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Become A Captain

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Working As A Captain

  • Operating Vehicles, Mechanized Devices, or Equipment
  • Inspecting Equipment, Structures, or Material
  • Controlling Machines and Processes
  • Identifying Objects, Actions, and Events
  • Making Decisions and Solving Problems
  • Deal with People

  • Stressful

  • Make Decisions

  • $152,727

    Average Salary

What Does A Captain Do

Water transportation workers operate and maintain vessels that take cargo and people over water. The vessels travel to and from foreign ports across the ocean and to domestic ports along the coasts, across the Great Lakes, and along the country’s many inland waterways.


Water transportation workers typically do the following:

  • Operate and maintain nonmilitary vessels
  • Follow their vessel’s strict chain of command
  • Ensure the safety of all people and cargo on board

These workers, sometimes called merchant mariners, work on a variety of ships.

Some operate large deep-sea container ships to transport manufactured goods and refrigerated cargos around the world.

Others work on bulk carriers that move heavy commodities, such as coal or iron ore, across the oceans and over the Great Lakes.

Still others work on both large and small tankers that carry oil and other liquid products around the country and the world. Others work on supply ships that transport equipment and supplies to offshore oil and gas platforms.

Workers on tugboats help barges and other boats maneuver in small harbors and at sea.

Salvage vessels that offer emergency services also employ merchant mariners.

Cruise ships employ a large number of water transportation workers, and some merchant mariners work on ferries to transport passengers along shorter distances.

A typical deep-sea merchant ship, large coastal ship, or Great Lakes merchant ship employs a captain and a chief engineer, along with three mates, three assistant engineers, and a number of sailors and marine oilers. Smaller vessels that operate in harbors or rivers may have a smaller crew. The specific complement of mariners is dependent on U.S. Coast Guard regulations.

Also, there are other workers on ships, such as cooks, electricians, and mechanics. For more information, see the profiles on cooks, electricians, and general maintenance and repair workers.

Captains, sometimes called masters, have overall command of a vessel. They have the final responsibility for the safety of the crew, cargo, and passengers. Captains typically do the following:

  • Supervise the work of the crew, including other officers
  • Ensure that proper safety procedures are followed
  • Prepare a maintenance and repair budget
  • Oversee the loading and unloading of cargo or passengers
  • Keep logs and other records that track the ship’s movements and activities
  • Interact with passengers on cruise ships

Mates, or deck officers, direct the operation of a vessel while the captain is off duty. Large ships have three officers, called first, second, and third mates. The first mate has the highest authority and takes command of the ship if the captain is incapacitated. Usually, the first mate is in charge of the cargo and/or passengers, the second mate is in charge of navigation, and the third mate is in charge of safety. On smaller vessels, there may be only one mate who handles all of the responsibilities. Deck officers typically do the following:

  • Alternate watches with the captain and other officers
  • Supervise and coordinate the activities of the deck crew
  • Assist with docking the ship
  • Monitor the ship’s position, using charts and other navigational aides
  • Determine the speed and direction of the vessel
  • Inspect the cargo hold during loading, to ensure that the cargo is stowed according to specifications
  • Make announcements to passengers when needed

Pilots guide ships in harbors, on rivers, and on other confined waterways. They are not part of a ship’s crew but go aboard a ship to guide it through a particular waterway that they are familiar with. They work in places where a high degree of familiarity with local tides, currents, and hazards is needed. Some, called harbor pilots, work for ports and help many ships that come into the harbor during the day. When coming into a commercial port, a captain will often have to turn control of the vessel over to a pilot, who can safely guide it into the harbor. Pilots typically do the following:

  • Board an unfamiliar ship from a small boat in the open water, often using a ladder
  • Confer with a ship’s captain about the vessel’s destination and any special requirements it has
  • Establish a positive working relationship with a vessel’s captain and deck officers
  • Receive mooring instructions from shore dispatchers

Sailors, or deckhands, operate and maintain the vessel and deck equipment. They make up the deck crew and keep all parts of a ship, other than areas related to the engine and motor, in good working order. New deckhands are called ordinary seamen and do the least complicated tasks. Experienced deckhands are called able seamen and usually make up most of a crew. Some large ships have a boatswain, who is the chief of the deck crew. Sailors typically do the following:

  • Stand watch, looking for other vessels or obstructions in their ship’s path and for navigational aids, such as buoys and lighthouses
  • Steer the ship and measure water depth in shallow water
  • Do routine maintenance, such as painting the deck and chipping away rust
  • Keep the inside of the ship clean
  • Handle lines when docking or departing
  • Tie barges together when they are being towed
  • Load and unload cargo
  • Help passengers when needed

Ship engineers operate and maintain a vessel’s propulsion system, which includes the engine, boilers, generators, pumps, and other machinery. Large vessels usually carry a chief engineer, who has command of the engine room and its crew, and a first, second, and third assistant engineer. The assistant engineer oversees the engine and related machinery when the chief engineer is off duty. Small ships might have only one engineer. Engineers typically do the following:

  • Maintain the electrical, refrigeration, and ventilation systems of a ship
  • Start the engine and regulate the vessel’s speed, following the captain’s orders
  • Record information in an engineering log
  • Keep an inventory of mechanical parts and supplies
  • Do routine maintenance checks throughout the day
  • Calculate refueling requirements

Marine oilers work in the engine room, helping the engineers keep the propulsion system in working order. They are the engine room equivalent of sailors. New oilers usually are called wipers, or pumpmen, on vessels handling liquid cargo. With experience, a wiper can become a Qualified Member of the Engine Department (QMED). Marine oilers typically do the following:

  • Lubricate gears, shafts, bearings, and other parts of the engine or motor
  • Read pressure and temperature gauges and record data
  • Help engineers with repairs to machinery
  • Connect hoses, operate pumps, and clean tanks
  • Assist the deck crew with loading or unloading of cargo, if necessary

Motorboat operators run small, motor-driven boats that carry only a few passengers. They provide a variety of services, such as fishing charters, tours, and harbor patrols. Motorboat operators typically do the following:

  • Check and change the oil and other fluids on their boat
  • Pick up passengers and help them board the boat
  • Act as a tour guide, if necessary

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How To Become A Captain

Education and training requirements vary by the type of job. There are no educational requirements for entry-level sailors and oilers, but officers and engineers usually must have an endorsement certificate from the U.S. Coast Guard. Most water transportation jobs require the Transportation Worker Identification Credential (TWIC) from the Transportation Security Administration and a Merchant Marine Credential (MMC).


Some deck officers, engineers, and pilots have a bachelor’s degree from a merchant marine academy. The academy programs offer a bachelor’s degree and a Merchant Marine Credential (MMC) with an endorsement as a third mate or third assistant engineer. Graduates of these programs also can choose to receive a commission as an ensign in the U.S. Naval Reserve, Merchant Marine Reserve, or U.S. Coast Guard Reserve.

Nonofficers, such as sailors or marine oilers, usually do not need a degree.


Ordinary seamen, wipers, and other entry-level mariners get on-the-job training for 6 months to a year. The length of training depends on the size and type of ship and waterway they work on. For example, workers on deep-sea vessels need more complex training than those whose ships travel on a river.

Licenses, Certifications, and Registrations

All mariners working on ships with U.S. flags must have a Transportation Worker Identification Credential (TWIC) from the Transportation Security Administration. This credential states that a person is a U.S. citizen or permanent resident and has passed a security screening. The TWIC must be renewed every 5 years.

Mariners who work on ships traveling on the open ocean require the Standards of Training, Certification, and Watchkeeping (STWC) endorsement. Regional U.S. Coast Guard offices provide this training, and it includes topics such as first aid and lifeboat safety. The STWC training must be completed every 5 years. Mariners who work on inland waterways and the Great Lakes are excluded from the STWC endorsement.

Most mariners also must have a Merchant Marine Credential (MMC), which they can apply for at a U.S. Coast Guard regional examination center. Entry-level employees, such as ordinary seamen or wipers, do not have to pass a written exam. However, some have to pass physical, hearing, and vision tests, and all must undergo a drug screening, to get their MMC. They also have to take a class on shipboard safety. The MMC must also be renewed every 5 years. More information on MMCs and endorsements is available from the U.S. Coast Guard National Maritime Center.

Pilots are licensed by the state in which they work. The U.S. Coast Guard licenses pilots on the Great Lakes. The requirements for these licenses vary, depending on where a pilot works.


Crewmembers can apply for endorsements to their MMC that allow them to move into more advanced positions.

Wipers can get an endorsement to become a Qualified Member of the Engine Department (QMED) after 6 months of experience by passing a written test.

It takes 3 years of experience and the passing of a written test for an ordinary seaman to become an unlimited able seaman. However, several able seaman endorsements below the level of unlimited are available after 6 months to 1 year of experience, depending on the type of ship the seamen work on.

Able seamen can advance to become third mates after at least 3 years of experience in the deck department. This experience must be on a ship similar to the type they hope to serve on as an officer. They also must take several training courses and pass written and onboard exams to receive the third-mate endorsement on their MMC. The difficulty of these requirements increases with the complexity and size of the vessel. Similarly, QMEDs can receive an endorsement as a third assistant engineer after 3 years of experience in the engine room and upon completion of a number of training and testing requirements. Experience and testing requirements increase with the size and complexity of the ship.

Officers who graduate from a maritime academy receive an MMC with an endorsement of third mate or third assistant engineer, depending on which department they are trained in.

To move up each step of the occupation ladder, from third mate/third assistant engineer, to second mate, to first mate, and then to captain or chief engineer, requires 365 days of experience at the previous level. A second mate or second assistant engineer who wants to move to first mate/first assistant engineer also must complete a 12-week training course and pass an exam.

Work Experience in a Related Occupation

Many pilots have years of experience as a mate on a ship. The ship should be of the type they expect to pilot. For example, if they work at a deep-sea port, they should have experience on an oceangoing vessel.

Similarly, many motorboat operators must have several years of experience working on and driving a boat.

Important Qualities

Customer-service skills. Many motorboat operators interact with passengers and must ensure that the passengers have a pleasant experience.

Hand-eye coordination. Officers and pilots who steer ships have to operate various controls while staying aware of their surroundings.

Hearing ability. Mariners must pass a hearing test to get an MMC.

Manual dexterity. Crewmembers need good balance to maneuver through tight spaces and on wet or uneven surfaces.

Mechanical skills. Members of the engine department keep complex machines working properly.

Physical strength. Sailors on freight ships load and unload cargo. While away at sea, most workers have to do some heavy lifting.

Visual ability. Mariners must pass a vision test to get an MMC.

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Captain Videos

Jason Kidd - The Captain - Career Tribute - 2013

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A Day in the Life of Captain Falcon

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Captain Career Paths

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Help others decide if this is a good career for them

Average Length of Employment
Airline Captain 11.1 years
Police Captain 10.7 years
Fire Captain 9.9 years
Patrol Captain 8.3 years
Pilot Captain 6.6 years
Vessel Captain 5.0 years
Marine Captain 4.7 years
Port Captain 4.4 years
Relief Captain 3.9 years
Boat Captain 3.8 years
Captain 3.0 years
Captain Of Guards 2.7 years
Scholar Athlete 2.6 years
Athlete 2.4 years
Volunteer Coach 2.0 years
Co-Captain 2.0 years
Top Careers Before Captain
Internship 13.7%
Volunteer 12.6%
Lieutenant 6.9%
Cashier 6.0%
President 4.7%
Mate 4.7%
Server 4.5%
Sergeant 4.1%
Manager 3.9%
Pilot 3.7%
Deckhand 3.0%
Assistant 2.9%
Instructor 2.6%
Top Careers After Captain
Internship 14.0%
Volunteer 12.0%
President 6.3%
Cashier 5.8%
Server 5.7%
Manager 5.1%
Coach 3.1%
Assistant 3.0%
Owner 3.0%
Instructor 2.9%
Supervisor 2.7%

Do you work as a Captain?

Captain Demographics










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Black or African American





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Captain Education


University of Phoenix


Pennsylvania State University


University of Connecticut


University of Iowa


Florida State University


University of Florida


Michigan State University


University of Texas at Austin


Texas A&M University


Liberty University


The Academy


University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill


University of Alabama


University of Arizona


West Virginia University


Troy University


University of Rhode Island


Quinnipiac University


Auburn University


University of Georgia

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Criminal Justice














Political Science








Mechanical Engineering




Computer Science










General Studies

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Captain Videos

Jason Kidd - The Captain - Career Tribute - 2013

SSBM - Every Character Does Captain Falcon's Taunt

A Day in the Life of Captain Falcon

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Real Captain Salaries

Job Title Company Location Start Date Salary
Captain J and M Charters, Inc. West Palm Beach, FL Dec 01, 2013 $162,000
Captain J and M Charters, Inc. West Palm Beach, FL Nov 01, 2013 $162,000
Atr-42 Captain Hyannis Air Service, Inc. Aug 11, 2014 $133,735
Captain Westfield, LLC Los Angeles, CA Feb 01, 2013 $115,000 -
Captain Tactical Escapes LLC Virginia Beach, VA Jan 01, 2016 $108,000
Captain (Flight Pilot) Ross Investments, Inc. Sacramento, CA Jan 07, 2012 $100,000
Project Captain Brinkley Sargent Wiginton Architects Dallas, TX Dec 16, 2015 $80,579
Project Captain Brinkley Sargent Wiginton Architects, Inc. Dallas, TX Sep 02, 2016 $78,000
Captain Sail With Scott LLC TX Apr 01, 2014 $73,045
Cessna 402 Captain Hyannis Air Service, Inc. MA Oct 01, 2013 $67,283
Cessna 402 Captain Hyannis Air Service, Inc. MA Sep 30, 2013 $67,283
Captain Maid of The Mist Corporation NY Apr 01, 2014 $64,488
Project Captain Kravitz Design, Inc. New York, NY Sep 22, 2016 $62,000
Captain Maid of The Mist Corporation Niagara Falls, NY Apr 01, 2016 $60,189
Captain Maid of The Mist Corporation Niagara Falls, NY Apr 01, 2015 $57,351
Shipping Team Captain Sun World International, LLC Bakersfield, CA Jun 01, 2014 $50,000
Captain Hyannis Air Service, Inc. Fort Leonard Wood, MO Jan 01, 2014 $45,267 -
Cessna 402 Captain Hyannis Air Service, Inc. Barnstable Town, MA Apr 06, 2014 $43,908
Server Captain Davidson Hotel Company Newport, RI May 15, 2016 $39,382
Server Captain Boca West Country Club, Inc. Boca Raton, FL Oct 01, 2015 $38,797
Server Captain Boca West Country Club, Inc. FL Oct 01, 2013 $38,797
Server Captain The Polo Club of Boca Raton, Inc. FL Oct 01, 2013 $38,797
Server Captain Boca West Country Club, Inc. FL Oct 01, 2014 $38,797
Captain(of Fishing Boat) Mid-Sound Fisheries CT Sep 03, 2009 $38,088
Ship Captain Glen Anthony Rice Coral Gables, FL Jan 18, 2008 $38,000

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Top Skills for A Captain

  1. Safety Standards
  2. Personnel
  3. Vessel
You can check out examples of real life uses of top skills on resumes here:
  • Championed safety culture, identifying opportunities to enhance safety procedures, and recommended and implemented improved safety standards.
  • Directed development of physical security, force protection, and counterintelligence operations for large organization of 350 personnel.
  • Maintain vessel for salvage operations, dive supervisor
  • Determined response requirements and relative priorities of situations and dispatched units in accordance with established procedures.
  • Green Belt Certification Training Chosen by leadership as Customer Service Representative to participate in training held at Nashville Business Center.

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Top 10 Best States for Captains

  1. Oregon
  2. Louisiana
  3. Texas
  4. New York
  5. Minnesota
  6. Washington
  7. Alaska
  8. Pennsylvania
  9. Alabama
  10. Iowa
  • (40 jobs)
  • (26 jobs)
  • (114 jobs)
  • (76 jobs)
  • (52 jobs)
  • (38 jobs)
  • (4 jobs)
  • (41 jobs)
  • (13 jobs)
  • (13 jobs)

Top Captain Employers

Jobs From Top Captain Employers

Captain Videos

Jason Kidd - The Captain - Career Tribute - 2013

SSBM - Every Character Does Captain Falcon's Taunt

A Day in the Life of Captain Falcon

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