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  • Writer's pictureSarah Whiteford

What is it like to be the captain of a large ship?

Ship’s captains hold command and responsibility of a vessel. They are responsible for navigation, taking care of the crew, paperwork, and in some cases, keeping the ship safe from pirates. Today we’re going to take a look at some of the duties of captains, what the job is like, and how they get there. We’ll also look at some of the differences in captaining two types of large vessels: commercial container ships and cruise ships.

“The CMA CGM Marco Polo passes underneath the Bayonne Bridge on its way to the Elizabeth-Port Authority Marine Terminal as seen from Bayonne, N.J., Thursday, May 20, 2021. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)”. Image from WSAV.

The captain of any vessel has to keep the ship compliant with local and international laws. This includes the categories of navigation, maintenance, cargo handling, personnel management, inventory, and maintaining certificates and documentation. According to Wikipedia and Academic, “All persons on board, including officers and crew, other shipboard staff members, passengers, guests and pilots, are under the captain's authority and are his ultimate responsibility.” Ship captains also ensure compliance with the vessel’s security plan according to the International Maritime Organization's (IMO) ISPS Code. These are custom developed for each vessel and include inspections, searches, restricted spaces, and even how to respond to threats like pirates, stowaways, hijackers, and terrorists. Instances of smuggling, saboteurs, and refugees are also covered - life on the water is not your typical day at the office. If all that isn’t enough, captains are usually in charge of the money, doing the accounting, payrolls, and inventories. If there is damage to the ship, its cargo, property, or people the master is the liaison to local authorities and provides all documentation surrounding the event like logbooks, reports, statements, and evidence.

“Captain José explains the intricacies of running a cruise ship. - Photo by Simon Duvall”. Image from Cruise Line.

So what kind of training is required to be a ship captain? The captain must have a certificate or license from the flag state of the vessel, which has regulatory authority over the ship. Licenses are usually issued based on the maximum size of the vessel the captain can operate. An unlimited master’s license, more commonly known as a master mariner’s certificate, allows a captain to operate any vessel in the world. Other vessels including those for the U.S. Coast Guard, Great Lakes area, inland waterways, and other voyages near the coast usually have a restricted geographic scope. According to Academic, “A candidate for an unlimited master's license requires several years of seagoing experience as a deck officer and must have completed various nautical studies at a maritime college or academy.” The process to a master’s license requires quite a few steps, according to Academic:

To become a master of vessels of any gross tons upon oceans in the United States, one must first accumulate at least 365 days of service while holding a chief mate's license. The chief mate's license, in turn, requires at least 365 days of service while holding a second mate's license, passing a battery of examinations, and approximately 13 weeks of classes. Similarly, one must have worked as a third mate for 365 days to have become a second mate. There are two methods to attain an unlimited third mate's license in the United States: to attend a specialized training institution, or to accumulate "sea time" and take a series of training classes and examinations.

Just getting to the third mate’s license can be quite a bit of work either through the Merchant Marine Academy, U.S. Coast Guard, or U.S. Navy.

Commercial ship captains

Commercial ships move goods around the world. Huge vessels like container ships take off on voyages that last weeks, if not months to deliver items to multiple continents. Commercial ship captains spend a lot of time on the open water and less time in port than they used to. According to the Guardian interview with Captain Roy Whelan, commercial shipping used to be more of a lifestyle than a job. Weeks away at sea, seeing different ports, and plenty of time to sightsee and sample local cuisine. Shipping has changed, and many ports are now built for deep water vessels, miles away from towns and recreational areas. Loading and unloading is more efficient too, even a large container ship can be unloaded and reloaded in less than 24 hours, and some ports don’t even allow disembarking. Quick turnaround times means occasionally staying awake for an entire 24 hours while at dock and a lot of time spent on the open sea in close quarters. In the interview, Roy mentions that he is frequently asked where he parks his boat at night, with many people not realizing that ships are always moving. Depending on the route, they may even be a moving target.

“Roy Whelan: 'The merchant navy used to be a way of life, but these days it’s a career.' Photograph: Graham Turner for the Guardian”. Image from the Guardian.


Ships that need to transit the Suez Canal, a canal that connects the Red Sea and the Mediterranean Sea, have to be extra cautious. The Gulf of Aden is a wide channel that leads into the Suez Canal, bordered by Yemen and Somalia, and a prime target for pirates. The area is heavily protected, but pirates know if they can get to a ship before the Navy arrives, they have a chance to capture it. While ships are in pirated waters, they typically go into high alert with blacked out windows and the crew stays inside. According to The Maritime Executive, in 2013 four out of five American tankers and container ships employ armed guards, but other countries don’t always have that luxury, which can make for a stressful period of days or weeks, depending on the journey.

Cruise ships

Being a cruise ship captain, every day is different, but some of the challenges are the same, such as maintenance, keeping a tight schedule, and staying away from pirates. In an interview with Cruise Line, Captain José said the most rewarding part of being a cruise ship captain is twofold: driving the ship and maneuvering challenging waterways, and the ability to connect with people. He actually prefers to work on smaller cruise ships where he can get to know more people personally. The captain is expected to interact with guests and participate in activities as it relaxes the people on the ship to know that if the captain is relaxed, we should be too. It can still make for a very busy schedule as the crew must rest 10 hours a day, but that also means 14 hours a day doing some type of work. Before you start the years-long process to become a ship captain, or even work on a cruise vessel, know that the work continues even when everyone else is having fun. Once in port, there are drills, meetings, and operations that must be conducted, although there is some time off here and there where you can see some sights. If those sights are set on being the captain, José recommends focusing on working hard and fighting for your place - no one is going to show up one day and just hand you the job.

”Royal Caribbean International’s new ship, Wonder of the Seas, will be the "world’s largest cruise ship" when it sets sail on its inaugural cruise in March 2022. (Royal Caribbean International)”. Image from Fox News.

Being a ship captain is a lot of responsibility, not just driving the boat. However, depending on your preferred lifestyle, it can be rewarding. Captain Roy works about 6 months out of the year on rotation with another captain every 7 weeks or so. Captain José gets to meet and interact with lots of passengers who are on vacation. In both cases, each captain is responsible for many human lives, equipment, and a multitude of items that must be checked on a large vessel. We hope you enjoyed learning more about what it’s like to be the captain of a big ship. If you’re interested in learning more about cruise ships and how they work, including the dynamic positioning systems that make them so nimble, check out our article on how cruise ships work.

Happy Fun Fact Friday!


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