Updated: Jun 13, 2022
I wrote this on Feb14,2020, but never published it
I have been a Captain now for 15 years. And this year, it will be the first time I am ever hoping to be paid a living wage for my work. Why you ask? Because being a Captain is a thankless venture.
My first license was earned while I was in Fall River, Massachusetts working for Battleship Cove Community Boating. We routinely took children across the harbor to a fleet of mercury sailboats, and I didn't feel right doing it without a license. "Oh sure, that's the way we always do it", was the reply when I told them about my misgivings. But when I explained to the Captain in charge, who was in fact a retired USCG captain, that what we were doing was not only illegal, it also looked REALLY bad that HE was in charge of it all, they signed me up for a course at the New England Maritime School in Quincy, MA immediately.
For several months, I drove to a hotel conference room twice a week, to sit with old salts who had been lobstering all their lives and now wanted to be captains. It cost us each $1500, a small fortune to these old guys but covered by the good folks at the Battleship for me. If you want to get a license, any license, I suggest you go that route -
Find a job that will pay for it because that's the first drawback to a Master's license, it's expensive.
Lots of people try and cheap it out and take the exams at the USCG regional exam centers. Supposedly 80 percent of those people fail and from what I know, they don't refund your money if you fail. The rest of the (I estimate) million or so people who aim to be captains every year take a course. If you go to any of the big-name places, like Sea School, it's a few grand just to take the required courses, not to mention the travel and hotel. So before you have even gotten your TWIC card, you're out a lot of money. But the good news is, if you take a course, odds are good that you will pass because they have a financial incentive to get you past the exams.
The class is straightforward wherever you go because it's a federal thing. Four tests, one on Deck General (stuff that you should know to operate a boat) Nav General (stuff you should know to be legal while operating a boat, Nav Practical (stuff your grandfather knew about plotting a chart), and Rules of the Road (how well you can memorize the Code of Federal Regulations). It's not hard, but then again, it's not easy. Anyone who can read can pass it, but some schools make it harder than others, so they can make it seem like you got your money's worth.
If you want a good tip, find a community college that teaches the OUPV (Operator of Un-inspected Passenger Vessel). The prices are set, usually, by the State and subsidized by taxpayers. So for example where I taught for three years, Carteret Community College in Morehead City, NC, offers the OUPV class for $180, and you can take the 100-ton upgrade for an additional $70. You can't go wrong at those prices, but you will have to stay in Morehead City for a couple of weeks if you do the 10-day course. They gouge at the motels around here because it's a tourist center and the food sucks. But if you play your cards right, Airbnb can save you some cash, or you can try and find a boat to stay on. Just bring sandwiches.
Once you have taken and passed your course, then you have to jump through hoops. The TWIC card is a Post 9/11 money-making scheme that promotes the illusion of security without doing much at all. It costs $125, and you have to be a good little sailor to get it. But once you got it, unless you do something really scary like try to walk on a State Pier or Airport runway, you will never touch it again until your next renewal when it will cost you whatever they jack the price up to next time. My first TWIC card was $90, and now it's $125, five years later. Progress right?
You will need to take a photocopy of your TWIC because the right hand of the Government doesn't talk to the left hand ever in this process. The pay processor doesn't talk to the evaluator who doesn't talk to the TSA who doesn't talk to USCG. So everything done has to be photocopied for the next department.
With your certificate of exams in hand and your TWIC card, you are now ready to go to the Doctor.
Any primary care doctor or walk-in medical clinic can perform the tests now. It used to be you had to go to a special military-approved doctor, but now any MD can test your hearing, check you for color blindness and make sure your high blood pressure, diabetes, and drug addiction are in check. That's a joke, you can't get a license if you are color-blind, and generally, if you admit to any drug use you'll be kicked to the curb faster than a Donald Trump can grab a woman by the ...
Assuming your health is checked out, you then have to go pee in a cup to prove you don't take drugs. There are lots of places that do it, but you need to find a random drug testing program that will sign off on you and promise to check you for weed if and when you ever kill anyone with your boat. If you have an employer drug program that you are part of, then you can use that and all you need is a form from your program administrator telling the USCG that you are enrolled in a random drug testing program.
Once you have your exam cert, TWIC, Medical form, and Drug testing form and are thoroughly broke, wait for your next paycheck and take a CPR and First aid course. It only lasts for a year, but you only have to do it when you renew your license. By the way, everything has to be done within the calendar year of your exam, or you will have to take the exam and do all the paperwork with the fees all over again.
Since all that stuff is done, you can now start adding up your sea time. It's true, a paddleboard counts as sea time and as long as you are paddling on a body of water patrolled by the USCG. But here's where it sucks the most, unless you have time on a 100-ton vessel, which is to say, any vessel greater than 51 tons, you will be paid like crap.
OUPV, 25 ton, and 50-ton licenses are entry-level licenses and no one wants to pay much of anything for people with those tickets. You can try and start an uninspected charter boat or fishing boat, but you can't take more than 6 people out, and it's tough to pay the crazy insurance rates for a charter boat when you can only take 6 people out. There really are only a few 50-ton jobs around, and they pay for shit, and no one hires a 25-ton captain. So unless you get a 100-ton inland or near-shore license and up, there aren't really any decent-paying jobs. So don't do this for the money, but do this for the love of the water.
Another point about sea time, each day at sea is 4 hours or more, and you usually can't attest to your own time, unless you own the boat.
The demarcation line (that imaginary line that divides inshore waters from nearshore waters) is a deal killer for lots of employers because you have got 100-ton time outside the demarcation line for the lion's share of good jobs out there. So all you Long Island Sound, the Chesapeake Bay, and Gulf of Mexico sailors, your time on your daysailer will not make you very much money when it's all said and done.
The final steps are to fill out your application and pay for them to look at it. Here is where you will ask for the appropriate level of license and take the oath, but only first-time applicants have to take the oath and have it notarized I am told. And don't leave any box unfilled. The 16-year-old girls who examine your application in West Virginia as contractors for the USCG, know nothing about boats or the water and are only checking that every "T" is crossed and "I" is dotted. And if it ain't in the book, they don't know how to answer it. So don't get too creative with your sea time, they don't think outside the box.
With all your paperwork filled out and triple-checked, it's time to pay more money. There is a fee for looking at your paperwork and another fee for printing your license and some other fee for something else, I am sure, but I have never paid the right amount for my submission ever. The good news is if you just pay them a lot, and they will give you back however much you overpaid in a matter of days. You'll go to Pay.gov to pay your submission bill, and you need to print out the receipt and attach it to all your other paperwork.
The Right hand and left hand have never met at the US Federal Government level.
Now with all the paperwork together you will mail it to a regional exam center or you can scan it in and email it to them as well. They will then send your paperwork all over the place and keep you updated by email every couple of days as to who is looking at it and when. If you did everything right and there isn't a question from the NMC, they will issue you a license, and you can be a poor unemployed captain just like me.
People don't do a Masters's license to get rich. If you want to get rich on the water, go to a Service Academy before you turn 27. But if you want a good tan, to see lots of cool places, and want to refer to yourself as a Captain (you can even wear the funny skipper's hat if you want to unapologetically) then get a captain's license. But it's expensive, a pain in the ass to maintain, and most jobs, until you get to the 100-ton near-shore level, don't pay very well at all. I
f it was cheap, easy, and profitable, then everyone would do it.