Whether you are a recreational boater, keen to enjoy the wide seas and open waters, or an aspiring entrepreneur who wants to transform a love of sailing into a business, deciding to obtain your captain’s license is a decision that you will have to make.
From figuring out whether this is something that you need, to making the choice and gaining the right license, we have everything you need to know to operate safely, legally, and comfortably.
What Is A Captain’s License?
In the simplest terms a captain’s license, also known as a USCG license, is a document issued by the United States Coast Guard, which authorizes the holder of the license to drive a commercial vessel at sea or in open water.
An exam must be taken and passed, and applicants must also meet a range of other conditions, such as ensuring that they have a minimum level of previous boating experience, passing a background check, and passing a drug and physical test with no issues.
There are two main options when it comes to choosing your license: the Master License, and the OUPV/Six-pack license. Applicants can also add endorsements for assistance towing or sailing vessels if desired.
OUPV – Operator of Uninspected Passenger Vessel License
Also known as the “Six-pack” license, this allows the holder to carry no more than 6 paying passengers on any boat that is within their tonnage rating, no matter the maximum capacity allowance for the vessel. There is no requirement for US citizenship to hold an OUPV license.
The Master’s license is the other option available, and this allows the license holder to carry up to the maximum number of passengers according to the maximum limit for the vessel. In order to obtain a Master’s license, you will need to be a US citizen.
There are two “scopes” when it comes to Master’s licenses, and these will dictate where you are allowed to operate.
Obtaining an Inland license allows you to operate both uninspected and inspected vessels anywhere within the designated boundary line laid out for Inland waters – in layman’s terms, this means any harbors or lakes.
A Master’s Inland license can also be used to obtain work as a mate on any near-coastal vessels, but you will need to be able to prove that you have at least 180 days of sea time to do this.
To obtain your Master’s Inland license, you will need a minimum of 360 days of sea time, and this can be carried out on any waters. In addition, you will need to have 90 days of experience on the Great Lakes if you aspire to operate vessels in this area.
Master Near Coastal
With a Master’s Near Coastal license, you will be permitted to operate both inspected and uninspected boats on any inland waters, as well as up to 200 miles of the coast of the USA.
In order to achieve your Master’s Near Coastal license, you will need 720 days of sea time, and at least 360 days of these must have been served on open waters, such as the ocean.
At the most advanced level, you may also be able to obtain a Master’s Ocean license, which allows you to operate in all waters lying seaward of the Boundary Lines, with details covered in Code 46 of the Federal Regulations (CFR) Part 7. This is extremely advanced, however, and requires extensive experience.
What Tonnage Vessel Can I Operate?
Another important consideration is the tonnage rating that your license allows you to operate, and your qualification for this will be dictated by the vessel sizes you have served, rather than the weight of a specific vessel.
Tonnage is calculated based on the theoretical displacement should the entire available interior space of the boat be filled with water.
It is important not to exceed the tonnage rating that you are allocated, and to remember that an initial application will never be granted a maximum tonnage rating of 100 – in order to increase this figure, you are required to have already served in a licensed capacity.
Ultimately, the tonnage rating you are allocated will depend on your experience, as well as the scope or route you are aspiring to – the greater the scope, for example, Oceans, the more sea time you will be expected to have before the higher rating will be approved.
It should also be noted that it is impossible to apply for Ocean scope on your first application – in order to qualify for this, you need to have 2 years of documented service in these waters, and also hold your license. Any OUPV license will automatically be issued with a 100-ton rating.
How Does My Sea Time Experience Impact My Licence?
Another important element in obtaining your license is the amount of sea time that you have clocked up – this is one area where experience really does matter.
In order to qualify, you will need to have been a fully working member of the crew of the specific vessel you have named on the sea service form – any time you have spent on board as a passenger will not count.
You will also need to obtain a signature from the master, manager, or owner of the vessel and, if you are the owner, then you must also have proof of ownership in the form of the state registration, Bill of Sale, or vessel document.
In addition, your experience will not be counted as “sea time” unless you have spent a minimum of four hours on any given day underway – this means that you cannot include any time spent while the boat was in the dock.
Time underway counts whether the boat is adrift or in route, but any time spent moored or with the anchor down will be disqualified.
The scope of your license will also depend on the type of experience you have managed to obtain – when it comes to Inland routes, the majority, if not all, of your documented experience on the water will have occurred on Inland waters.
This is almost the same for Near Coastal routes, with a slight adjustment; while almost all of your time will have been spent on Near Coastal waters, you are permitted to use the Inland experience to substitute up to half of the minimum days required – you will need 720 days in total.
In addition, you can count any time served beyond the three-mile limit if you are trying to document your experience for a Near Coastal route – for example, chartering across the Caribbean, or being a working part of the crew during an offshore fishing trip.
Remember that you will need to renew your license every five years, and so it is a good idea to keep a stack of blank sea service forms to hand whenever you are on the water and request that the operator signs these at the end of each trip you complete.
This will ensure that you have an ongoing record of your experience and will make it easier when you come to renew your license.
Types of Endorsements
Once you have managed to achieve your license, there are also a few specific endorsements that you will need to obtain in order to operate specific vessels. The most common endorsements include:
A sailing endorsement is required if it is your intention to work as the captain of a sailboat. To obtain this, you will need a minimum of 360 days of sea time, spend aboard a vessel, and you will have to successfully pass an extra section on your written exam.
Assistance Towing Endorsement
If you are looking to gain employment in any marine company that focuses on towing other boats, you will be required to obtain your assistance towing endorsement.
This does not require any additional time spent at sea, or for you to log any extra experience, but you will need to pass a short exam – this will be included in most courses for your license.
Any employment on vessels that are over 72 feet in length, or any vessels which undertake international voyages, will require you to obtain a Standards of Training, Certification, and Watchkeeping Endorsement certificate (STCW).
This is more commonly referred to as “basic safety training”, and will cover elements such as first aid skills, survival, and firefighting skills.
Where possible, it is a good idea to apply for as many endorsements as you can when you apply for your original license – this saves you the time and effort of having to upgrade later on.
What Are The Application Requirements For A License?
If you decide to go ahead with your application for a license and any endorsements, there are some specific requirements that you will need to ensure that you meet before you can receive your license.
Make sure that you have all of these ticked off prior to submitting your application – this can save you precious time down the line.
In order to apply for your captain’s license, you will need to be a minimum of 19 years of age. You can however begin preparing your application when you are 18 – most of the certificates and paperwork that you need will last for a year, and this allows you to submit your application on your 19th birthday.
The Correct Experience
You will be required to have undertaken a minimum of 360 days of experience at sea, and 90 of these days must have been within the last 3 years in order to qualify.
Sea Service Forms
As well as the actual experience, you also need to be prepared to prove it. This means that you will need completed “sea service” forms, and to ensure that these are filled out by the manager or owner of the vessel as confirmation of the time you have served, minus any overtime.
Any experience and tea time gained from the age of 16 can be counted, but remember that at least 90 days must have been undertaken in the past 3 years to qualify for a license.
Completed USCG Approved Exam
Before you will be awarded a license you need to successfully pass a USCG-approved examination. This can be achieved by attending and studying at any USCG-approved maritime training center or school, and your certificate of completion will last for one year, meaning that you can study for and take this when you turn 18.
Transportation Worker Identification Card (TWIC)
Transportation worker identification cards – also known as a “TWIC” – are issued by the TSA, and will be required before you are awarded your license. There is a fee for this, and you will also be required to pass a background check by the government before your card will be awarded.
If you are unable to obtain a TWIC, you will be unable to proceed with your license application.
If you are successful in obtaining your card, the photo on this will be the one included on your license, and you will be able to use this card to satisfy the “Photo ID” section of the application.
Full Medical Examination
You will also need to pass a full medical exam prior to your license being awarded – make sure that you check out the USCG medical examination guide prior to your appointment, as there are a number of errors and issues which could cause your application to be rejected.
It is a good idea to take a copy of this with you and, where possible, to opt for a medical professional who understands and is familiar with the requirements of a USCG medical. This needs to be a rigorous exam, so make sure you know what needs to be included before you head to your appointment.
Proof of Drug Screening Enrollment
Another important element of the application process is enrolling in a random drug testing program – this is a requirement of any merchant marine carrier. In some cases, this may be offered by your employer, saving you money, but you will still be required to provide proof that you have enrolled during your application.
MMC Application Form
With everything else to remember, don’t forget to actually fill in the form for your license! You will need to specify the tonnage and range that you are applying for in the relevant sections on your form.
First Aid and CPR Certificates
When you are granted your original captain’s license, you will need to prove that you are both CPR-certified and First Aid trained. This is a fairly painless process, and classes are held regularly across the country for an affordable cost.
In most cases, you will be able to complete the course in a single afternoon, and can then include your certificates in your application.
Proof of Residency (OUPV License)
In order to be awarded an OUPV license, you are required to be a US citizen. During this application, you will need to present your valid state ID, or a green card to prove your permanent residency status.
US Coast Guard Oath
As part of your application, you will need to take an official USCG Oath, and this needs to be supervised. In most cases, you will undertake this at your maritime training school, regional exam center, or other approved Coast Guard official facility.
Proof of Application Fees
You will need to pay a fee for your license, and it is a smart idea to print out the confirmation once you have done this. A copy can then be included in your application for extra peace of mind.
So, Do I Need A License?
While a captain’s license is not absolutely essential if you are planning to simply take your own personal boat out on solo trips, it is crucial if you are planning to take passengers on board, and especially if these passengers are paying.
Ultimately, obtaining your captain’s license does more than qualify you for income and jobs – this is also a great way to boost your confidence and skills on the water, teach you everything you need to know to handle your vessel safely and help to protect you and others on the water.
For that peace of mind, we would say it is definitely worth it.