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A U.S. Coast Guard’s captain’s license is a necessary endorsement for anyone seeking to use their on-the-water skills for profit, from operating small boats as a charter skipper to manning the helm of a cruise ship.
The Coast Guard offers “Masters” licenses based on gross tonnage in 25-, 50- and 100-ton increments. A smaller “OUPV” (operator of uninspected passenger vessel) license allows a maximum of six passengers at a time in boats up to 100 tons. Each masters license has a routing--“Inland” or “Near Coastal”--describing the navigational scope of the license, whereas OUPV licenses cover all waters.
The routing and size of a captain’s license depends on the location and gross tonnage of the boats the candidate has operated. Document sea time on the official Coast Guard forms; one day is defined as four hours on the water. • An OUPV license demands 360 days on inland or near coastal waters, 90 days of which must be within the last three years. • A masters routed inland requires the same amount of sea time as an OUPV license, but a near coastal routing requires 720 days total sea time with 360 of days on near coastal waters. • To add a sailing endorsement to a masters license, 180 days of the total sea time must have been served on a sailing vessel. Note: Boat ownership is not a requirement for counting sea time, but if the applicant crewed on the deck of another person’s boat, he or she will need the boat owner’s signature to verify sea time forms.
Taken either at Coast Guard exam centers or approved training schools, the battery of exams for a captain’s license covers charting and navigation, rules of the road, deck general and deck safety. Separate sailing and towing endorsements require additional, optional exams. All exams are multiple choice and range from 10 to 100 questions with passing scores of between 70 percent and 90 percent depending on the topic.
A current physical, first aid and CPR certifications and a clean five-substance drug test are required for a successful application.
Proof of citizenship (such as a passport), a Social Security card and a Transportation Workers Identification Card must be produced at the application appointment.
Three signed, dated character reference letters from non-relatives attest to the applicant’s truthfulness in representing his or her sea time.
The Merchant Mariner Credential application form--containing the candidate’s personal and contact information--completes the application.
Refer to the Coast Guard’s website for all appropriate forms to use in applying for a captain’s license.
Meghan Cleary has been a freelance writer and editor since 2009, when she began contributing to sailing magazines such as "Blue Water Sailing" and "Latitude 38." With a B.A. in English from the University of Puget Sound, Cleary also has been editing illustrated nonfiction books since 2005.