To work as a ship captain or mate, you typically need to:
- have a high school diploma or equivalent;
- complete a formal training program;
- have one to five years of related work experience; and
- have a merchant marine license.
Education after high school
Training programs for ship captains and mates are approved and monitored by the US Coast Guard. The Coast Guard is an agency of the US Department of Homeland Security. You must be licensed by this agency to operate watercraft.
You can prepare for this occupation by attending the US Merchant Marine Academy or one of six state academies. Three academies are located on the East Coast, in Maine, Massachusetts, and New York. The other three are located in Michigan, Texas, and California.
These academies offer a four-year training program that leads to a bachelor's degree. The training at the academies prepares you for the licensing exam. Courses cover topics such as navigation, rules of the road, and meteorology. They may also cover marine rules and pollution, cargo, and standing watch. After graduating, you may pursue a license as a third mate (deck officer).
Ship captains and mates typically have several years of work experience. You can prepare by gaining experience as a deckhand. Local unions provide experience and training. As you gain experience and pass rating exams, you move up the ranks.
Because of the fast changing demands of technology, you may receive additional training on the job. Employers may provide training or pay for college course work so you can update your technical skills or expand your administrative skills.
Many ship captains and mates take training courses or seminars on their own to qualify for special endorsements to their licenses.
Some branches of the military train people to be quartermasters and boat operators. Training lasts six to 22 weeks, depending on your specialty. Another option is training as a ship and submarine officer. The length of training varies by specialty. For both occupations additional training occurs on the job and through advanced courses.