There are two ways to achieve the title of “Boat Captain.” one of them is to buy a boat, take it on the water, and declare your self ‘I am the captain of this boat.’ The other one is to apply for a license through the U.S. Coast Guard. Private yacht or boat owners do not need a license to pilot their vessels, which at the same time does not guarantees that they know what they are doing either. In piloting, experience is what counts!
There are many reasons why a boat owner would hire a professional captain though; from as simple as relaxation and easiness and the ability to enjoy those cocktails more to as local area knowledge. In addition convenience, time freedom or absence as in boat deliveries and or hurricane storage.
However, to be paid under that captain title, at least legally, boaters must apply directly to the United States Coast Guard for a “captain license”. The official license term is known as a Merchant Mariners Credential which includes several degrees of licensing.
The irony of this is that applicants don’t have to actually prove they can pilot, sail, or even demonstrate that they know how to dock a boat. An actual physical piloting test remains unheard of for qualification in this industry! It really does not make much sense to me but hey, I do not make the rules. I’m just glad I have been boating since 4 years old prior to licensing. Again, it is always experience what determines your capability as a captain.
Applicants for an Operator of Un-inspected Passenger Vessel (OUPV & commonly know as a “six pack”) need 360 days on the water, at four hours each day, documented within the last five years. This documentation I found for myself, to be the most annoying part of the whole process, even worst than studying for the actual test. It is referred as a “six pack” because under this licensing you are only aloud to take up to six paying passengers on your vessel.
However a “six pack” does not limits the amount of “free” or un-paying passengers that you may take with you on a vessel.
In addition you must be at least 18 years old. An OUPV is the first license to get you started as a captain and the only one I will cover in this article but know that there are more. The next one would be a “Master Captain” license which I will cover in another article.
Time is the most discerning prerequisite to becoming a boat captain. Applicants need 360 days on the water, at four hours each day, documented within the last five years. If your sea-time was spent under the command of another captain (licensed or not), you will need their signature on the documentation.
If you are a cook, a deckhand, or a maid aboard a vessel, you are getting sea-time regardless of actual boat-related duties. Yes, you may work as a bartender aboard a cruise ship and be getting all the sea-time you need to become a captain.
Applicants also need three character references, from boat captains or others, but note the importance of appropriate references, especially since all materials are filtered through a Federal Government bureaucracy.
My references were from two licensed captains and moreover, from volunteering as a sailing skipper at Shake A Leg Miami for the last 18 years.
Requirements beyond these two are either physical or legal. You need to pass a five-substance drug test, a physical exam, and have CPR/First Aid certification. Most boat companies require these physical marks anyway and will likely pay for the test and certification.
In addition, besides being a drug free applicant and having to become part of the American Professional Captains Associations (APCA) drug consortium you must be free of felony convictions for the past year or past ten years depending on the severity of the offense.
A thorough background check and finger printing are also required, and don’t forget to bring your Social Security card to the licensing office.
This process is not for the bureaucratically squeamish. All of this background check will be through the process of obtaining your Transportation Workers Identification Card or “TWIC” credential.
Finally, there are the tests—60 multiple choice questions on deck and safety procedures; 20 questions on general navigation; 10 navigation problems, complete with triangulation and slide ruler; and another 30 multiple choice questions on “rules of the road.”
Your licensing is going to cost you some money: usually about $550.00 for the actual course. The test itself is going to cost you about $80.00. Drug test, $45.00. CPR/First Aid course another $175.00 or so. Your TWIC credential around $145.00 & another $145.00 to process the application at the United States Coast Guard. So you are looking at around $1,130 give or take. By the way make sure to either type or only use black
or dark blue ink on your application.
I strongly suggest using the service company Sea School as your course. Here they literally prep you to pass your test provided by them selves and of course they are a USCG certified school. Your other option is a United States Coast Guard course, here you will learn a whole lot more but then as well, the test they provide will be held at a much higher standard. Know this fact when making your decision; about 85% of students pass the test for Sea School the very first time, in contrast, less than 25% of USCG course students pass their test the first time. Choose wisely!
Don’t faint, you can do all of these, just know that is going to take time, money and quite some diligence on your part. It will be worth it. You will be part, of what at least I hold to be a professional industry in which if you are up to par, it can pay you handsomely and you might even start your own business as I have with Miami Boat Captain
Also, know that as with everything and depending on your contacts and diligence it will take some time to earn the kind of money you would like or to get on that private yacht cruising in the Bahamas but as long as you are willing to “pay your dues”, you too can make it there. Just do not forget to start documenting your sea time!
Thrive afloat and see you in the water,
Captain Hery Aloma