A captain's ticket

Ever thought about getting your captain’s ticket? Haven’t we all? For many recreational mariners, there are some big questions: What are the advantages to getting a license? What are the different levels of license? How do I go about the process?”

The advantages of the master’s license are obvious for those who make their living at running boats, even in the recreational marine industry — sightseeing, whale-watching, fishing-party (“head”) boats, etc. — but what about the recreational sailor? Well, many boat owners who use their boats primarily for pleasure voyaging also occasionally — or perhaps even regularly — seek delivery assignments, and the master’s license is clearly advantageous for them. Also, most insurance companies will offer discounted rates to licensed owners. There are also some intangible benefits, like the advantage of improving, refining and maintaining seamanship skills. Possession of a master’s license clearly demonstrates a commitment to the craft and entitles the holder to the prestige and recognition that is due a serious and accomplished seaman and comes with the title of captain. This cannot help but create a favorable impression on harbor masters, Coast Guard boarding personnel, customs officials, etc.


There are nearly 100 different types of master’s licenses available for various combinations of vessel tonnage, vessel type and the waters in which the vessel and master operate. Assuming you’re not planning a career change, the two of these with the most practical interest to the offshore voyaging sailor are the Master 100 Gross Tons, and the Operator of Uninspected Passenger Vessels — this last is commonly referred to as the “six-pack” or “charterboat” license. There are two versions of the Master 100-Ton and three versions of the OUPV, depending on the waters in which the vessel operates and the qualifications required of the applicant. There are also, of course, different limitations placed on the vessel’s operations for each version. However, before we get into the eligibility requirements and limitations of these licenses, we should define a few terms.

The boundary line is used to define the bodies of water to which the various licenses are restricted, such as inland and near-coastal waters. Boundary lines are defined by seaward, high-water shorelines and across entrances to small bays, inlets and rivers. In some areas, the boundary line can be many miles from shore; in others it may even come ashore. The term “inland waters” refers to those waters shoreward of the boundary line. “Near-coastal waters” means those waters seaward of the boundary line out to 200 miles offshore. The three versions of the OUPV license are inland waters, near-coastal waters and Great Lakes. The two versions of the Master 100-Ton are near-coastal and inland waters. In order to complete the application forms, you will need to plot the boundary line in your waters and make note of your sea time in both areas. The boundary line coordinates are listed in 46 CFR 7, which is available on the Internet or at a public library.

OUPV, the six-pack license

This license is for captains of uninspected less than 100 gross tons carrying up to six passengers for hire plus crew. Uninspected simply means that the equipment required and the design of the vessel are less regulated than inspected vessels. Examples of inspected vessels are ferries, whale-watch and fishing-party boats. “Passenger for hire” means a passenger from whom consideration is required as a condition for passage on the vessel. Consideration does not mean a voluntary sharing of expenses, such as by friends.

The applicant must be at least 18 years of age and have 360 days of documented underway time, 90 days of the 360 must have been in the last three years. This license enables the holder to captain vessels up to 100 gross tons. U.S. citizenship is not required; however, non-citizen licenses may be limited as to the tonnage of the vessel. The inland version of the OUPV license is restricted to the waters within the boundary line. The near-coastal version is valid up to 100 miles offshore and has the additional requirement that at least 90 days of the 360 days must have been outside the boundary line. The OUPV Great Lakes license limits the operator to the Great Lakes and their connecting and tributary waters.

Master 100-Ton

The Master 100-Ton license is a more advanced-level license than the OUPV. It does not have the limitation on the number of paying passengers, and it allows the holder to operate both inspected and uninspected vessels. Both the amount of sea service and the size of the vessels on which you’ve had experience will influence the type of license you are issued. The master’s license may be issued in increments of 25, 50 and 100 gross tons, and the tonnage you are awarded is determined by the size of the vessel on which you gained your sea service. You don’t have to advance through the different levels one at a time. If you meet the requirements for the 100-ton license, that’s the license you’ll be issued.

The applicant must be at least 19 years of age and a citizen of the United States. For the inland version, 360 days of documented underway experience gained since the age of 13, and 90 days of the 360 must have been within the last three years. In addition, 180 of the 360 days must have been outside the boundary line and acquired since the age of 16. The age and citizenship requirements for the near-coastal version of the master’s license are the same as those for the inland version. However, 720 days of documented underway sea service is required and must have been acquired since the age of 13. As with the inland version, 90 days of the 720 days must have been within the last three years. 360 of the 720 days must have been outside the boundary line and acquired since the age of 16. This version of the master’s license is valid out to 200 miles offshore. For both versions of the master’s license, a sail endorsement is necessary for sail or auxiliary sailing vessels, and this requires at least 180 days in this type of vessel for the inland version and 360 days for the near-coastal license.

There is also a limited version of the master’s license that is intended for employees of organizations such as yacht clubs, marinas, formally organized camps and educational institutions. This type of license is limited to the specific activity and the locality of the organization. This license requires only four months of service on any waters in the operation of the type of vessel for which the license is intended.

As pointed out above, it is not a question of applying for a particular license. Upon successful completion of the Coast Guard exam, you will be issued the highest level of license for which you qualify.

Common requirements

In addition to those discussed above, there are some requirements that are common to all of these licenses. For example, applicants must submit evidence of having completed a physical examination covering general physical condition, visual acuity, ability to differentiate between colors, and drug history. He or she must also submit three character references from qualified persons who have firsthand knowledge of his or her skills and character, and the applicant must provide written disclosure of all prior criminal convictions as part of the application package.

Candidates for the above licenses must also submit a certificate of completion of a first-aid course within the past 12 months with the American Red Cross or the Coast Guard. A currently valid CPR certificate obtained from the Red Cross or the American Heart Association must also be submitted. The Officer in Charge of Marine Inspections (OCMI) has some discretion in the determination of the validity of these certificates obtained from other institutions.

Applicants for the master’s license for service on vessels of 200 gross tons or less in ocean service also require the applicant to pr
esent a certificate of completion from a firefighting course of instruction that has been approved by the Coast Guard. This would apply to the Master 100-Ton Near-Coastal and the OUPV Near-Coastal licenses.

All of the above requirements are included in the application package that will be sent to you when you request it from the Coast Guard regional exam center at the Marine Safety Office nearest you. There are 17 such offices located in major cities on both the East and West coasts and the Gulf of Mexico. Each of the documents must be filled out completely and submitted to the exam center. Care should be taken in filling out the forms; a surprising number of submissions are returned because of failure to read and answer questions properly and initial the response where required. Evaluation of the package takes from two to four weeks, and when complete, you will be notified by phone or by mail with specific instructions as to which licenses you have been approved to test for or which requirements have not been met. There is, of course, a fee, which ranges from $145 to $355, depending on whether or not you are attending a Coast Guard-approved course that is substituting for the license examination.

Preparing for the exam

The actual examination consists of multiple-choice questions on Rules of the Road, navigation, piloting, charts, safety, stability, survival, shiphandling, marlinespike seamanship and more. So, how do you go about preparing for the exam? Well, nowadays it boils down to two basic methods, home or self-study and classroom courses.

Classroom courses. The Coast Guard has established approved facilities that teach all of the subjects necessary to pass the examination and are also designated and approved examiners who offer hands-on training as well and are authorized to sign off on competency certifications. (Some examples are Maritime Professional Training in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., Two Rivers Marine Training in Port Arthur, Texas, and Crawford Nautical School in Seattle. To find a complete list on the Web, the address for the comprehensive Coast Guard website is given below.)

Satisfactory completion of such a course means that, upon presentation of your Certificate of Completion, the Coast Guard will issue the license without a Coast Guard examination. The courses are taught by licensed masters, and the instructor-to-student ratios are low, so the success rates for these classroom courses are very high, 100 percent in some cases. Typically, they run from nine to 12 days and cost on the order of $1,000 to $1,200. Some schools require students to come to their location, and they either provide on-campus housing or make rooms available nearby at moderate cost. Others hold classes on a regularly scheduled and relatively frequent — even monthly — basis in strategically located cities and towns. The classes are arranged to accommodate those of us who have to work for a living — weekday evenings and weekends all day.

Home Study. Those whose schedules just won’t accommodate a week or so of classroom attendance will have to do it the old-fashioned way: self-study. This requires a good deal of self-discipline, but there is no shortage of available resources. There are many organizations out there that offer all the necessary training materials. These materials are available in the form of books, videos, floppy disks, CD-ROMs and tape cassettes on each of the subjects covered in the Coast Guard exam. There are even those that provide many if not most of the questions found in the exam — and the answers. They can be purchased individually, according to the individual student’s pace. Prices are quite reasonable, ranging from $12 to $15 for floppy disks and CD-ROMs, to $75 for videotapes. There is one fairly recent book, Charlie Wing’s Get Your Captain’s License, (International Marine Publishing; Camden, Maine; 1997) that provides a thorough treatment of the subject but is in need of some updating for recent changes in the regulations. There are also complete home-study kits that put the whole package together for you and layout a lesson plan to guide you through the process. One of the more complete home-study kits is that produced by Houston Marine Training Services and is available from them or from one of their licensed agents at prices ranging from $625 to $675.

However, there are a lot more schools in all regions of the country. If you have access to the Internet, you can go to www.charternet.com/schools/usa.html, where there is a list of schools by state. Also, just about all the information you could want or need is available for free on the Coast Guard website, including a list of addresses for regional exam centers, a list of approved courses and schools, the exam questions, and the application and forms can be downloaded from this site: www.uscg.mil/STCW/m-pers. n

Ev Collier is an engineer and freelance writer, he wrote The Boatowner’s Guide to Corrosion, published by International Marine. He lives in Lynnfield, Mass.

By Ocean Navigator