How to Become a Cruise Ship Captain

The life of a cruise ship captain is not all glitz and glamour. We tell you how to become a captain of a cruise ship and highlight the things that you never knew about this position.

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The lure of the freedom of sailing the open seas and the glamour of traveling to exotic destinations all over the globe tend to be what draws people to the vocation of cruise ship captain. However, what many people don’t fully understand is that being a cruise ship captain is a great deal of work and responsibility. Becoming the captain of a cruise ship takes years of school and experience.

Before we delve into the schooling involved, the duties and responsibilities of this job should be thoroughly explored. As mentioned, while the position appears to be glamorous on the surface, the reality is a stark contrast.

Are You Prepared to be a Cruise Ship Captain?

“Master of the ship” is what defines this role. It sounds exciting to oversee an entire ship that sails to far away destinations that most people only dream of visiting. It is alluring to be in an environment where there is fun, romance, and excitement lurking around every corner. Plus, to get paid for it … It seems like a dream come true!

However, reality soon sets in because this job is a great deal of work and responsibility. To truly be successful as a cruise ship captain, you must genuinely love the work you are doing.

The Skills Required to be a Cruise Ship Captain

While not easy, being the captain of a cruise ship is indeed rewarding. They oversee a crew of thousands of individuals to ensure everything gets done and every need gets met. A captain needs to ensure that both local and international laws are met.

Captains use and maintain complex navigational systems, as well as the ship’s engines. They supervise as passengers enter and exit the ship. They need to ensure every person is accounted for and that no passenger is left behind or goes missing.

Safety of both crew and passengers is of the utmost importance in this position. The ship’s captain is responsible to be well-acquainted with the safety equipment and to ensure that it works properly in the event of an emergency. After all, everyone’s lives may be at stake if they don’t.

They need to be able to enforce proper safety protocols, navigate the ship through weather changes, and communicate with nearby ships and ports.

They also must be communicative and social. Captains are often required to socialize with passengers, including hosting dinners and making small talk. Since captains oversee the vessel, there are many people that report to them, like the cruise director, head engineer, and hotel manager.

Captains are the go-to person in all aspects of the ship and are responsible for its safety in addition to the guests. It is easy to see why this position is a huge responsibility, and it can be a weighty one.

Are You Ready for This?

While all of this sounds great, there are things that some people don’t consider with this job. The main thing is that cruise ship captains work long, tiring hours. They work 10 weeks in a row, then have 10 weeks off. However, in those 10 weeks of work, they are required to be on-call 24/7 and function with as little as five hours of sleep, depending on how smoothly things go.

Additionally, there are often emergencies that arise that passengers are completely unaware of. Captains need to be able to read the weather and know what is coming. This may mean changing course to bypass extreme weather. You need to avoid rough seas that can endanger guests.

Cruise Ship Captain
Cruise Ship Captain (Photo Credit: Michele Rinaldi / Shutterstock)

Then there is the stress of arriving on time at various ports. Sometimes weather can make it challenging to arrive on time when a different course had to be plotted. In this case, the captain must determine whether they’ll speed up the vessel or try to make up for lost time another way.

Ultimately, they are responsible for ensuring that guests are happy. This means that the ship arrives and departs on time. However, not everything may run smoothly. Sometimes people are late, which pushes back departure. Other times, there may be mechanical issues.

Read Also: What’s a Typical Cruise Ship Captain Salary?

Cruise ship captains must remain calm in all circumstances. This job can be highly stressful. Yet if the captain appears stressed, the guests will be uneasy. Guests can never know there is a problem unless they need to be aware of it. Captains try to navigate situations as best as they can, knowing that lives depend on them.

Plus, they often do this on very little sleep. So, when they do have 10 weeks off, they thoroughly enjoy the time to relax. While they are working, the ship truly becomes their mistress.

The responsibilities of a cruise ship captain are as follows:

  • Oversee navigation and operation of the ship
  • Work with crew members and senior officers
  • Oversee the ship’s position
  • Determine and establish the speed of the ship
  • Avoid potential and real safety hazards
  • Upkeep and maintain a vessel’s equipment and engines
  • Make sure all safety protocol is observed and followed
  • Comply with international and local laws
  • Comply with immigration and Customs laws

What Kind of Education is Required?

The very first step is obtaining a high school diploma or equivalent. Once that has been achieved, the person must have either a bachelor’s or master’s degree in marine science/marine engineering. It is preferrable that the degree is received through a reputable maritime academy or college.

If you are in high school and know that you want to enter this career, it is advisable to get into a maritime high school for a more specialized education. This type of school focuses on maritime knowledge and skills.

Cruise Ship Bridge
Cruise Ship Bridge (Photo Credit: wonderlustpigeon / Shutterstock)

Good grades are needed to have a better chance to get admitted to a maritime college or academy. Competition for entrance is very tough, so above-average grades are necessary for admission.

To gain good experience, you can try obtaining summer jobs or part-time employment in a maritime industry, like on a ship or in a shipyard. This allows learning to go beyond school. It will also prepare you for ship repairs, the chain of command on a vessel, and how a ship works.

Once admitted, specialized courses like Marine Engineering, Marine Science, Marine Transportation, and Ocean Science can be selected. In order to be considered for employment, a master’s degree isn’t always needed. However, it does provide an advantage. Additionally, you need to have excellent grades, since most cruise ships hire captains who rank in the top five to 10% of their class.

A bachelor’s degree will take three to four years to complete. A master’s will take an additional two to three years. If you want to receive the maximum education, a doctorate will take another two to three years.

Bridge of Radiance of the Seas
Bridge of Radiance of the Seas (Photo Credit: Philip Schubert / Shutterstock)

After you graduate, most people begin as a third mate or deck officer. This is an entry-level position, and most captains begin within these ranks. You can also work in the Navy Reserve and the Coast Guard Reserve to gain years of experience.

Individuals must possess an in-depth knowledge of navigation, logistics, maritime/safety laws, and management. They also require a great deal of training to be a cruise ship captain. A captain’s license obtained by a federal maritime authority is required for the position. Obtaining this license may take 10 years.

To put it in perspective, it takes longer to become a cruise ship captain than a brain surgeon. Most captains earn their bars in 18 to 22 years.

Certifications and Exams

Captains of ships are trained by maritime academies. This is the quickest way to receive proper training. There are some academies that require people to serve in the armed forces. After completing a four-year program, potential candidates receive a Bachelor of Science degree, in addition to a Coast Guard license as a third mate.

Cruise Ship Captain Salary
Photo Credit: Philomena Venturini / Shutterstock

For certification, they require a Transportation Work Identification Credential. This is given by the Transportation Security Administration which aids in locating cruise ship captains. A Merchant Mariner Credential is required by the Department of Homeland Security. This entails passing physical exams, written exams, a vision test, and a drug test. Captains additionally need to complete the captain licensure exam after 10 years of work experience.

Worth Reading: How Much Does a Cruise Director Make?

The road to how to become a cruise ship captain is not easy. It requires many years of education, good grades, and experience before you take your final testing for your license. You must work your way up after graduation, and you spend a great deal of time at sea.

Many captains love what they do and find it very rewarding. This can be an extremely satisfying career for those who love the sea and have the proper skill set.

Haiyan Ma
Haiyan Ma
I absolutely love cruising with my favorite ports of call being in the Caribbean. As a former crew member for Disney Cruise Line, Royal Caribbean, and Carnival Cruise Line I can continue my passion by sharing my experiences with readers. Find out more about us here.

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