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Duties of a Ship Captain

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Every ship, from small pleasure cruisers to large commercial freighters, operates under the authority of a captain. The captain is directly responsible for ensuring that the ship safely and successfully carries out its functions. Although requirements vary from job to job, and captains don't always need formal education, the role of captain requires many advanced skills that can be learned at a variety of maritime academies.

Crew Management

A captain is in charge of his crew. In this sense, the captain functions much like a manager. You must be a good leader who possesses excellent interpersonal skills to communicate with and give orders to the crew. The captain also monitors the performance of the staff. Captains may be responsible for payroll, staffing hours and addressing crew grievances. The captain is also in charge of assembling a crew by making informed hiring decisions. A captain should also be familiar with the roles of all crew members and may often work side-by-side directly with them.

Technical Duties

As a captain, you must have an intimate understanding of whatever vessel you are in charge of. Although you may delegate many duties to crew members, you are ultimately responsible for the safety, well-being and proper maintenance of the ship. Captains are frequently in charge of purchasing and inventorying the equipment on the vessel, and you may need to assist with regular repairs and maintenance. As the captain, you must be vigilant about the condition of everything on board the ship and make regular rounds to ensure all equipment is functioning.

Legal Duties

The captain is the highest-ranking officer on the ship, which makes him directly responsible for the conduct of the crew and the successful completion of the ship's mission. Any illegal activity on the ship ultimately falls at the feet of the captain, so the captain must have an intimate understanding of the laws and regulations that govern the crew’s activities. For example, a luxury cruise line may be required to adhere to pollution regulations; it is the captain's responsibility to make sure those laws are followed. Captains also are directly responsible for the extensive record-keeping that is commonly required for any ship.


The captain is the main representative of the ship, whether it is a military vessel, a cruise liner or a commercial freighter. As captain, you must maintain direct communication with your superiors on land, whether they are the freight company or a Navy command. On the flip side, you’ll communicate orders and relevant information to the crew. On cruise liners, the captain is in charge of hospitality for all of the guests. Captains also need to communicate with local governments and coast guards when the ship is in their waters; with dock clerks when dropping off freight; and with customs agents when bringing materials into new jurisdictions.


Linda Ray is an award-winning journalist with more than 20 years reporting experience. She's covered business for newspapers and magazines, including the "Greenville News," "Success Magazine" and "American City Business Journals." Ray holds a journalism degree and teaches writing, career development and an FDIC course called "Money Smart."

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Aleksandar Milutinovic/iStock/GettyImages