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How To Get Your Captain’s License?

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A change of career is what led Tim Scarisbrick to become an officially credentialed yacht captain. “I realized that I wanted to go sailing full time, make it a career,” says Scarisbrick. Five years ago, the former British Navy helicopter engineer took courses that in three months of study landed him his Royal Yachting Association (RYA) Yachtmaster certificate of competence. This allowed him to drive a yacht up to 200 gross tons in size. Today, Scarisbrick is based in Antigua managing a 66-foot Oyster.

In most locations you need a license to operate a yacht commercially, explains Peter Anthony, the Antigua-based director of the OnDeck Group, which offers a number of RYA (Royal Yachting Association)/MCA (Maritime and Coastguard Agency) courses. “This isn’t the case if you are just sailing for pleasure. Commercial use covers ferries, tour operators, sailing charters, fishing boats, deliveries of yachts, and cargo and freight vessels. Even if the local jurisdiction doesn’t insist on a license, the insurance companies usually will and often they will specify a type of license. In addition, the cruise lines insist that its suppliers are accredited.”

You don’t need to own a boat in order to get a captain’s license.

How To Get Your Captain’s License

Almost anyone with a good deal of boating experience can obtain a captain’s license,” explains Robert Alport, owner of the Captain School USVI, in St. Thomas, which offers the courses needed to obtain a U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) captain’s license. “For the most basic license, called an Operator of Uninspected Passenger Vessels or OUPV (6-Pack), you will need a minimum of 360 days of boating experience. For a Master’s License, you will need 720 days of experience on a boat.”

Citizens of the USA can get either an OUPV license or a Master’s.

The OUPV allows the operator to work aboard an uninspected passenger vessel that carries no more than six passengers. The boat can be up to 65ft or 100 gross tons. A Master’s license is issued by tonnage with the holder being able to operate an inspected vessel up to the tonnage of their license (typically 25, 50, or 100 tons). The main difference between the OUPV and the Master’s is that the Master can operate an inspected vessel which can carry more than six passengers. In addition, a non-U.S. citizen with a green card may only hold an OUPV. Other countries have their own licenses, but a USCG license is required to operate a U.S. flagged vessel.

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OnDeck’s Anthony says, “RYA/MCA certificates include Day Skipper, Yachtmaster Offshore and Ocean Yachtmaster, of which the latter with a couple of other qualifications gives you a Captain 200 tons anywhere.”

Time required for obtaining either a USCG license or RYA/MCA Yachtmaster certificate depends on first meeting sea time or mileage requirements.

In addition to the 360 days of documented experience on a vessel required for the USCG’s OUPV, 90 of these much have been acquired in the last three years and 90 on the ocean or near coastal waters. The Yachtmaster necessitates candidates to have logged at least 30 days, two days as skipper, 800 nautical miles and 12 night hours. After this, there is 56 hours of classroom instruction for a USCG OUPV license or 80 hours for a Master’s license and up to three months of training for an RYA Yachtmaster.

In the classroom at Captain School, St. Thomas USVI. Photo courtesy of Captain School USVI
In the classroom at Captain School, St. Thomas USVI. Photo courtesy of Captain School USVI

Classroom instruction for a USCG license consists of four subjects:

  • Rules of the Road,
  • Chart Plotting,
  • Navigation General, and
  • Deck General.

“These are covered by a mix of lecture and practical classroom exercises,” says Alport. “Chart plotting requires the students to master the techniques of coastal navigation with a thorough understanding of the use of charts, charting tools, light lists, and other reference materials.”

How much does it  COST to get your Captain’s License?

“Ocean Yachtmaster with ancillary courses would be about $5000 assuming someone had the experience,” says OnDeck’s Anthony.

For a USCG license, expect to pay about $750 for an OUPV course or about $1000 for a Master. However, there are various other requirements that also add to the cost. For example, all candidates need to take USCG approved First Aid and CPR training. They also need to take a physical exam and drug test. There are also application and evaluation fees.

“I would remind folks that a captain’s license could lead to a career where $1000 a week would be entry level pay,” says the Captain School USVI’s Alport. “Many captains in the industry are earning six-figure salaries.”

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Carol M. Bareuther, RD, is a St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands based marine writer and registered dietitian.

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