How to Become a Cruise Ship Captain

The allure of the freedom of sailing the high seas and the glamor of travel to exotic destinations all over the world tend to draw people towards the vocation of cruise ship captain. However, what many people don’t fully understand is that being the captain of a cruise ship is a lot of work and responsibility. Becoming a captain of a cruise ship takes years of study and experience.

Before we delve into the schooling involved, the duties and responsibilities of this job should be thoroughly explored. As mentioned, while the position appears to be glamorous on the surface, the reality is a stark contrast.

Are you ready to be a cruise ship captain?

“Master of the ship” is what defines this role. It sounds exciting to oversee an entire ship that sails to distant destinations that most people only dream of visiting. It’s alluring to be in an environment where there’s fun, romance, and excitement around every corner. Plus, getting paid for it… Sounds like a dream come true!

However, reality sets in quickly because this job is a lot of work and responsibility. To really succeed as a cruise ship captain, you have to really love the job you do.

The skills required to be a cruise ship captain

Although it may not be easy, being the captain of a cruise ship is indeed rewarding. They oversee a team of thousands of people to make sure everything is done and every need is met. A captain must ensure that local and international laws are respected.

Captains operate and maintain complex navigation systems, as well as the ship’s engines. They monitor the entry and exit of passengers from the ship. They must ensure that each person is taken into account and that no passenger is forgotten or disappears.

The safety of crew and passengers is of the utmost importance in this position. The master of the vessel is responsible for being familiar with the safety equipment and ensuring that it functions properly in the event of an emergency. After all, everyone’s life could be at stake if they don’t.

They must be able to apply appropriate security protocols, navigate the ship through weather changesand communicate with nearby ships and ports.

They must also be communicative and social. Captains are often required to socialize with passengers, including hosting dinner parties and chatting. Since captains oversee the ship, many people report to them, such as the cruise director, chief engineer, and hotel manager.

The captains are the reference person in all aspects of the ship and are responsible for its safety in addition to the guests. It’s easy to see why this position is a huge responsibility, and it can be heavy.

Are you ready for this?

While this all sounds great, there are things some people don’t consider with this job. The bottom line is that cruise ship captains work long, tiring hours. They work 10 weeks straight, then have 10 weeks off. However, during those 10 weeks of work, they must be on call 24/7 and operating on as little as five hours of sleep, depending on how things go.

In addition, there are often emergency situations that passengers are completely unaware of. Captains need to be able to read the weather and know what’s coming. This may mean changing course to circumvent extreme weather conditions. You should avoid rough seas which can endanger guests.

cruise ship captain
Cruise ship captain (Photo credit: Michele Rinaldi / Shutterstock)

Then there is the stress of arriving on time at different ports. Sometimes the weather can make it difficult to arrive on time when a different course had to be plotted. In this case, the captain must determine whether to speed up the ship or try to make up for lost time in some other way.

Ultimately, they are responsible for ensuring customers are happy. This means that the ship arrives and departs on time. However, not everything can go smoothly. Sometimes people are late, which delays the departure. Other times, there may be mechanical issues.

Also read: What is the typical salary of a cruise ship captain?

Cruise ship captains must remain calm under all circumstances. This job can be very stressful. However, if the captain seems stressed, the guests will be uncomfortable. Customers can never know there is a problem unless they need to be aware of it. Captains try to handle situations as best they can, knowing that lives depend on it.

Moreover, they often do so with very little sleep. So when they have 10 weeks off, they take full advantage of the time to relax. While they work, the ship truly becomes their mistress.

The responsibilities of a cruise ship captain include:

  • Supervise the navigation and operation of the vessel
  • Work with crew members and senior officers
  • Supervise the position of the vessel
  • Determine and establish vessel speed
  • Avoid potential and actual safety hazards
  • Maintain and service a vessel’s equipment and engines
  • Ensure all security protocols are observed and followed
  • Comply with international and local laws
  • Comply with immigration and customs laws

What type of education is required?

The very first step is to get a high school diploma or equivalent. Once this objective has been achieved, the person must have a bachelor’s or master’s degree in marine science/marine engineering. It is preferred that the degree be obtained from a reputable maritime academy or college.

If you are in high school and know that you want to get into this profession, it is advisable to go to a maritime high school for more specialized education. This type of school emphasizes maritime knowledge and skills.

cruise deck
Cruise ship deck (Photo credit: wonderlustpigeon / Shutterstock)

Good grades are needed to have a better chance of gaining admission into a maritime college or academy. The competition for entry is very tough, so above average grades are required for admission.

To gain good experience, you can try to get summer jobs or part-time employment in a maritime industry, such as on a ship or in a shipyard. This allows learning beyond school. It will also prepare you for ship repairs, a ship’s chain of command, and how a ship operates.

Once admitted, specialized courses like Marine Engineering, Marine Science, Shipping, and Ocean Science can be selected. In order to be considered for the job, a master’s degree is not always necessary. However, it offers an advantage. Plus, you need to have excellent grades because most cruise ships hire captains who rank in the top 5-10% of their class.

A bachelor’s degree will take three to four years to complete. A master’s degree will take an additional two to three years. If you want to receive the maximum education, a PhD will take another two to three years.

Radiation of the Seas Bridge
Radiance of the Seas Bridge (Photo credit: Philip Schubert / Shutterstock)

After graduating, most people start as a third mate or deck officer. This is an entry-level position, and most captains start in these ranks. You can also work in the Naval Reserve and Coast Guard Reserve to gain years of experience.

Individuals should have a thorough knowledge of shipping, logistics, maritime/safety laws and management. They also need a lot of training to be a cruise ship captain. A captain’s license obtained by a federal maritime authority is required for the position. Obtaining this license can take 10 years.

To put it into perspective, it takes longer to become a cruise ship captain than a brain surgeon. Most captains earn their bars between the ages of 18 and 22.

Certifications and exams

Ship captains are trained by maritime academies. This is the fastest way to receive proper training. Some academies require people to serve in the armed forces. After completing a four-year program, prospective applicants receive a Bachelor of Science degree, in addition to a Coast Guard license as a third mate.

cruise ship captain salary
Photo credit: Philomena Venturini / Shutterstock

For certification, they need a transportation work credential. This is given by the Transportation Security Administration which helps locate cruise ship captains. A Merchant Seaman title is required by the Department of Homeland Security. This involves taking physical exams, written exams, a vision test, and a drug test. Captains must additionally pass the captain’s license exam after 10 years of professional experience.

To read: how much does a cruise director earn?

The road to becoming a cruise ship captain is not easy. It takes many years of study, good grades and experience before taking the final tests for your license. You need to progress after graduation and you spend a lot of time at sea.

Many captains love what they do and find it very rewarding. It can be a hugely satisfying career for those who love the sea and have the necessary skills.

How to Become a Cruise Ship Captain