Merchant Marine Captain

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Merchant Marine Captain

Education and Training Advanced degree

Salary Median—$24.20 per hour

Employment Outlook Poor

Definition and Nature of the Work

Captains are in charge of all aspects of their ships' operations. They are responsible to the owners of their ships for the safety of the vessels, the crew, and the passengers or cargo. They maintain crew discipline and keep order. Captains are sometimes called masters.

Every captain rose through the ranks of the deck command, which is made up of first, second, and third mates. The first mate is the captain's most important assistant in assigning duties and maintaining order. A first mate also plans the loading and unloading of cargo and assists the captain in taking the ship in and out of port. The second mate is traditionally the navigation officer. The third mate oversees the navigating bridge and the chart room and maintains the signaling and lifesaving equipment.

While in port, the captain may act as the shipowner's agent in dealing with customs officials. The captain may pay and keep records of wages for the ship's other employees.

Education and Training Requirements

Captains have the most senior jobs in the merchant marine. They must attend officer training schools; qualify for their jobs in a series of examinations over a period of years; and possess the leadership qualities needed to run large, complex organizations.

Prospective captains should attend one of the maritime academies that provide officer training: the U.S. Naval Academy, the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, and the state academies in California, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, New York, and Texas. Candidates for the U.S. Naval Academy or U.S. Merchant Marine Academy must be nominated by members of Congress. Applications for the other academies are competitive. Applicants must be between seventeen and twenty-two years of age, single, high school graduates, U.S. citizens, and in good physical condition.

The academies provide three- and four-year training programs in nautical science and practical sea experience. The course of study includes navigation, mathematics, electronics, propulsion systems, electrical engineering, languages, history, and shipping management. Graduates are qualified to work as third mates in the merchant marine.

Graduates must then apply for U.S. Coast Guard certification to work on American ships—a legal requirement for seamen and officers alike. To be certified by the Coast Guard, applicants must be U.S. citizens and possess health certificates from the U.S. Public Health Service.

Third mates must be at least nineteen years old. To work their way up through the ranks of third, second, and first mate to captain, they must pass qualifying Coast Guard examinations at each rank. Length of service and the size of the ships on which they have trained are also factors in promotion to captain.

Getting the Job

Officers succeed to the rank of captain only after many years of service. Those looking for that experience may go to union hiring halls and apply to be mates.

Shipping companies maintain lists of those eligible for positions as captains. Officers who have seniority are hired first.

Advancement Possibilities and Employment Outlook

Captains are already the highest-ranking workers in the merchant marine. Some move to better ships or to ships with more desirable routes.

Employment of merchant marine officers is expected to grow more slowly than the average for all occupations through 2014. The size of the U.S. fleet should stabilize after several years of decline, and it should carry a larger proportion of international cargo because of increased regulations and insurance rates on foreign vessels. However, newer ships are designed to operate with much smaller crews. As a result, competition may be extremely strong for existing jobs—the demand for officers may be outweighed by the number of graduates of officer training schools.

Working Conditions

At sea, captains are on call twenty-four hours. While in port, a forty-hour workweek is standard. The work can be hazardous—the risk of falls, fire, collision, and sinking is always present. Harsh variations in temperature and violent storms are possible at sea.

Captains travel extensively, but they seldom have time to explore the ports they visit. They are away from their home ports for long periods.

Earnings and Benefits

The wages for captains are highest on the largest ships. In 2004 the median wage for captains was $24.20 per hour. The most experienced captains—captains of large container ships, oil tankers, or passenger ships—earned more than $100,000 per year.

Where to Go for More Information

Military Sealift Command
6353 Center Dr., Bldg. 8, Ste. 202
Norfolk, VA 23502
(877) 562-7672

National Marine Engineers Beneficial Association
444 N. Capitol St., Ste. 800
Washington, DC 20001
(202) 638-5355

Seafarers International Union
5201 Auth Way
Camp Springs, MD 20746
(301) 899-0675

Benefits include room and board; eighteen to thirty days of vacation for every thirty days of work; medical care; and hospitalization insurance. Captains usually receive pensions through the shipping companies that employ them.

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Merchant Marine Captain

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