boat captain

A ship and boat captain could...

Pilot a tugboat to guide an ocean liner through a narrow canal. tug boat Position an aircraft carrier in a strategic location. aircraft carrier
Transport a research expedition to Antarctica. boat in Antarctica Navigate a fire boat to the scene of an emergency. fire boat
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Key Facts & Information

Overview Ship and boat captains have the important job of commanding ships and boats through domestic and deep-sea waterways, so that passengers and cargo arrive safely. To do this, they need knowledge of the mechanical and electrical workings of ships, navigation, signaling, national and international legal rules in waterways, as well as strong leadership skills, since they supervise the work of all other crew members.
Key Requirements Excellent vision and good physical condition, along with outstanding leadership, organization, and communication skills, and a calling to the sea
Minimum Degree Post high school credential
Subjects to Study in High School Physics, computer science, applied technology, algebra, geometry, algebra II, English; if available, foreign language
Median Salary
Ship & Boat Captain
U.S. Mean Annual Wage
Min Wage
Projected Job Growth (2014-2024) Little or No Change (-2% to 2%)
  • Read this interview with a vessel captain to discover the skills it takes to become a good ship captain.
  • Read this interview to meet Captain Erik, who first trained to become a skilled workman in ventilation systems, but then decided he wanted to see a bigger world, and now commands a cruise ship.
Related Occupations
  • Truck drivers, heavy and tractor-trailer
  • Locomotive engineers
  • Railroad conductors and yardmasters
  • Sailors and marine oilers
  • Mates: ship, boat, and barge
  • Ship pilots
  • Transportation vehicle, equipment, and systems inspectors, except aviation
Source: O*Net

Training, Other Qualifications

Captains in the merchant marine have the most senior jobs. They must attend officer training schools, qualify for their jobs in a series of examinations over a period of years, and possess the leadership qualities needed to run large, complex organizations.

Education and Training

Prospective captains in the merchant marine should attend one of the maritime academies that provides officer training: the U.S. Naval Academy, the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, or the state academies in California, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, New York, and Texas. Candidates for the U.S. Naval Academy or U.S. Merchant Marine Academy must be nominated by members of Congress. Applications for the other academies are competitive. Applicants must be between 17 and 22 years of age, single, high school graduates, U.S. citizens, and in good physical condition.

The academies provide three- and four-year training programs in nautical science and practical sea experience. The course of study includes navigation, mathematics, electronics, propulsion systems, electrical engineering, languages, history, and shipping management. Graduates are qualified to work as third mates in the merchant marine.

Graduates must then apply for U.S. Coast Guard certification to work on American ships—a legal requirement for seamen and officers alike. To be certified by the Coast Guard, applicants must be U.S. citizens and possess health certificates from the U.S. Public Health Service.

Third mates must be at least 19 years old. To work their way up through the ranks of third, second, and first mate to captain, they must pass qualifying Coast Guard examinations at each rank. Length of service and the size of the ships on which they have trained are also factors in promotion to captain.

Other Qualifications

Most positions require excellent health, good vision, and color perception. Good general physical condition is needed because many jobs require the ability to lift heavy objects, withstand heat and cold, stand or stoop for long periods of time, dexterity to maneuver through tight spaces, and good balance on uneven and wet surfaces and in rough water.

Watch this video to find out what it takes to become the captain of a big ship and join the elite club of only 600 active ship captains in the United States!

Nature of the Work

The movement of huge amounts of cargo, as well as passengers, between nations and within our nation, depends on workers in water transportation occupations, also known on commercial ships as merchant mariners. They operate and maintain deep-sea merchant ships, tugboats, towboats, ferries, dredges, offshore supply vessels, excursion vessels, and other waterborne craft on the oceans, the Great Lakes, rivers, canals, and other waterways, as well as in harbors.

Captains of water vessels command or supervise the operations of ships and water vessels, both within domestic waterways and on the deep sea. Captains or masters are in overall command of the operation of a vessel, and they supervise the work of all other officers and crew. Together with their department heads, captains ensure that proper procedures and safety practices are followed, check to make sure that machinery and equipment are in good working order, and oversee the loading and discharging of cargo or passengers. They also maintain logs and other records tracking the ships' movements, efforts at controlling pollution, and cargo and passengers carried.

Work Environment

At sea, captains are on call 24 hours a day. While in port, a 40-hour workweek is standard. The work can be hazardous—the risks of falls, fire, collision, and sinking are always present. Harsh temperature variations and violent storms are possible at sea.

Captains travel extensively, but they seldom have time to explore the ports they visit. They are away from their home ports for long periods of time.

On the Job

  • Steer and operate vessels using radios, depth finders, radars, lights, buoys, and lighthouses.
  • Compute positions, set courses, and determine speeds, by using charts, area plotting sheets, compasses, sextants, and knowledge of local conditions.
  • Inspect vessels to ensure efficient and safe operation of vessels and equipment, and conformance to regulations.
  • Measure depths of water, using depth-measuring equipment.
  • Direct and coordinate crew members or workers performing activities, such as loading and unloading cargo, steering vessels, operating engines, and operating, maintaining, and repairing ship equipment.
  • Monitor the loading and discharging of cargo or passengers.
  • Calculate sightings of land using electronic sounding devices, and following contour lines on charts.
  • Signal passing vessels using whistles, flashing lights, flags, and radios.
  • Maintain boats and equipment on board, such as engines, winches, navigational systems, fire extinguishers, and life preservers.
  • Signal crew members or deckhands to rig tow lines, open or close gates and ramps, and pull guard chains across entries.
  • Read gauges to verify sufficient levels of hydraulic fluid, air pressure, and oxygen.
  • Maintain records of daily activities, personnel reports, ship positions and movements, ports of call, weather and sea conditions, pollution control efforts, and/or cargo and passenger status.
  • Arrange for ships to be fueled, restocked with supplies, and/or repaired.
  • Assign watches and living quarters to crew members.
  • Purchase supplies and equipment.
  • Tow and maneuver barges, or signal tugboats to tow barges to destinations.
  • Perform various marine duties, such as checking for oil spills or other pollutants around ports and harbors, and patrolling beaches.
  • Collect fares from customers, or signal ferryboat helpers to collect fares.
  • Sort logs, form log booms, and salvage lost logs.
  • Resolve questions or problems with customs officials.
  • Interview and hire crew members.

Source: BLS

Companies That Hire Ship & Boat Captains

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