How to get an official boat captain’s license, from the Coast Guard application process to Captain requirements

As with all areas of professional endeavor, obtaining a Captain’s License is a difficult and important process. Even though it has been many years since I first thought about getting one or maybe because of that. I am proud to be Captain!

Since my time as Quartermaster on the Chesapeake Lightship, back in Washington, DC, when she was berthed, I wanted to obtain my Captain’s License. She and her crew enjoyed a lot of sea time. The late Capt. Joe Murray, John Hart, and Chris Krusa ensured that each of us had the skills and knowledge necessary to do our jobs. We met with a Coast Guard officer to explore the possibilities for us all to be licensed. However, he informed us that most of us weren’t 18 and could not take the written exam.

Although I was a bit upset at the end of that session, I made it through and moved on to a research career in physics. Later I realized that the officer should have stated that we could have taken the exams if we had waited until we turned 18. My problem, years later, was that I couldn’t meet the 90-day requirement for sea time within the last three years. My employer would not be happy to see me so frequently absent. We didn’t even bother to request sea service forms or letters to record our time on the Chesapeake.

After 34 years, lucky circumstances led me to be able to obtain signed sea service forms for my time aboard the Lightship. Soon after, I became a boat owner, with vacation time granted to senior engineers in the company.

The Basics of a Captain’s License

The first applicant must decide which type of license they want to pursue. Two licenses are available for one who applies for a new one.

  • A license may be applied for to become an Operator in Uninspected Passenger Vessel or the “Six Pack” license. This license is named so because it allows the holder to carry no more than six paying passengers on any vessel within his tonnage rating, regardless of its maximum capacity.
  • Another option is a Master’s license, which allows you to transport up to the maximum number of passengers for the vessel. OUPV license holders can be citizens of other countries, while we must issue a Master’s license. A Master’s license is more lucrative, but the knowledge requirements are higher.

The waters in which you are licensed to operate under your license are the scope or route of one’s license.

Effectively, there are three areas.

  1. The first is International, which includes all inland rivers or bays not located outside the demarcation lines for the high seas. This could also cover portions of the Great Lakes beyond the International boundary line. I will not discuss the Great Lakes and Western Rivers, but an Inland scope covers these waters, including a specific endorsement.
  2. The second route is close-coastal, which refers to ocean waters not more than 200 miles offshore. A near-coastal endorsement also includes inland waters.
  3. Lastly, oceans refer to all waters seaward of Boundary Lines. This is described in 46 Code of Federal Regulations Part 7.

Tonnage rating will be determined by the size of vessels on which an applicant served. Tonnage does not refer to the displacement or weight of a vessel. It does not include how many things you have loaded onto a boat. This is the calculation of theoretical displacement, assuming that all of the interior volumes of a ship were filled with material of density 1, i.e., water.

You can use formulas to calculate that depending on the boat’s dimensions and type. For a sailboat or a powerboat, the calculations will be different. A 100 Ton powerboat would measure approximately 80 feet in length, while a 100 Ton sailboat would measure around 100 feet. The maximum tonnage rating should not exceed the limit.

One does not have to serve on a 50- or 100-ton vessel to earn an equivalent tonnage rating.  A 100 Ton rating cannot be granted on an initial license. Higher Tonnage will require that the applicant has previously served in a licensed capacity. I applied for a 200 Ton rating when I renewed my license in November. This was contingent on my passing the written test. I am sure you have already taken the exam by the time this is written.

One’s documented experience determines route and Tonnage. You may be eligible for a 100-ton rating. However, your experience may not allow you to receive 50 tons. You must spend more time at sea to be eligible for the rating.

An Inland scope, for example, requires 360 days of total sea time and 90 days in each of the last three years. A near-coastal scope, however, needs 720 days and the 90-day recency requirements. This is why experience is so important and should not be overlooked. You cannot get an Ocean scope unless you are a licensed master or mate for at least two years and have documented service on the waters. Applying for an ocean scope with a single application is impossible.

An OUPV license automatically comes with a 100 Ton rating. This may seem harsh, but it is because an OUPV license is automatically issued with a 100 Ton rating. OUPV licenses with different tonnage ratings are not of any benefit. Ratings of 25, 50, 100, or 100 tons are required for new Master’s licenses. This article does not cover ratings exceeding 100 tons and Ocean routes. If you have any questions, please contact the author.

Sea Time Experience

Most of your documented sea time will be in Inland waters for an Inland route. Although Inland technically encompasses the Great Lakes, and Western Rivers, there are additional requirements for service and knowledge.

You should spend your Near Coastal route time on Near-Coastal waters. However, you can substitute half the 720 days minimum required with Inland route services. Any time spent beyond the 3-mile limit is counted towards the documentation of sea time on a Near Coastal route. This applies whether you are a charter captain in the Caribbean or a crew member on an offshore fishing trip.

To be clear, you cannot count sea time unless you are a crew member on the vessel listed on the sea service forms. This means that being a passenger is insufficient.

The applicant must get the signature of either the owner, manager or Master of the vessel on the sea-service form to keep things running smoothly. The form must be accompanied by proof that the applicant owns the vessel. A bill of sale, vessel document, or state registration could be used as proof.

Sea time is not included if you spend at most 4 hours on a given day. Not counting being onboard the boat, swabbing decks. Whether the boat is adrift or iEn route, time spent counts underway. It does not count if you are anchored or moored. Collecting and collating all your sea service forms can be time-consuming, especially after the fact. Even if you don’t plan on getting a license, I recommend keeping blank sea service forms handy for the vessel operator to sign after each trip. The forms do not apply to each trip but only to one vessel. You can document up to five years of sea time on any vessel. Your license can be renewed every 5 years. This allows you to store up to five years’ worth of data.

Technically, vessels exceeding 200 gross tons require a Service letter from the employer or vessel manager. When I applied for my first license, I filled out a Sea Service form (CG-719S) detailing my time aboard the Chesapeake Lightship. This form was accepted when I renewed my license and requested an upgrade of 200 tons. My grandfather’s status may have allowed me to apply, so new applicants should check their circumstances with the National Maritime Center.

Health and Medical

A Captain requires that one is in good physical and mental health. The most detailed form is the CG-719K Medical form. The form also needs to be signed by a licensed physician. The US Coast Guard does not need to approve the physician’s license. This is in contrast to an FAA pilot’s license. Acceptable is your family doctor.

I filled out as much as possible. The form was then faxed to my doctor ahead of my annual physical. This allowed the doctor to review the information and be ready to sign it off. The doctor only had to conduct a standard vision test and color vision. You don’t need glasses to see well, but it is possible to have a prescription written on your license that requires corrective lenses to be worn and one spare to be on hand for when you are on duty. You will receive a separate medical form if your medical form has been accepted. This form must be kept with your Merchant Mariner Credential. The back cover has a pocket to store it and the Transport Worker’s ID Card ( TWIC). Below is information about the TWIC.

The DOT five-panel drug testing is another form that an authorized doctor must complete. The applicant must submit proof of drug testing with no results as determined and signed off by an authorized doctor. You must also be aware that you must prove that you have participated in a drug testing program. This could be either as an individual or as required by your employer. This proof must always be kept with you, just like your medical certificate and license. It usually takes the form of a written letter attesting that you have passed a test within 12 months of receiving the letter.

Background in Criminal and National Security

A driving record and criminal background check have been mandatory. You can see that adverse results in any of these areas could negatively impact your application.

The Department of Homeland Security was created. It now requires that all licensed mariners possess a TWIC Card. Anyone working in transportation (air, rails, marine, trucking, etc.) must have a TWIC card. A TWIC card is mandatory for anyone working in the transportation sector (air, rail, marine, trucking, etc.) Any evidence that you may threaten national security will be investigated. Because you are a licensed captain, you might have access to strategic and vital marine facilities.

DHS issues the TWIC card through a federal contractor. The application must be completed, and there is a fee to be paid. You must also appear in person to take your fingerprints and photo. These biometric data are stored on a TWIC card and protected with a passcode. A copy of your TWIC must be submitted with your license application.

A separate photo of the applicant must be attached to the application. It can be either a passport photo or a driver’s license. It must be issued by the state or federal government. Other documents may be accepted, but applicants should confirm this with NMC before applying. This will avoid delays in processing.


Applicants must take a test covering at least three knowledge areas:

  • Coastal Navigation
  • Deck General Knowledge
  • Road rules

Deck General covers various topics, including terminology, fire safety, terminology, laws, and procedures. Rules of the Road is exactly what it says. Remember that the Rules of the Road test can be used to determine whether you want an Inland or Near Coastal license. These details should be familiarized with as you study. There are many variations in the vessel precedence, sound signals, lights, and shapes that vessels display.

Additional areas are required if you apply for a Master’s license. The same applies if you’re also applying for an endorsement for Sail, Auxiliary Sail, or Commercial Assistance Towing. There are more questions.

Must score a minimum of 70% in all subjects except Rules of the Road, for which you must score a minimum of 90% to pass. You can only miss three questions to get a 90% score. You must use a chart to plot routes and positions for the Navigation questions.

Either you pay an exam fee or enroll in approved Captains’ courses. Instead of Coast Guard exams, the school will issue you a certificate of completion. However, the Coast Guard exams will still be taken. You will still have to take the exams with the same questions as the Coast Guard. The latter will allow you to skip the examination fee, but you will still need to pay tuition.

Complete your Application

It is similar to many other forms of licensing applications. It is much shorter than the earlier medical form. Two things are important to be aware of when filling out the application.

  • Section 4: 1 describes how one might be asked to act in national emergencies. Operation Desert Storm, the large-scale sealift conducted to support the first Gulf War in the 1980s, is an example. This voluntary action is not required. It should be noted, however, that more mariners were requested than were available during Desert Storm’s call-up. There is always the possibility of another national emergency, especially in these times.
  • Section 5: contains an Oath that applicants must swear. Coast Guard personnel will swear you in if you present yourself in person. You must prove that you have taken the written oath if you submit your application via mail or electronically. This usually means you must be sworn in by a Notary Public or another local official, such as a county clerk.

All required application and examination fees must be paid online before you submit your application. You will receive a receipt, which should be included in your application. Pay attention to all fees. Make sure that you only select the ones that apply. Any error will cause delays in processing your application.

Submitting your Application

If you are applying for an original license, especially if you intend to take the Coast Guard exam, you must bring your application package to a USCG Regional Examination Center. You will also need to provide a photo ID.

If you are present in person, one thing will happen: you will raise your right arm and take the oath. It was an extremely moving moment for me. If there are any errors or omissions in the application package, it can be delivered in person.

You can submit your application electronically or by mail if you are not taking Coast Guard exams. Electronic submissions have a limit to the size of email attachments. My Coast Guard mail servers have never accepted my applications that were larger than the maximum size.

Waiting for your license

Coast Guard has a great system for tracking your application and giving feedback every step of the process. You will be notified by email as the application progresses through the system. It can take a week for the REC to review your application and forward it to the National Maritime Center in West Virginia. This was my experience with New York City REC. You might find it less in smaller venues.

You don’t have to use the REC closest to you. You may fly to Hawaii and Alaska rather than drive into Baltimore. Because he heard that processing times in New York were shorter than in New Jersey, a friend drove from New Jersey to Boston and submitted his application.

The process will usually take no time once the NMC has received your package. As the application progresses through various approvals, you will likely receive two to three emails per day. The feeling of being approved and having your credential printed is unbeatable!

It took me slightly longer than two weeks to get my original license from the moment I dropped off my application at Battery Park, New York until I received my MMC in my mail.

After you have received your license, make sure to examine it carefully. It is possible that you have not been given the rating or scope you wanted. Sometimes, this reduction is legitimate. Sometimes, the reduction may be legitimate. Both my renewal and original licenses were subject to honest errors. My original license granted me a 50-ton rating, even though I had requested 100 tons. After I had submitted the sea service form supporting my request for 100 tonnes, I received an endorsement sticker for the 100-ton rating one week later. Similar to my renewal, I requested an upgrade to 200 tonnes. My renewal was approved at 100 tonnes. The NMC amended my approval and approved me to take the test required to upgrade to 200 tons. You should not accept the MMC delivered as though it were made of stone.

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