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How to Become a Ship Captain

By Ajoke Aminu

Published:

Are you drawn to the sea and want to chart your course someday? We will help you set sail towards your goal by showing you how to become a ship captain in this article. This guide outlines the key steps and considerations, such as the ship captain salary—offering valuable insights needed to command a ship on the open seas.

Career Summary

Ship Captain Salary

Ship Captain Salary

Let’s talk money! The ship captain salary can vary depending on a few key factors such as experience, the type of vessel you’ll be captaining, and the company you’ll be working for.

On average, a ship captain salary at various levels is:

  • Entry Salary (US$93k)
  • Median Salary (US$124k)
  • Executive Salary (US$172k)

So, it’s safe to say that becoming a ship captain can provide a pretty comfortable paycheck above the national average. 

What does a Ship Captain do?

A ship captain is responsible for commanding and overseeing the operations of a ship, ensuring the safety of the vessel, crew, and cargo, navigating the ship, making strategic decisions, and managing the crew and onboard activities.

Ship Captain Career Progression 

  • Deck Cadet/Trainee Officer: Entry-level position where individuals receive training and gain practical experience in various deck operations and navigation.
  • Third Officer: Responsible for assisting with navigation, maintaining safety protocols, and overseeing deck operations.
  • Second Officer: Involved in navigation, safety management, and overseeing cargo operations on the ship.
  • Chief Officer: Assists the captain in ship management, cargo operations, and crew supervision.
  • Master/Ship Captain: The highest-ranking officer on board, responsible for overall ship command, navigation, safety, and management of crew and cargo.
Ship Captain Career Progression

The Pros and Cons of Working as a Ship Captain 

Pros: 

  • Competitive salary and benefits.
  • Exploring different parts of the world and experiencing diverse cultures.
  • Opportunities for professional growth and career advancement.
  • Commanding and leading a ship and its crew.
  • Hands-on involvement in navigation and maritime operations.

Cons: 

  • Long periods away from home and loved ones.
  • Irregular working hours and demanding schedules.
  • Isolation and limited social interaction.
  • Dealing with adverse weather conditions and challenging situations at sea.
  • High levels of responsibility and decision-making.

Useful Ship Captain Skills

  • Strong leadership and management abilities.
  • Excellent communication and interpersonal skills.
  • Proficient navigation and maritime knowledge.
  • Problem-solving and decision-making skills.
  • Adaptability and resilience.
  • Knowledge of safety and emergency procedures.

Popular Ship Captain Specialties 

  • Commercial Shipping: Overseeing operations of cargo ships involved in transporting goods.
  • Cruise Ships: Managing passenger vessels, focusing on passenger safety and satisfaction.
  • Offshore Industry: Commanding ships in the oil and gas industry, supporting offshore operations.
  • Naval/Military: Leading naval vessels, responsible for defense and security operations.
  • Research Vessels: Captaining ships engaged in scientific research and exploration.

How to Become a Ship Captain

Ship Captain 3 Steps to Career

Not only does becoming a ship captain require a deep love for the ocean and everything about it, it’s a profession that demands hard work, determination, and skills. With the right training, licensing, and experience, you can work your way up the ranks to a competitive ship captain salary. Explore your options on how to become a captain in this step-by-step guide!  

Step 1: Meet ALL Academic Requirements 

In a nutshell, be prepared to meet some rigorous academic requirements before you can set sail. Whether you’re dreaming of a ship captain salary or simply pursuing a passion for the open water, becoming a captain is a fascinating feat that requires diligence and dedication to coursework. Earning the necessary degree can open up a world of possibilities for those willing to put in the time and effort. So, let’s dive into these requirements. 

Do I Need a Degree to Become a Ship Captain?

Indeed, pursuing a bachelor’s degree in a maritime-related field, such as Marine Transportation, Marine Engineering, or Nautical Science, will help you become a ship captain. These degree programs provide a comprehensive understanding of maritime operations, navigation, ship handling, safety procedures, and maritime law. They also often include practical training components, such as time spent aboard training ships or internships on commercial vessels. 

Moreover, you must consider the specific requirements and expectations of the region and industry you wish to work in when deciding whether to pursue a degree. Ultimately, a degree can provide a solid foundation of knowledge and skills that are highly valued in the maritime industry. Combining a relevant degree, practical experience, and the necessary certifications will greatly enhance your prospects of becoming a ship captain and progressing in your maritime career.

What is the University Timeline and Cost to Become a Ship Captain?

Before setting sail, it’s important to understand the timeline and cost of becoming a ship captain. From earning a Bachelor’s degree in marine transportation or a related field to completing hundreds of hours of training and obtaining various licenses and certifications, there are many steps along the way. The educational investment starts from US$51,000 or can cost upwards of US$100,000 or more to complete the necessary schooling and training. Meanwhile, completing a bachelor’s degree in marine transportation or a related field will typically take four years.

It’s important to research and compare the tuition fees and related expenses of different universities offering maritime programs and consider any financial aid or scholarships that may be available. What’s more, scholarships and financial aid can help to reduce the cost of maritime academy tuition and fees.

Benefits of Obtaining a Maritime Academy Degree 

It’s worth noting that the specific educational qualifications needed to become a ship captain can vary depending on factors such as the type of vessel, the country’s maritime regulations, and the company’s policies. The more you know about your region’s requirements, the better you understand how a degree benefits you.

Nevertheless, here are general reasons why being a graduate ship captain is important:

  • Increased job opportunities: A degree can open up more job opportunities for you. Many shipping companies prefer to hire ship captains with a degree, and some jobs may require a degree.
  • Higher earning potential: With a degree, you can earn a more substantial ship captain salary than those without a degree. This is because employers value the knowledge and skills that ship captains with a degree have.
  • Advancement opportunities: A degree can qualify you for advancement opportunities within the maritime industry. For example, you may be able to move into a management position or become a marine pilot.
  • Specialized knowledge and skills: A maritime degree will teach you the specialized knowledge and skills you need to be a successful ship captain. This includes knowledge about maritime law, navigation, and shipboard management.
  • International recognition: A degree from an accredited maritime academy is recognized internationally. This means that you will be able to work as a ship captain anywhere in the world.

What are the Essential Ship Captain Skills? 

As it takes a skilled and knowledgeable driver to navigate a busy road and a seasoned pilot to soar through the clouds, it takes a capable ship captain to conquer the vast and unpredictable sea. From navigating through harsh weather conditions to managing complex technologies and equipment, ship captains must possess a wide range of expertise and experience. 

Here are some specific examples of the skills and knowledge that you will learn in a ship captaincy program: 

  • Navigation and Seamanship: You’ll become adept at reading nautical charts, using GPS systems, and mastering celestial navigation techniques to steer your vessel safely.
  • Leadership and Management: As a captain, you’ll be responsible for a crew. You’ll develop leadership skills to motivate, delegate tasks, and maintain discipline onboard.
  • Crisis Management: You’ll learn how to handle emergencies, from storms to medical situations, ensuring the safety of your crew and cargo.
  • Mechanical and Technical Knowledge: Understanding the ship’s systems, engines, and equipment is essential for troubleshooting and maintenance.
  • Regulatory Knowledge: Staying up-to-date with maritime laws and regulations is crucial for safe and legal navigation.
  • Weather Forecasting: You’ll acquire the ability to interpret weather reports and make decisions based on weather conditions to ensure a smooth voyage.
  • Safety Procedures: Knowledge of safety protocols, including fire drills and man-overboard procedures, is vital for ensuring the well-being of your crew.
  • Environmental Awareness: Given the importance of protecting the oceans and marine life, you’ll learn about eco-friendly practices and compliance with environmental regulations.
  • Problem-solving and Communication: Becoming a ship captain involves honing problem-solving skills to navigate unexpected situations and developing effective communication abilities for coordination with crew members, port authorities, and other vessels using various communication tools.

Step 2: Seek Additional Training 

One of the keys to maritime success is seeking additional training. While a ship captain salary can be quite lucrative, the position requires a great deal of skill and responsibility. By seeking additional training, you’ll stay up-to-date on the latest industry developments and techniques, and be in a better position to advance your career. So, if you’re looking to become a ship captain or maintain your skills as one, consider investing in additional education and training. You won’t regret it! 

What are the Applicable License & Certifications for a Ship Captain?

These licenses and certifications will help you meet the industry’s standards and ensure that you have the knowledge and expertise to excel as you learn how to become a ship captain. Your commitment to ongoing training and safety will set you apart in this demanding profession. 

  • Merchant Mariner’s Credential (MMC): The MMC issued by the U.S. Coast Guard is a fundamental requirement. It encompasses various endorsements, including your specific role as a ship captain. You may need to undergo background checks and drug testing to obtain this.
  • Master Mariner License: This license, often known as the “Master of Steam or Motor Vessels” license, is a prerequisite for being a ship captain on many vessels. It is obtained through sea service, exams, and other qualifications.
  • STCW Certification: The Standards of Training, Certification, and Watchkeeping for Seafarers (STCW) certification is globally recognized. It includes Basic Safety Training, Proficiency in Survival Craft, and more.
  • Radio Operator’s License: A Radiotelephone Operator License from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is needed for handling ship communication systems.
  • First Aid and CPR Certification: Basic life support skills are essential for dealing with medical emergencies at sea.
  • Radar Observer Certification: This certification is crucial for navigating vessels, especially in adverse weather conditions.
  • Tankerman Certification: If your career involves handling liquid cargo, you may need this certification to ensure safe loading and unloading.
  • Environmental Certifications: To comply with environmental regulations, certifications related to ballast water management, waste handling, and environmental awareness are necessary.
  • Endorsements for Specific Vessels: Depending on the type of ship you intend to command (e.g., oil tankers, container ships, passenger vessels), you may require additional endorsements or specialized certifications.
  • Bridge Resource Management (BRM): This focuses on improving decision-making and communication skills on the bridge, critical for a ship captain’s leadership role. 
  • Continuous Training and Renewal: Stay current with mandatory training and refresher courses to keep your certifications and licenses valid.

Leverage Online Training to Continue Learning  

Leveraging online training can be a valuable resource for continuous learning as a busy ship captain. Online platforms offer flexibility and convenience, allowing you to access educational materials, courses, and certifications at your own pace and schedule. You can explore online resources related to maritime subjects, leadership development, specialized skills, and industry updates to enhance your knowledge and stay updated with the latest advancements. 

Online training can be particularly beneficial during downtime or while on shore leave, enabling you to continue your professional development and expand your expertise in various aspects of ship operations, safety, regulations, and leadership.

Web Resources to Keep Improving as a Ship Captain

You must implement current industry trends and competitive intelligence by regularly checking reputable online resources for updates, news, and valuable insights. This will help you not only acquire the necessary skills but also stay ahead in the field of maritime navigation and leadership. 

Stay updated with maritime knowledge and skills via these website resources that align with your career goals and strategies: 

  • Marine Insight: This comprehensive website offers a wealth of articles, guides, and videos on various maritime topics, including navigation, safety, and ship management.
  • The Nautical Institute: The Nautical Institute’s website provides valuable resources and publications related to professional development for mariners, including best practices and guidance.
  • International Maritime Organization: The IMO’s website provides access to international maritime regulations and publications, making it an essential resource for staying updated on industry standards.
  • U.S. Coast Guard: If you’re in the United States, the USCG website offers information on licensing, regulations, and safety requirements specific to the U.S. maritime sector.
  • The American Association of Port Captains: This organization’s website provides educational resources, news, and industry information for aspiring and practicing Ship Captains.
  • Mariners Learning System: This platform offers online courses and study materials for USCG license preparation, covering various levels of certification, including Master Captain. 
  • The Maritime Executive: Stay informed about the latest industry trends, news, and developments by reading articles and reports on this reputable maritime news website. 
  • International Chamber of Shipping: Their publications and resources cover a wide range of maritime topics, from safety guidelines to environmental regulations. 
  • MarineTraffic: To improve your understanding of vessel tracking and maritime logistics, explore MarineTraffic’s real-time ship tracking and related information. 

Step 3: Employ Practical Experience

In addition to formal education, practical experience is crucial for aspiring ship captains. This involves working your way up through the ranks, starting as a deckhand or a junior officer, and gradually accumulating sea time and experience. The amount of sea time required can vary depending on the country and the type of ship you aim to command. 

Consider Relevant Internship & Volunteer Opportunities

  • Maritime Academies: If you’re currently enrolled in a maritime academy, check with your institution’s career services or guidance counselors for information on internships and volunteer programs available to students.
  • Shipping Companies: Reach out to shipping companies and maritime firms in your area. Many offer internship programs that allow you to work on vessels and gain hands-on experience. Companies like Maersk, Mediterranean Shipping Company (MSC), and others often have structured internships.
  • Port Authorities: Contact your local port authority to inquire about internships or volunteer positions. You may have opportunities to work on the docks, assist with cargo handling, or learn about port operations.
  • Non-Profit Organizations: Some maritime-related non-profit organizations, like The Sea Cadets or The National Maritime Historical Society, offer educational programs and volunteer opportunities that can help you build maritime skills. 
  • Cruise Lines: If you want to become a ship captain for passenger vessels, consider applying for entry-level positions on cruise ships. This can be a great way to start your maritime career and work your way up. 
  • Maritime Museums: Volunteer at maritime museums to learn about historical vessels, navigation, and maritime history. It’s a unique opportunity to gain knowledge and hands-on experience. 
  • Coast Guard Auxiliary: Consider joining the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary, a volunteer organization that supports Coast Guard missions. You can receive training in various maritime disciplines. 
  • Maritime Training Centers: Some maritime training centers offer internship programs that provide a mix of classroom instruction and practical experience. 
  • Sailing Clubs: Join a local sailing club to learn the basics of seamanship and navigation. These clubs often have opportunities for volunteering and gaining sailing experience. 
  • Online Job Boards: Getting started on LinkedIn and specialized maritime job boards can help you search for internships and entry-level positions in the maritime sector.

Maritime Industries & Job Opportunities Suitable for a Ship Captain 

  • Commercial Shipping: Ship captains in this field lead cargo vessels, such as container ships, bulk carriers, and oil tankers.
  • Cruise Industry: Ship captains oversee passenger vessels, ensuring the safety and enjoyment of travelers on cruise liners.
  • Fishing and Research Vessels: Ship captains may work in commercial fishing or research expeditions, contributing to seafood production or scientific exploration.
  • Tugboats and Ferries: Ship captains operate vessels that transport people and goods within coastal areas and harbors.
  • Offshore Industry: Ship captains support offshore operations by piloting supply vessels and crew transfers to and from offshore platforms.
  • Salvage and Towage: Some ship captains specialize in rescuing distressed vessels and towing them to safety.
  • Maritime Training: Experienced ship captains can transition into roles as maritime instructors or trainers.
  • Piloting Services: Harbor pilots guide ships safely in and out of ports, especially in busy harbors.
  • Government and Defense: Ship captains can work for navies, coast guards, and government agencies in roles related to national security, law enforcement, and search and rescue operations.
  • Maritime Consultancy: Experienced ship captains can provide consultancy services to shipping companies, offering expertise in route optimization, safety protocols, and regulatory compliance.
  • Environmental Organizations: Ship captains with a focus on environmental sustainability may work with organizations dedicated to ocean conservation and marine research.

What is the Work-Life Balance of a Ship Captain?

As if navigating the high seas wasn’t enough of a challenge, the work-life balance of a ship captain is a juggling act like no other. With responsibilities ranging from the safety of the vessel and its crew to managing schedules, cargo shipments, and tight budgets, this role demands the utmost focus and discipline. To add, the effects of being isolated from family and friends for long periods of time can take a toll on even the best captains. 

Ship captains mustn’t be all work and no play. You must find creative ways to unwind during your downtime, whether it’s catching up on your favorite reads or indulging in a little fishing on deck. So while it may not be smooth sailing, the work-life balance of a ship captain is a journey worth exploring.

Consider these tips to maintain balance:

  • Separate work and personal time. This can be difficult, especially when you are away from home for extended periods of time. However, it is important to make time for yourself and your family. Try to avoid checking work emails or messages outside of work hours, and take some time each day to relax and de-stress.
  • Stay connected with your family and friends. When you are away from home, it is important to stay connected with your family and friends. This can be done through phone calls, video chats, and email. Make sure to schedule regular times to talk to your loved ones, and make an effort to stay up-to-date on what is happening in their lives.
  • Take advantage of shore leave. When you are in port, make sure to take advantage of shore leave. This is a great opportunity to relax and explore the local area. Take some time for yourself, and do something that you enjoy.
  • Take care of your physical and mental health. It is important to take care of your physical and mental health when you are working as a ship captain. Make sure to eat healthy foods, get enough sleep, and exercise regularly. If you are feeling stressed, talk to a doctor or counselor.

What is the Career Outlook of Ship Captain?

For those with a love for all things nautical, the employment outlook for ship captains may spark a glimmer of hope. According to reports, the number of job openings in water transportation is expected to remain stable in the coming years, offering roughly 8,800 new opportunities annually for those looking to set sail on their career journey. 

The projected growth rate for this occupation is anticipated to be around 2% for the next decade (2022-2032). While the projected growth rate may not be a tidal wave of change, it’s comforting to know that navigating the high seas of employment won’t necessarily hit rocky waters. 

Ship Captain Popular Career Specialties

Should I Become a Ship Captain? 

Avoid any impulsive decisions and instead lean into research in this article. You now know how to become a ship captain, but before you take the plunge, there are other crucial considerations. Ensure that you’ve gathered information about the requirements, responsibilities, and lifestyle associated with being a ship captain, as revealed in this guide. 

Consider the key points discussed in this article, but also reflect on your own interests, skills, and end goals. Do you thrive in high-pressure environments? Are you energized by navigating complex systems and managing teams? Are you willing to put in the time and effort to climb the ranks in the industry? 

Finally, your success as a ship captain will depend on your commitment, dedication, and ability to balance both the demands of the job and your long-term goals. So, ship captain salary aside, should you become a ship captain? That’s for you to decide, but remember, the sea has a lot of wonders and dangers and it takes a real ship captain to face them.

Careers Related to Ship Captain


Ajoke Aminu

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