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The Average Salary of a Merchant Marine Captain

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A merchant marine captain has the best view on the ship. Steering cargo through a sea of natural beauty and sometimes choppy waters, a ship captain is focused on safety and navigating to the next port of call. A ship captain must be experienced in all aspects of marine transportation and must have extensive experience at sea. Serving the ship, a merchant marine captain must preserve order and must ensure that the crew works together like a well-oiled machine. A ship captain salary varies, based upon the size of the ship and the cargo.

Job Description

A merchant marine salary is earned only six months of the year. Large cargo liners have two captains on board, and each one works 10- to 12-hour days. Serving as a floating city, the captain must supervise as many as 27 crew, and must oversee the safe passage of important cargo. If a crew member becomes ill at sea, the captain must provide intermediate care, until the ship reaches port. This could take days, given that a ship is out to sea for seven to 10 weeks at a time. Volatile weather and piracy are two of the most important safety concerns of a ship captain. Some routes for cargo ships may have pirates in the region that are eager to seize the cargo and kidnap the crew for ransom. The ship captain must be vigilant to ensure the safety of the ship and crew. Navigation and managing mechanical problems fall under the purview of this position. When a ship arrives in port, a captain may have between eight and 24 hours to unload the cargo. This can extend the work day to 24 hours. In addition, most ports require extensive paperwork to ensure that immigration and health declarations are in order.

Education Requirements

Becoming a ship captain of a large cargo liner requires extensive experience and training. Most captains have a college education in marine transportation or in a related degree. In addition to classroom learning, marine transportation programs include an internship at sea that lasts for one year. Classes include marine engineering, nautical science, intermodal management, naval science and maritime business management. Licensing to become a ship captain includes the Transportation Worker Identification Credential exam and the Merchant Marine Credential test. These licensing exams are mandated by the U.S. Coast Guard, but are usually incorporated into the college program.


Ship captains are needed to move a variety of cargo around the world. Serving as a master of a domestic barge will not provide the ship captain with the same salary as that of a liner sailing in international waters. Most voyages last for 10 weeks, and captains generally work six months out of the year.

Salary and Years of Experience

A ship captain salary varies based upon the assigned voyage, cargo and ship size. The average annual salary for a ship captain was $89,740, in 2020. If you work in international waters or you must navigate through dangerous routes, you could earn as much as $153,070. Experience is key to landing a job as a merchant marine captain. Most aspiring candidates work as a crew member and as a merchant marine deck officer, before completing formal education and applying for a captain’s position. Some ship captains find their way by serving in the military, before working for a civilian line.

Job Growth Trend

You can expect an 12 percent increase in ship captain jobs between now and 2030. Alaska, Florida, Hawaii, Mississippi and Louisiana have the highest number of positions available for this job.


Dr. Kelly Meier has a doctorate in Educational Leadership and has 30+ years of experience in higher education. She is the author and co-author of 15 books and serves as a consultant in K-12 and higher education with Kinect Education Group. She is the co-owner of a small business and a regular contributor for The Equity Network. She has numerous publications published by Talico, Inc., DynaTEAM Consulting, Inc. and Kinect Education Group.

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