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What They Do

Captains, Mates, and Pilots of Water Vessels Career Video

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Two-thirds of the world is covered with water. It doesn't hurt to know how to navigate the seas, rivers, lakes and swamps of the world. Boat captains are finding a lot of pathways to use their skills.

The captain of a ship is in overall command of the vessel and supervises all activities, says Capt. Christopher McMahon. He graduated from the United States Merchant Marine Academy (USMMA).

In contrast, the mates -- the first-, second- and third-deck officers -- of a ship navigate the course. The captain is ultimately responsible for the paths of navigation and the decision making on the vessel. Most importantly, the captain is in charge of the safety of the passengers and ship.

Captains must know how to do everything on a ship. They need to understand the machinery and equipment that run the vessel. They must learn how to operate equipment, including sonar and radar.

They also read maps of the sea and chart courses. They maintain logs and other records tracking the ship's movements, cargo or passenger-carrying history.

The United States Coast Guard licenses all captains. Many different licenses are granted and limited by the size, tonnage and horsepower of the vessel. For example, says McMahon, people who sail aboard deep-sea ships have unlimited licenses. The captain on a dinner boat, though, is not usually qualified to be the captain aboard a large deep-sea cargo vessel.

Although most captains usually work at sea, some may teach at universities or work in shoreline management. That can include areas like admiralty law or harbor development.

Capt. Ann Sanborn once sailed the seven seas and loved it. She is now an associate professor and a lawyer.

"There is a ship out there that is right for every individual," says Sanborn. Captains can work on military ships, small charter boats, passenger cruise lines, dinner cruises, cargo vessels and tugboats on a river, she says.

Depending on the ship, the duties will vary. The work of a captain on a charter boat, a yacht that vacationers rent for pleasure, differs greatly from that of a captain's tasks on a merchant marine vessel, where the captain has a large crew of engineers and mates.

Although a private charter captain is the master of the ship, their duties may include cooking and entertaining, as well as navigation and engine repair. That's because the ship is smaller.

A captain's hours are long, and the work is hard. "It is very doable work, but certainly it is physical," says Sanborn. "You are exposed to the elements. There is a lot of wind, rain and sun."

Working in a confined space is part of life at sea. If someone treats you badly, you can't walk away -- you are stuck on the ship with them for the duration. Also, workdays are 24 hours long, not eight hours.

Captains on charters usually work nine months out of the year and then take about three months off during down season. Captains of merchant marine vessels are usually commissioned for a four- to six-month duration.

Probably the most important skill to have, says Sanborn, is math. It has many practical applications at sea, such as piloting and navigation. "Math is involved in the very stability of the vessel," explains Sanborn.

Going to sea is a challenging life, says McMahon. Sanborn agrees and says danger goes with the territory. "It is a hazardous environment. On the sea, you feel very small," she says, reflecting on some of the rough oceans she has seen, such as 55-foot high seas.

"It is awe-inspiring to be on a ship. You see the full force of nature."

Because you are dealing with large vessels, sometimes 1,200 feet long, that could carry hazardous material, you must be a conscientious person and a good student. Sanborn's advice is to take all your schoolwork seriously in order to demonstrate a hard-working attitude. Learn the skills that you will need to command a large vessel.

At a Glance

Supervise the overall operation of the ship

  • Captains are ultimately responsible for the safety of all passengers
  • The hours are long
  • You'll need to be licensed


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