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captains license step by step guide

From Captain requirements to the Coast Guard application process – how to navigate the process of becoming an official boat Captain

Like all other areas of professional endeavor, getting a Captain’s license is an essential and non-trivial process. Despite the years between my earliest thoughts on having one and actually applying…or perhaps because of that time…I am quite proud to call myself Captain!

From the time I was Quartermaster aboard the Chesapeake Lightship back when she was berthed in Washington, DC, I had wanted to get my Captain’s license. We in her crew had plenty of sea time. The late Capt. Joe Murray, John Hart, and particularly Chris Krusa saw to it that each of us developed our skills and knowledge beyond the minimum that we needed for our jobs. We met collectively with a Coast Guard officer to explore the options for us all getting licensed; however, the wind was taken out of our sails so to speak when he told us that since most of us were not 18, we were not entitled to take the written exam.

I left that session crestfallen but I put it all behind me as I moved on with a career in research physics. Later, I learned that what the officer SHOULD have said is that if we had just waited (a few months) until we turned 18, we could have taken the exams. Years later, my problem was that I could not meet the requirement to have 90 days of sea time in the last 3 years. My employer would have more than frowned on my having been gone so often. And all of us had not even bothered to ask for sea service forms or letters to document our time on the Chesapeake.

Fast forward 34 years and serendipitous events led to my being able to get signed sea service forms for my time on the Lightship. Shortly thereafter, I became a boat owner WITH vacation time afforded to a very senior engineer in the company.

Long story short, I am Capt. Rob Chichester – 200 Ton Master with Auxiliary Sail and Assistance Towing Endorsements.

Navigating the path to a Captain’s license can be full of the brambles of regulations, forms, and oddly worded requirements. In this article, I will try to clarify the process and help interested skippers decide what type of license, scope, and tonnage they should pursue. Then I will discuss the application process and all the elements needed to assemble a successful license application package.

The Basics of a Captain’s License

A first time applicant will need to decide while type of license to pursue. There are two types available to one applying for a new license.

  • You may apply for a license to be an Operator of Uninspected Passenger Vessel (OUPV) or the more familiar “Six Pack” license. It is so called because the holder of this license is limited to carrying no more than 6 paying passengers on any vessel within his tonnage rating regardless of the maximum capacity rating for the vessel.
  • The other option is a Master’s license which allows you to carry up to the maximum number of passengers indicated for the vessel in question. Whereas a Master’s license requires US Citizenship, an OUPV license holder can be non-US citizen. Clearly holding a Master’s license offers more opportunities; however as I will explain later, the knowledge requirements are appropriately greater.

The scope or route for one’s license is the waters in which you are authorized to function in your licensed capacity.

There are effectively three such areas defined:

  1. The first is Inland which covers all inland rivers and bays not otherwise outside the demarcation line for the high seas. This may also include portions of the Great Lakes up to the International boundary line. (I will not explicitly discuss the Great Lakes or Western Rivers in this article but those waters are also covered by an Inland scope with a specific endorsement for each.)
  2. The second route is near-coastal which means ocean waters not more than 200 miles offshore. By extension, a near-coastal route endorsement includes inland waters as well.
  3. Lastly, Oceans refers to all waters seaward of the Boundary Lines as described in 46 Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) Part 7.

Tonnage rating is determined by the size vessels upon which an applicant has served. The tonnage is not simply the weight or displacement of a given vessel. It is not how much stuff you had loaded on a boat. It is a calculation of theoretical displacement if the complete available interior volume of a ship were filled with material of density 1 (i.e., water).

There are formulas available to estimate that based on the dimensions and type of boat. The calculations are necessarily different for a sailboat and a power boat. On a very rough order of magnitude, a 100 Ton powerboat would be about 80 feet long and a 100 Ton sailboat would be about 100 feet long. The tonnage rating is a not to exceed limitation.

One need not necessarily serve on a 50 ton or 100 ton vessel to earn the equivalent tonnage rating (see the table below for specifics on that). One cannot be granted more than a 100 Ton rating on an initial license because higher tonnage requires that one has served in a licensed capacity before applying for the higher tonnage. When I renewed my license in November, I applied for a 200 Ton rating which was granted conditional to my successfully passing the mandated written test. By the time you read this, I expect to have taken that exam.

Tonnage and route are determined by one’s documented experience. While you may apply for a 100 ton rating, you may only be granted 50 tons (or less) if your experience does not justify the higher rating. Additionally, the greater the scope, the more sea time is required to qualify for the rating.

For example, while an Inland scope needs 360 days of total sea time with 90 days in the last 3 years, a near-coastal scope requires 720 days and again the 90-day recency requirement. The take-away here is that experience is a big determinant and should NOT be discounted in any way. Note that there is no path to being granted an Ocean scope except by being a licensed mate or master for at least 2 years with documented service on those waters. That is, it is impossible to apply for an Oceans scope on a first application.

It should be noted that an OUPV license is automatically issued with a 100 Ton rating. As coarse as this may sound, the reason is that it is assumed that with an OUPV license, the most damage one can do is to 6 people. Therefore, there is no particular benefit to issuing OUPV with varying tonnage ratings. New Master’s licenses are issued with ratings of 25, 50, or 100 tons. Discussions of ratings over 100 tons or Ocean routes are beyond the scope of this article. You may contact the author if you wish more information on those specific topics.

The table below is a guide to determining for what rating one may qualify.


Your Sea Time Experience

sea time experienceFor an Inland route, generally all of your documented sea time will be on Inland waters. While Inland technically includes the Great Lakes and Western Rivers, there are additional requirements in service and knowledge for those waters.

For a Near Coastal route, ideally, all of your time will be on Near-Coastal waters; however, you are allowed to substitute up to half of the 720 days required minimum with Inland route service. For the purposes of documenting sea time for a Near Coastal route, any time served beyond the 3-mile limit counts for that purpose. So if you charter in the Caribbean or crew on an offshore fishing trip, that time counts.

Just to be clear, sea time is not counted unless you are a working member of the crew of the vessel named on the sea service form. That is to say, just being a passenger is not sufficient.

To keep things on the up and up, the applicant is required to get the signature of the owner, manager, or master of the vessel on the sea service form. If the applicant owns the identified vessel, proof of ownership must accompany the form. Proof might be a Bill of Sale, vessel document, or a state registration.

Sea time is not counted unless you spend at least 4 hours of a given day underway. Being onboard the boat at the dock swabbing the decks does not count. Time underway is counted whether it is in route or adrift. Being anchored or moored also does not count. It can be tedious to collect and collate all of your sea service forms, especially after the fact. My best advice is even if you are only thinking about getting a license, keep blank sea service forms with you for the vessel operator to sign at the end of a trip. Note that the forms are not per trip but per vessel. There is room to document up to 5 years of sea time on any given vessel. There is room for five years of data because your license will be up for renewal every 5 years.

Technically, vessels over 200 gross tons now require a Service Letter from the employer or vessel manager. However at the time I applied for my original license, I submitted my time on the Chesapeake Lightship on a Sea Service form (CG-719S). That form was accepted for that as well as again when I renewed and requested an upgrade to 200 Tons. I may have been grandfathered so new applicants should verify their individual situations with the National Maritime Center.

Health and Medical

To be a Captain, one must be in good health and of reasonable physical ability. The Medical form (CG-719K) is the most extensive form one will need to complete. It also requires the signature of a licensed physician. Unlike an FAA pilot’s license, the physician need not be approved by the US Coast Guard. Your family doctor is acceptable.

For my part, I completed as much of the form as was reasonable. I then FAXed the form ahead of my annual physical so that the doctor could review what was needed and to be prepared to sign off on it. The only extra thing the doctor had to do was conduct color vision and standard wall chart vision test. Your vision need not be perfect without glasses but if that is the case, you should expect a requirement to be written on your license requiring corrective lenses to be used and a spare pair to be available when on duty. If your medical form is accepted, you will be issued a separate medical form which is to be kept with your Merchant Mariner Credential. There is a pocket on the back cover to hold it and the required Transport Worker’s Identification Card (TWIC). The TWIC will be addressed below.

Another form to be completed, this time by an authorized physician, is the DOT five-panel drug test. An applicant must submit proof of drug testing with no findings as determined by an authorized physician. Also be aware that to work aboard any vessel in any compensated capacity, you must have proof of participation in a drug test program, whether it be one in which you elect to participate as an individual or one required by your marine employer. Such proof is to be carried with you at all times just as your license and medical certificate must be. It is generally in the form of a letter attesting to your compliance and passing a test within 12 months of the date of the letter.

Criminal and National Security Background

One has always been required to agree to a criminal background and driving record check. As you can well imagine, adverse findings in either of these areas will negatively affect one’s application.

With the creation of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), a requirement was added that licensed mariners have a TWIC card. In fact, anyone working in the transportation sector (air, rail, marine, trucking, etc.) is required to have a TWIC card. You will be investigated for any evidence of threat potential to national security. This is because as a licensed Captain, you may have access to vital and strategic marine facilities.

The TWIC card is issued by DHS through a federal contractor. There is an application to complete and a fee to pay. Furthermore, you must appear in person so that your photo and fingerprints can be taken. This bio-metric data is stored on the TWIC card and protected by a pass code. You must submit a copy of your TWIC with your license application; therefore, one must start the TWIC process at least four to six weeks or more before submitting one’s license application.

Separately, a photograph of the applicant must accompany the application. This can be a driver’s license or passport photo. It should be a state or federal government issued document. Others may be accepted but the applicant should verify this with the NMC before submitting the application to avoid processing delays.


captain experienceAn applicant is required to take a test that covers at least three areas of knowledge:

  • Coastal Navigation
  • Deck General Knowledge
  • Rules of the Road

Deck General includes a wide variety of topics including fire and safety, terminology, and laws and procedures. Rules of the Road covers exactly what it says. Bear in mind that even if you are applying for an Inland or Near Coastal license, the Rules of the Road test will include elements of International Rules. So when you are studying, do not neglect to familiarize yourself with those details. There are some variations in vessel precedence, sound signals, and lights and shapes displayed by vessels.

If you are applying for a Master’s license, there are additional areas of test. The same is true if you are additionally requesting an endorsement for Sail, Auxiliary Sail, or Commercial Assistance Towing. The net effect is more questions overall.

You must score at least 70% in all areas except Rules of the Road for which you must have a minimum score of 90% to pass. Generally, that means you may miss no more than 3 questions to pass with a 90% grade. The Navigation questions will require you to work with a chart to plot position, routes, and so forth.

You may either pay an examination fee to take the exams administered by the Coast Guard or you may enroll in any number of approved Captains’ courses. You will receive a certificate of completion from the school to submit with your application in lieu of the Coast Guard exams; however, you will still take exams which include questions from the same list of questions that the Coast Guard uses. In the latter case, you will not need to pay an examination fee but obviously, you will have to pay a tuition for the course.

Completing your Application

The license application is not unlike many others. It is actually shorter than the medical form discussed earlier. There are two things to note on the application:

  • Item 1 of Section IV describes how one may be asked to serve on behalf of the country in times of national emergency. An example of this was the massive sealift conducted in support of the first Gulf war in the 1980’s, Operation Desert Storm. This is a voluntary action. However it should be noted that during the call up for Desert Storm, more mariners were needed than responded. It is a possibility, particularly in these times, that another such national emergency could arise.
  • Secondly, Item 5 of Section IV contains an oath to which an applicant must swear. If you present yourself in person you will be sworn in by Coast Guard personnel. If you choose to submit your application by mail or electronic means, you must provide proof that you appropriately took the oath as written. This generally means being sworn by a Notary or a local government official such as a county clerk.

Payment of all required application and examination fees is made online prior to submitting the application. You will receive a receipt which you should include with your application package. Pay close attention to the various fees and be sure you select all that apply but ONLY those that apply. An error either way will delay processing of your application.

Submitting your Application

When you apply for an original license and especially if you plan to take the Coast Guard exams, you will need to present yourself in person with your complete application package at a USCG Regional Examination Center (REC). Photo ID will be necessary as well.

One thing that happens if you appear in person is that you will raise your right hand and take the oath on the application. That was a very moving moment for me. Delivering your application package in person also allows you to interact with the personnel directly which could be very valuable if there are errors or omissions in your application package.

If you are not taking the Coast Guard exams and if you have been sworn by an authorized official, you may wish to submit your application by mail or electronically. Be aware that electronic submission has a limit on the size of the email attachment. My applications have always been larger than what is accepted by the Coast Guard mail servers.

Waiting for Your License

The Coast Guard has implemented a very good system of tracking your application and providing feedback at every step of the way. You will receive emails as the application moves through the system. It may take up to a week for the REC to review and forward your application to the National Maritime Center (NMC) in West Virginia. That was my experience with the New York City REC. It may be less in smaller, less congested venues.

By the way, you are not required to use the REC nearest to you. If you wanted to fly to Hawaii or Alaska instead of driving into Baltimore, you may do so. A good friend of mine drove from New Jersey to Boston to submit his application there because he heard the processing times were less than for New York.

Once the NMC has your package, the process usually will not take long at all. It is very likely you will receive 2 or 3 emails a day, often within minutes, as the application moves through the various approvals. Nothing beats the feeling you will have when you get the final email saying that you have been approved and your credential is being printed!

My original license took slightly more than two weeks from dropping off my application at Battery Park in New York to finding my MMC in my mailbox.

Once you get your license, look it over thoroughly. You may not necessarily have been granted the scope and rating you requested. Sometimes that reduction will be legitimate. Other times, it may be due to an honest mistake. Both my original and renewals had honest omissions. I was only granted a 50 ton rating on my original license when I had applied for 100 tons. I submitted the sea service form supporting the request for 100 tons after the fact and I received an endorsement sticker for the 100 ton rating a week later. Similarly with my renewal, I asked for an upgrade to 200 tons. My renewal was approved at 100 tons. When I contacted the NMC, they amended the approval and showed that I was then approved to take the required test for the 200 ton upgrade. So my message here is to not necessarily accept the delivered MMC as if it were carved in stone.


Being a licensed Captain is a great source of pride to me. I have enjoyed working with my clients as well as pursuing other commercial opportunities like relief captain jobs on various schooners, water taxi and tow boat jobs, and tour boat and ferry captain work. I look forward to many years of working on and enjoying the water.

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Capt. Rob is an engineer and owner & operator of Chesapeake Flotillas offering charters, instruction, and vessel relocation. A USCG Licensed Master, Capt. Rob has planned and executed flotilla cruises all over the Chesapeake Bay, Europe, and the Caribbean. Rob holds a 200-Ton Master's license with Auxiliary Sail and Assistance Towing endorsements. He also is certified by the American Sailing Association to teach Basic Keelboat Sailing, Basic Coastal Cruising, and Bareboat Chartering. A self-proclaimed sailor & poet, he operates a 41-foot sloop Bay Poet based out of Rock Hall, MD.


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