process. The education and experience requirements are not necessarily strict, depending on what type of boat you want to captain, but you will need to be qualified enough to obtain an appropriate license from the U.S. Coast Guard if you want to find paid work as a captain.

Part 1

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    Graduate high school. No matter what kind of vessel you hope to captain, you will need to obtain your high school diploma.
    • If you are still in high school, consider taking a full four years of math, including algebra, geometry, and either trigonometry, pre-calculus, or calculus. You should also take physics and chemistry.
    • Learn communication skills through English classes and other language classes.
    • You should also consider taking computer classes, mechanical drawing classes, machine shop, and college preparatory classes.
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    Get a Bachelor's degree. While it is not strictly necessary, it is strongly recommended that you obtain a four-year Bachelor's degree at a Coast Guard approved training academy or college.[1]
    • You can usually become captain of a supply boat or inland waterway vessel simply by starting as a deckhand on a boat and working your way through the ranks. If you want to captain a deep-water vessel, however, you will usually need formal education.
    • Get a degree in the field of marine transportation, marine engineering, maritime operations and technology, marine engineering system, or marine engineering and shipyard management.
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    Gain the necessary skills and knowledge. Regardless of whether you have formal education or not, there are certain skills you will need to study and practice if you want to be a good captain.
    • Study topics dealing with navigational software, facilities management software, marine communication system operations, and the structure of mechanical ship equipment.
    • You also need to build up good coordination and good communication skills.

Part 2

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    Log at least 360 days of sea-time. Before you can obtain a captain's license, you must have a minimum total of 360 days worth of sea-time over the past five years. A "day" in this context refers to a period of four consecutive hours.[2]
    • If this sea-time is spent under another captain's command, you will need to have this captain sign your license application when the time comes.
    • Note that this sea-time does not necessarily need to provide you with experience directly related to being a captain. For instance, you could be a maid or deckhand on a cruise ship and the hours would still count.
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    Consider spending additional time training on a boat. Even though you only need 360 days of sea-time to get your license, if you want an actual job as a captain, you will usually need at least three to four years of professional experience. This experience should be directly related to the operations and management of a ship.
    • If you get your Bachelor's degree from a Coast Guard academy, you will often have the opportunity to serve as a deck officer aboard a ship through the U.S. Strategic Sealift Officer Program (a.k.a. the Merchant Marine Reserve), the Coast Guard Reserve, or the Naval Reserve.
    • If you do not go through a Coast Guard academy or if none of these programs sound appealing to you, you should get an entry-level job aboard a standard cruise ship or merchant ship and work your way up through the ranks. Even if you go this route, you will usually need to work as a deck officer before that company or another company will be willing to hire you as a captain.

Part 3
Getting Your License

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    Submit an application. You will need to obtain and fill out an application for your captain's license through the U.S. Coast Guard. This license is more formally known as a Merchant Mariner Credential (MMC).
    • You need to fill out the application completely and accurately.
    • Note that you will need to submit documentation of your sea-time experience with your application.
    • You can submit your application and any supporting documents in person at a local Regional Exam Center (REC) or send it in to the REC through the mail.
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    Present three character references. In addition to the application itself, you will need to submit three letters of recommendation. These letters need to address your character.
    • It helps if the references are related to the maritime industry. That way, they can address both your character and your proficiency with a boat.
    • References from licensed captains, commercial fishermen, or others who own and operate their own boats are generally best.
    • These character reference letters should also be notarized.
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    Satisfy all of the physical and legal fine print. Once you submit your application and your character references, you will need to pass a physical exam and drug test. You also need to have CPR and First Aid certification.
    • Expect to go through a background check and fingerprinting, as well.
    • You will also need to show your Social Security card at to the official at the licensing office when you turn in your application.
    • While it is not always necessary, you may also need to obtain a Transportation Worker Identification Credential (TWIC) from the U.S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA). You will need to obtain this credential card if you want to captain any vessel that could be considered a security risk.[3]
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    Take the test. There is no driving test when you apply for your captain's license, but there is a written test that you need to pass.
    • This exam will usually consist of 60 multiple choice questions about deck and safety procedures, 20 questions on general navigation, 10 navigation problem scenarios, and 30 multiple choice questions on the general rules associate with operating a boat in shared waters
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    Pay the fee. The standard fee as of 2014 is $255. You will need to pay this fee when you turn in your application and complete the test.
    • The cost of evaluation is $100 and the cost of examination is another $110. The remaining $45 covers the cost of insurance.[4]
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    Receive your credentials. After you submit your application, fee, and all related documents, the REC will process the application in its electronic database. From there, your application will be sent to the National Maritime Center (NMC) for review.[5]
    • Once the NMC gets your application, the officials there will review your professional qualifications and medical history. Your overall safety and suitability will also be evaluated.
    • If your application is approved, your license and credential will be printed and mailed to you.

Part 4
Getting a Job

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    Know what to expect. Finding work as a captain can seem difficult at first, but the overall job growth for all maritime careers is expected to grow faster than the average for all careers through 2020.[6]
    • Job growth should grow fastest along inland river routes, coasts, and the Great Lakes.
    • As of 2011, the average salary for ship and boat captains was approximately $71,760.
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    Look for work. The easiest way to look for work as a boat captain is to network through the professional contacts you made while gaining your initial training and experience.
    • Contact maritime companies you have worked for in the past and ask about current job openings.
    • Get in touch with the captains of any independently-owned ships or boats you worked on and ask if they can put you in touch with any professional contacts.
    • Go down to the docks and mingle with the captains and deck officers there. Ask about job leads.
    • Look for online job ads. There are some websites, like, that are designed specifically for those looking for work as boat captains.
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    Continue your education. If you want to improve your odds of getting work or keeping your job, you should consider taking continuing education courses through a maritime academy.
    • These courses can help you learn new skills and new technologies related to the industry.
    • These classes can also help prepare you for re-certification exams.


  • You only need a captain's license if you intend to be paid under that title. If you only want to be the "captain" of your own fishing boat or pleasure yacht, all you need is the boat itself.

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