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Captains License Tips – Focus on Quality

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Andy Schell navigating aboard Arcturus in northern Nova Scotia last summer. Photo: Maria Karlsson

Andy Schell navigating aboard Arcturus in northern Nova Scotia last summer. Photo: Maria KarlssonGetting my captain’s license was a validation of a lifetime of experience, something I have always aspired to. In truth, most of the jobs I’ve taken on the water over the years were informal, and really didn’t require that I have an official license. Experience was enough, and I have over 35 years of it. It wasn’t until my son Andy (former editor of All At Sea Southeast) decided to pursue a waterborne career in earnest (about five years ago now) that I went along and got my license with him.

Captains License Tips #1


Skip the six-pack – it’s not that much more effort to go straight for the Master Mariner accreditation (learning how to look things up in the Code of Federal Regulations, to be specific), and you’ll be better for it.

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Captains License Tips #2


There are myriad schools to choose from, but in hindsight, I should have taken the self-study route, as the school my son and I attended (which shall remain unnamed), wasn’t exactly teaching to the highest standards.

On the other hand, Andy had a fantastic experience at Maritime Professional Training in Fort Lauderdale, where he attained both his USCG Master Mariner certification and his MCA Yachtmaster license after one 10-day class. If you go the school route, choose MPT or one of the other truly professional schools offering real courses – it will cost you a few thousand dollars, but it’s more than worth it.

Alternatively, self-study is an option, particularly for boaters with lots of experience. And that’s really the key. Time behind the helm is imperative. Where I believe the USCG fails is in their method of examination. Passing the license requires no practical experience (aside from sea service, which can be “massaged” to say the least). Knowledge on paper is knowledge enough. MPT and the other professional-level schools offer intense behind-the-wheel courses, which truly separate the ready from the not-quite-there.

Captains License Tips #3


To actually obtain the license, you’ll have to have all your ‘i’s dotted and ‘t’s crossed. Homeland Security now requires that you obtain a Transportation Worker Identity Card (TWIC), essentially a background check, and you’ll need a thorough medical exam (including visual acuity and color vision tests), and the requisite sea time forms must be completed and submitted with licensing material (minimum 360 days for the inland ticket, 720 for near-coastal).

The USCG has been revamping their licensing program of late, streamlining everything from the website to the actual paper license itself, bringing everything more in-line with international standards. Check the USCG website or feel free to contact Andy or myself to learn more about our experiences.

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