How to Become a Cruise Ship Captain

“Cruise Ship Captain” is a glamorous and alluring title. Becoming a cruise ship captain takes more than filling out an application form, sending it to cruise liners, and waiting for a response.

There is so much more to being a cruise ship captain than shaking hands with guests upon arrival and having posh dinners. Years of experience, education, skills, and training are required to become a cruise ship captain.

So, how to become a cruise ship captain? To become a cruise ship captain, you will need a high school diploma and a Bachelor’s Degree (preferably in maritime studies). A Master’s Degree is also required by most ships.

You will need years of experience on a sea vessel, including outstanding on-the-job training. You will also need a captain’s license from a Federal Maritime Authority. Moreover, you must have at least a decade of experience to take the exam.

5 main requirements for becoming a cruise ship captain are as follows:

  1. Education
  2. Work Experience
  3. Certifications
  4. Captain Licensure Exams
  5. Skillset

9 key responsibilities of a cruise ship captain are as follows:

  1. Work with senior officers and crew members
  2. Ship navigation and operation
  3. Monitor the position of the ship
  4. Set and determine the ship’s speed
  5. Avoid hazards
  6. Maintenance and upkeep of the ship’s engines and equipment
  7. Ensure that safety procedures are followed
  8. Compliance with local and international laws
  9. Compliance with custom laws and local immigration requirements

Read on to learn more about becoming a cruise ship captain as well as the specifically required education, certification, and work experience.

How to Become a Cruise Ship Captain

We have established that being a cruise ship captain doesn’t happen overnight, so let’s go into more detail on how to become one.

Cruise ship captains have the primary responsibility of operating a cruise ship, including managing the staff and crew. Other responsibilities also include mapping out the ship’s course and planning scheduled stops. They are also responsible for steering the vessel and operating the engines.

become a cruise ship captain

Becoming a cruise ship captain means having a significant amount of responsibility, hard work, and dedication. The following requirements are needed to become a cruise ship captain:

1. Education

For how long do you need to study to become a cruise ship captain? What are the required diplomas?

A cruise ship captain needs a high school diploma. A Bachelor’s Degree and a Master’s Degree (for most cruise ship liners) in Marine Engineering or Marine Science, preferably from a maritime academy or college, are also needed. These courses usually take four years in most colleges or academies.

A master’s degree will take about 2 to 3 years to complete. If further studies are preferred, you need another 2 to 3 years to finish a doctoral degree. Now, that’s a lot of years studying.

If you are already sure in high school that you want to pursue a career in the maritime industry, try to get into a Maritime High School so that you can get a more specialized education with a focus on maritime skills and knowledge.

Focus on getting good grades to get a better chance of getting admitted to a maritime academy or college. Competition can get tough upon entering these educational institutions. So, a high school diploma with an above-average grade is an advantage for admission.

Also, try getting part-time jobs or summer jobs in the maritime industry like onboard a ship or shipyards. This way, your learning continues outside the school. You can learn about ship repair, the ship’s chain of command, and how ships work. Experience is almost always the best teacher, so get the most out of it.

Once you get admitted to a maritime academy or college, you’ll need to pick a more specialized course. Among these courses are Marine Engineering, Marine Transportation, Marine Science, and Ocean Science, among others. The availability of these courses will depend on the academy or college.

These courses are usually a 4-year Bachelor of Science degree. Attending a maritime academy is an excellent way to fast-track your future career in the maritime field.

Cruise ship jobs are a highly sought-after career. Having a master’s degree will improve your chances of climbing the rank ladder on a ship. Although a master’s degree is not always required, it will serve as an advantage in your job application.

You will need to do very well in your studies because most cruise ships only hire captains who are in the top 5 or 10 percent of their class.

2. Work Experience

What more can you do to get a better chance of being a cruise ship captain? Is a good education enough?

While graduating from a reputable maritime academy or college indeed becomes an advantage, work experience is also a factor that plays a vital role in becoming a cruise ship captain.

After graduation, obtain work as a deck officer or third mate on a seafaring vessel. These jobs are considered entry-level positions on ships. Cruise ship captains started with these positions and worked their way to the top.

Most maritime academies can also help in securing maritime jobs. There are excellent job options in the Coast Guard Reserve and Navy Reserve. These placements will help you develop skills and qualifications along your career path.

To apply for these positions, you will need to take examinations to test your knowledge, a physical exam to ensure that you are fit to work on board, and a background check, which includes screening for criminal offenses.

3. Certifications

Certifications tend to vary from one country to another, but most ships require a Merchant Mariner Credential and Transportation Worker Identification Credential. Getting these certifications will require more physical examination, such as a vision test and a drug test. Both practical and written exams are also required.

Marine academies prepare their students well for these examinations. There are also review centers that specialize in these examinations. You can check them out if you want to do more review hours.

4. Captain Licensure Exams

What are the written exams needed to become a cruise ship captain?

The U.S. Coast Guard usually gives captain licensure exams. After 10 years of experience, you will be qualified to take this exam. After passing the exam, you can now work as a marine captain.

To apply for a cruise ship captain position, you need to work as a marine captain for several years and maintain an excellent track record. Note that many cruise ships hire people from their country of origin. For this reason, you’ll need to check with cruise line companies about their hiring requirements.

5. Skillset

A cruise ship captain needs to have a diverse skillset. You will need to have strong leadership skills, expertise in customer relations, good administrative skills, excellent communication skills, strong analytical and problem-solving skills, and the ability to keep calm in emergencies.

You also need to be very skilled and knowledgeable in maritime laws and regulations. These skills are essential. Even if you have a solid maritime education, the absence of such skills will hinder you from becoming a cruise ship captain.

It takes a very long time to be a cruise ship captain. Not counting the years of education, you need approximately 10 to 15 years of maritime experience to become one. So, it is also good to have a backup plan because the maritime field is highly competitive.

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Hierarchy and Rank on a Cruise Ship

Ships have always had a strict chain of command. A cruise ship is like a small corporation. The captain acts as the president of that corporation. He is in charge, and everyone else is under his authority. 

The captain has several senior officers who directly report to him, sort of like the vice presidents of a corporation. Below are senior officers on a cruise ship:

  • Staff Captain
  • Cruise Director
  • Hotel Director
  • Chief Engineer
  • Doctor 
  • Food and Beverage Manager

Cruise ships have different departments with a department head in charge, including managers, supervisors, and crew members. These departments include the Engine Department, Deck Department, Hotel Department, and Medical Department. 

The term rank is often used when referring to a job on cruise ships. The rank of all officers and crew will dictate their work environment, cabin assignment, perks and benefits they receive, and others. The rest of the crew are similar to regular employees of a corporation. They will report to their direct bosses. 

You also earn stripes on your epaulets as you rise in rank. These epaulets are color-coded:

  • Deck Department – Black and gold stripes
  • Engine Department – Purple and gold stripes
  • Hotel Department – White and gold stripes
  • Medical Department – Red and gold stripes

The number of stripes will tell you the rank of the person. The more stripes, the higher the position, and the more authority the person has in their department. Of course, the captain has the most number of stripes–four black and gold stripes. However, the hotel director may also have four stripes on his/her epaulet.

The hotel director is the head of all guest services on the ship, entertainment, and revenue. The hotel director is the only person on a cruise ship who can have four stripes, aside from the cruise ship captain. Here is a chart to give you a better understanding of a ship’s hierarchy and ranks.

Key Responsibilities of a Cruise Ship Captain

how to be a cruise ship captain

A cruise ship captain has several duties and responsibilities. He is, after all, the highest-ranking officer and master of the cruise ship. The captain takes care of all the businesses of the cruise ship.

9 key responsibilities of a cruise ship captain are as follows:

  1. Work with senior officers and crew members
  2. Ship navigation and operation 
  3. Monitor the position of the ship
  4. Set and determine the ship’s speed
  5. Avoid hazards
  6. Maintenance and upkeep of the ship’s engines and equipment
  7. Ensuring that safety procedures are followed
  8. Compliance with local and international laws, including company and flag state policies
  9. Compliance with custom laws and local immigration requirements (for international cruises)

The captain is also fully responsible for any crisis that might happen on a ship. He needs to think of what course of action to take in case of an emergency. He is the only person on the entirety of the ship authorized to issue an abandon ship order to save people’s lives on board. 

The cruise ship captain has social duties as well. The captain will oversee the embarkation and disembarkation of passengers, giving them a warm welcome upon arrival and showing appreciation, and thanking them upon leaving.

He hosts social functions like the Captain’s Welcome Party, Welcome Aboard Party, and the Captain’s Circle Party, which is usually for repeat and frequent passengers. 

A cruise ship captain also has the authority to conduct wedding ceremonies according to International Maritime Law. He can officiate weddings when the ship is in international waters.

Also, a cruise ship captain directly reports to the home office of the cruise line. 

Conclusion – How to Become a Cruise Ship Captain

So, how do you become a cruise ship captain? We now know that a cruise ship captain has lots of duties and responsibilities that go beyond the meeting and greeting of passengers.

To be a cruise ship captain, you need a good and solid maritime education that goes beyond the basic degree. A master’s degree and a doctorate will give you better chances of becoming a cruise ship captain.

You also need to have at least a decade of experience on a ship. Work experience in your maritime career is a must on the road to becoming a highly skilled cruise ship captain.