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What Does a Ship Captain Do? (2023 Guide)

what does a ship captain do

Has the idea of life on the high seas captured your imagination? 

If the idea of navigating vessels floats your boat, the role of Ship Captain could be for you. This job puts you in control of an entire vessel, and you would be responsible for overseeing all operations. While this job can be interesting, you need to make sure you can rise to the challenge. You’ll need to be prepared to spend long periods away from home and complete the necessary training.

 If you want to find out ‘What Does a Ship Captain Do??’, then it’s time to find out…

The Work Environment

You will usually be assigned to a single boat for a few weeks or even months at a time. The type and size of the boat you are assigned to will depend on your certification. The territory of the boat could be navigating waterways between harbors, traveling rivers, or touring at sea. 

While you will be assigned a particular shift pattern, you will always be on call while on the boat. You will need to be ready to take control and resolve issues at any time. Adjust your sleep patterns so that you get enough rest when not on duty. 

What Does a Ship Captain Do? – Key Duties And Responsibilities

As Ship Captain, you will be charged with managing every aspect of the boat. This includes making sure that everyone onboard works in harmony and that the boat is properly maintained. Here are some of the duties and responsibilities you are likely to be charged with regularly. 


You will use radar, radios, buoys, lighthouses, and depth fixers to navigate your vessel through weather conditions. Make sure the vessel reaches the set destination at the specified time. This involves studying maps and charts and determining the best course to set. You will also calculate fuel consumption based on variables like wind speed, ship speed, and sea conditions. 



You will be charged with safely driving and steering the vessel. You will be responsible for every movement the vessel makes while at sea. Make sure that the journey is as smooth as possible at all times. 

Ship maintenance

Before setting sail, you will thoroughly inspect the vessel to make sure it is seaworthy. You need to have a good understanding of the relevant rules and regulations and make sure they are followed. Perform routine checks at different stages of the journey. You need to be ready to assist with routine maintenance when required.

Managing evacuation procedures

The Titanic proved that there is no such thing as an unsinkable ship and things can go wrong at sea. In the worst-case scenario, you need to oversee the evacuation of the ship and maintain safety. Do everything possible to eliminate danger and protect the cargo and passengers. This includes quickly assessing the situation and making important decisions while under pressure. 

Crew management

You will be in charge of monitoring the performance of all crew members. Make sure that all crew members are fully trained and operate at the optimum level. You will often be involved in hiring decisions and carrying out disciplinary action when necessary. 

Legal duties

You will be responsible for any legal issues that arise while you are in charge of the vessel. Therefore, it is essential to have deep knowledge of the laws that affect the activities of crew members. This includes keeping careful records of incidents and resolving them to the letter of the law. 


You will maintain direct communication with your superiors and receive orders and other information. When new orders are received, you will pass them on to the relevant crew members. This will also include coast guards, local governments, and dock clerks when entering different territories. 

Essential Skills And Attributes

This role is a position of authority, and you need to make sure you develop the right skills. While you will be taught the necessary technical skills, you also need to develop a set of soft skills. Here are some of the main skills and attributes a Ship Captain needs to possess

Leadership skills

Leadership skills

You need to be comfortable giving orders and making important decisions. Good leaders must have a good understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of other employees. This will allow them to delegate tasks to the right people and provide extra motivation when needed. 

Customer service skills

You need to play host to all passengers on the boat and make sure they have a pleasant experience. This includes regularly checking in with passengers and being available to arrange services for them. Having strong customer service skills means that you always put the needs of passengers first. 

Hand-eye coordination

You need to be able to correct courses quickly when steering a vessel. Hand-eye coordination is also essential when performing maintenance tasks. You will often need to perform several tasks at once while being aware of your surroundings. 

Attention to detail

You must be able to stop even the tiniest errors and issues when performing inspections. A single missing bolt in a strategic place could lead to a serious issue during your voyage. You must also be able to notice potential issues between crew members and passengers. 

Decision making

As the leader of the vessel, you will regularly need to make important decisions. Be able to think and act quickly when under pressure. Even a moment’s hesitation could make a big difference when you are at sea. 

Excellent hearing

Your hearing ability will be tested as part of your training and certification program. You have to pass a hearing test, which can also be given again at any time during your career. 

Mechanical skills

This is essential for properly maintaining and repairing your vessel. Mechanical training will be given as part of your program. When being put in charge of a new vessel, you need to make sure you understand the unique mechanics. 

Physical strength and stamina

Physical strength and stamina

You will often be charged with helping load and unload cargo, especially early in your career. Your physical strength and stamina will be tested as part of your training. You must be able to stand for long periods and walk quickly around the vessel. 

How To Become A Ship Captain

If you have decided that this is the job for you, it is time to start working on your career path. You usually need to complete specialist training and gain experience before you can advance to this role. 

Choose a career path

There are several ways to gain the training and experience you need to become a Ship’s Captain. It is important to assess the different options and pick a path as early as possible. This will help you to focus on your goal and achieve it as quickly as possible. 

Complete a training program 

Complete a training program 

You need to choose a training program that is approved by the U.S. Coast Guard. This will ensure that you receive the training and licensure necessary to work in the water transportation field. One of the best options is the four–year program offered by the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy.

The coursework that you complete during this program will prepare you for your licensing exam. Topics include electronic navigation, maritime law, meteorology, and ship construction. At the end of the program, you will be awarded a Bachelor of Science degree. 

Work as a Deck Officer 

Once you have gained your degree, you can apply to join the Sealift Officer Program, Naval Reserve, or Coast Guard Reserve. You can start working as a deck officer, which will give you hands-on training. 

Earn credentials 

You need to apply to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security for a Transportation Worker Identification Credential. Gaining this credential shows that you have passed a security screening and are a U.S. citizen or permanent resident. You will usually need to earn a Merchant Mariner Credential through the U.S. Coast Guard.

Advance through the ranks

Ship Captain is the highest rank on any vessel, and you need to gain experience and on-the-job training. You need to prove yourself at each stage of your career and show that you can handle responsibility. You may need to complete regulated tests at certain stages as you advance. 

Read more: $75,000 a Year is How Much an Hour?

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Final Thoughts

It takes time and dedication to become the Captain of a Ship. In addition to completing your training, you need to demonstrate that you have strong leadership skills. You will usually need to gain at least four years of sailing experience and prove that you are reliable.

Be prepared to spend several months at a time away from friends and family. While this role comes with a lot of responsibility, it also comes with a fairly high salary. Once you have gained experience, you could make around $85,000 per year.

Bon Voyage, and stay safe!

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