How Much Do Ship Captains Make? [Explained]

Anyone who is looking for a new career or even if you’re just interested in finding out more about life on the seas might be interested in what ship captains make. After all, this always seems like an exciting career option, doesn’t it? Being able to get out there on the water and sail for the rest of your days? But is it really a lucrative career? Or even a reasonable one? Well, let’s take a look.

How Much Do Ship Captains Make?

The truth is that a ship captain’s wages are dependent on what they actually do. Some ship captains make only around $50,000 a year. Others could make upwards of $100,000 a year. The most lucrative jobs are generally on cruise ships or as inland water captains.

Those who work as inland water captains might make around $88,000 a year, while scenic captains make around $54,000 a year. It’s important to note that they don’t work only 40 hours a week, however. Ship captains live on their ship and they are on call 24/7 when the ship is out at sea. That means they could be working far more than the standard hours for a year.

Are There Any Female Cruise Ship Captains?

There are absolutely female cruise ship captains out there. The first one was a Swedish captain named Karin Stahre-Janson, in 2007. The first American female cruise ship captain was Kate McCue in 2015, who headed Celebrity Cruises. But they were definitely not the last women to head a cruise ship.

There are currently nine cruise ships that are headed by women, though there are over 300 cruise ships out and about. More and more women are starting to earn this role, the same as they are starting to venture into becoming airline captains. (In fact, the number of both is almost the same).

How Do You Become a Certified Captain?

It doesn’t have to be difficult to become a captain. In fact, the easiest way to do it is by taking a captain’s license course that is certified by the USCG (United States Coast Guard). The classes are available widely and the packets to achieve your license must be turned into the Coast Guard.

If you want to become a captain you will need to get a lot of experience with a boat. You can count any experience that you have on a boat toward your requirements to become a captain, which means you don’t have to be in charge of anything at the time. Being a part of the crew is going to help you become a better captain. The course is also designed to be intense and test your abilities, so make sure you’re paying attention and getting a good score on your exam.

What Are the Different Levels of the Captain’s License?

There are several different levels of captain’s license, with the first being operator of uninspected passenger vehicles and the highest level being master near coastal. Each provides you with the certification to captain different types of ships in different situations.

As an operator of uninspected passenger vehicles (what’s commonly called a 6-pack license), you can captain an uninspected vessel with up to six passengers at a time. You can choose between inland, inland, and great lakes or near coastal for your certification.

The second level is a master inland, which gives you the ability to sail an inspected or uninspected vessel within the bounds for inland waters. And finally, as a master near coastal, you can operate up to 200 miles off the coast of the US on an inspected or uninspected vessel.

Is It Hard To Get a Captain’s License?

If you have experience on a ship and you’ve prepared fully for and during your class you shouldn’t have a hard time getting a captain’s license. The course and exam are designed to test you but not to trick you, so you should be able to pass them with a decent amount of skill.

How Long Does It Take To Get a Captain’s License?

Getting a base level license, the 6-pack license generally takes about 25-30 hours to complete the course. If you’re looking to get a master license you may need up to 40 hours. Keep in mind that these hours are not straight hours and you may complete them in a few days, weeks, months, or even a year.

How Long is a Captain’s License Good For?

A captain’s license is good for five years, and as long as you continue to renew your license every five years you won’t have to go through the entire certification process again. This makes it a whole lot easier for you to get back to being a captain whenever you choose to.

Renewing your license requires a refresher course with the USCG or 360 days of sea service during the five year time frame as well as a medical exam, drug testing enrollment, and a renewal form. Then you pay the fees and you’re good for another five years rather than taking the entire course and exam over again.

What Size Boat Needs a Captain’s License?

The size of the boat is not so much the important part as what it’s carrying. Any boat that carries passengers for hire must have a licensed captain on board. Likewise, any kind of commercial shipping vessel requires a captain aboard. Otherwise, if you want to be paid as a captain you need to be licensed as a captain.


Becoming a captain on a ship doesn’t have to be difficult and in fact, it’s not. The course and exam can be done in just a few days of dedicated work and study. Or you can space it out as long as you need. The most important part is just enjoying being a captain of your own vessel, no matter what size or type it is.


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