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Ship Captains and Mates

At a Glance

  • Captains are in charge of ships
  • Mates assist captains and stand watch
  • Work on oceans, lakes, harbors, rivers, and canals
  • Often work outdoors
  • Work a variety of hours and shifts, depending on the waterway
  • Most complete a formal training program
  • Some work their way up to this position
  • Need a license

Career summary

Ship captains and mates direct and navigate all kinds of ships.

#No alternate titles

Captains or masters are in command of ships. They oversee the loading and unloading of cargo or passengers. They often collect fares from passengers, or direct others to do so.

They set the course and speed of the vessel and steer it to avoid hazards and other ships. They use equipment such as depth finders and radar to watch for hazards. They gather information from lighthouses, buoys, and lights. Captains determine the ship's position using:

Ship captains direct the crew who steer the ship, operate the engines, and signal to other vessels. They direct those who perform maintenance or operate towing or dredging gear.

Captains check that proper procedures and safety practices are followed. They make sure that machinery and equipment are in working order. They often run safety drills with the crew.

Captains on larger ships have deck officers or mates as assistants. Merchant marine ships have multiple mates. Captains interview, hire, and instruct mates. They assign mates to watches and living quarters.

Mates oversee operation of the vessel for part of the day when the captain is off duty.

Captains keep logs and records of the ship's movements and cargo. They may purchase supplies while ships are docked. If they operate fishing vessels, captains find buyers for the fish they caught. They may talk to agents about how to meet customs regulations.

Related careers

This career is part of the Transportation, Distribution, and Logistics cluster of careers.

Related careers include:

Military careers

Job duties

Task list

The following list of tasks is specific to ship captains and mates.

Common work activities

Ship captains and mates perform the following tasks. These tasks are common to many careers.

Work requirements

Working conditions

In a typical work setting, ship captains and mates:

Interpersonal relationships

Physical work conditions

Work performance


Physical demands

Ship captains and mates frequently:

It is important for ship captains and mates to be able to:

It is not as important, but still necessary, for ship captains and mates to be able to:

Skills and abilities

Ship captains and mates need to:


Reason and problem solve

Manage oneself, people, time, and things

Work with people

Work with things

Perceive and visualize

Education and training

Educational programs

The programs of study listed below will help you prepare for the occupation or career cluster you are exploring.

Programs of study directly related to this occupation

Other programs of study to consider


To work as a ship captain or mate, you typically need to:

Education after high school

Training programs for ship captains and mates are approved and monitored by the US Coast Guard. The Coast Guard is an agency of the US Department of Homeland Security. You must be licensed by this agency to operate watercraft.

You can prepare for this occupation by attending the US Merchant Marine Academy or one of six state academies. Three academies are located on the East Coast, in Maine, Massachusetts, and New York. The other three are located in Michigan, Texas, and California.

These academies offer a four-year training program that leads to a bachelor's degree. The training at the academies prepares you for the licensing exam. Courses cover topics such as navigation, rules of the road, and meteorology. They may also cover marine rules and pollution, cargo, and standing watch. After graduating, you may pursue a license as a third mate (deck officer).

Work experience

Ship captains and mates typically have several years of work experience. You can prepare by gaining experience as a deckhand. Local unions provide experience and training. As you gain experience and pass rating exams, you move up the ranks.

On-the-job training

Because of the fast changing demands of technology, you may receive additional training on the job. Employers may provide training or pay for college course work so you can update your technical skills or expand your administrative skills.

Many ship captains and mates take training courses or seminars on their own to qualify for special endorsements to their licenses.

Military training

Some branches of the military train people to be quartermasters and boat operators. Training lasts six to 22 weeks, depending on your specialty. Another option is training as a ship and submarine officer. The length of training varies by specialty. For both occupations additional training occurs on the job and through advanced courses.

Helpful high school courses

You should take a general high school curriculum that meets the state's graduation requirements (external link). You will be required to take both math and science classes to graduate.

Helpful electives to take in high school that prepare you for this career include:

The courses listed above are meant to help you create your high school plan. If you have not already done so, talk to a school counselor or parent about the courses you are considering taking.

You should also check with a teacher or counselor to see if work-based learning opportunities are available in your school and community. These might include field trips, job shadowing, internships, and actual work experience. The goal of these activities is to help you connect your school experiences with real-life work.

Join some groups, try some hobbies, or volunteer with an organization that interests you. By participating in activities you can have fun, make new friends, and learn about yourself. Maybe one of them will help direct you to a future career. Here are examples of activities and groups (PDF file) that may be available in your high school or community.

Things to know

Employers require ship captains and mates to be licensed. They hire applicants who are licensed for the position as well as the type of craft they operate. Employers do not require formal training. However, since competition is stiff, ship captains and mates with experience and training may have an edge over other applicants.

Drug and alcohol testing is required of new employees of the Washington State Ferry System. Some ferry system employees may work on-call.


Before starting a training program, check to be sure you can pass the physical exam required of new employees.

Costs to workers

Costs include all-weather clothing and license fees. Many workers join a union and pay an initiation fee and quarterly dues.


Licensing for merchant mariners is different from that for other water transportation workers. Deck officers in the merchant marines must be licensed. Applicants must meet the following general requirements:

The required number of hours on watercraft depends on the type of license for which one applies. Ship captains must spend more hours than mates. Those who want to work on ocean vessels must put in more hours than those for lake or river vessels. In addition, more hours are required for work on large boats than on small boats. Mariners who work on ships over 200 tons must also take fire fighting courses, and radar courses if on radar-equipped vessels of 300 tons or more.

Those who have at least three years of sea experience can be licensed if they pass the written exam. It is difficult to pass the exam without training or independent study. In addition, because mates often work only six months a year, it may take them five to eight years to accumulate enough experience to advance.

For more information about licensing, contact:

United States Coast Guard
National Maritime Center
Merchant Mariner Licensing & Documentation (external link)

100 Forbes Drive
Martinsburg, WV 25404

#fine. 3/30/16 lh. Checked licensing info; deleted local Seattle ph # as couldn't find one listed anymore, 1/30/17 cj. Deleted fee url as no longer relevant for this occ. fee information would depend on examination type and all this info can be found on NMC website by an interested party. lh 3/26/18, Checked section 3/18/19 cj.

Job listings

Listed below are links to job categories from the National Labor Exchange that relate to this career. Once you get a list of jobs, you can view information about individual jobs and find out how to apply. If your job search finds too many openings, or if you wish to search for jobs outside of Washington, you will need to refine your search.

To get a listing of current jobs from the WorkSource system, go to the WorkSource website (external link).


Captains, mates, and pilots of water vessels (SOC 53-5021)

Pay Period
Washington Hourly $20.79 $26.23 $39.84 $52.06 $74.98
Monthly $3,603 $4,546 $6,904 $9,022 $12,994
Yearly $43,240 $54,560 $82,870 $108,290 $155,950
    Bremerton-Silverdale Hourly $18.47 $27.29 $34.51 $53.98 $81.86
Monthly $3,201 $4,729 $5,981 $9,355 $14,186
Yearly $38,404 $56,764 $71,778 $112,295 $170,266
    Mount Vernon-Anacortes Hourly $22.32 $25.53 $31.84 $38.65 $42.72
Monthly $3,868 $4,424 $5,518 $6,698 $7,403
Yearly $46,413 $53,092 $66,227 $80,392 $88,872
    Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue Hourly $21.72 $27.69 $42.80 $55.32 $80.55
Monthly $3,764 $4,799 $7,417 $9,587 $13,959
Yearly $45,179 $57,596 $89,015 $115,063 $167,546
    Vancouver Hourly $24.87 $35.39 $43.32 $49.46 $74.01
Monthly $4,310 $6,133 $7,507 $8,571 $12,826
Yearly $51,717 $73,623 $90,117 $102,893 $153,939
United States Hourly $17.03 $23.17 $33.26 $48.43 $69.56
Monthly $2,951 $4,015 $5,764 $8,393 $12,055
Yearly $35,410 $48,190 $69,180 $100,730 $144,690

Ship mates have less responsibility than captains, so their wages are usually lower than those of captains.

Wages vary by destination. Wages are higher for trips across the ocean than for other waters. However, workers may wait months between jobs, which reduces their yearly income.

Many mariners who work full time on American ships receive benefits. These benefits may include health insurance and sick leave. Some employers also offer retirement plans. 

National wage information is not available specifically for ship captains and mates. However, they are part of the larger group of "captains, mates, and pilots of water vessels."

Employment and outlook

Washington outlook

The table below provides information about the number of workers in this career in various regions. It also provides information about the expected growth rate and future job openings.

Captains, Mates, and Pilots of Water Vessels (SOC 53-5021)

Location Current employment Growth over 10 years Annual openings
Washington 1,629 0.0% 16.1% 161
    Asotin, Columbia, Ferry, Garfield, Lincoln, Pend Oreille, Stevens, Walla Walla, and Whitman Counties 10 10.0% 8.6% 1
    Clallam, Jefferson, and Kitsap Counties 50 8.0% 11.9% 6
    Clark, Cowlitz, and Wahkiakum Counties 66 12.1% 15.2% 9
    Grays Harbor, Lewis, Mason, Pacific, and Thurston Counties 42 4.8% 14.1% 5
    Island, San Juan, Skagit, and Whatcom Counties 39 2.6% 14.6% 4
    King County 1,301 -0.5% 19.6% 127
    Pierce County 32 3.1% 15.2% 3
    Snohomish County 94 1.1% 12.4% 9
    Spokane County 11 36.4% 13.9% 2
United States 38,700 -1.8% 5.2% 3,600

National employment

Ship captains and mates who work for transportation companies may work on deep-sea merchant ships, tugs, ferries, or dredges. They may work on rivers, canals, and other waterways. Some captains work in marine construction. For example, they may direct the survey or dredging of a canal. Captains work on a variety of passenger boats. They may work on cruise ships, casinos, or sightseeing boats.

Major employers:

National outlook

Demand for this occupation is expected to show little to no change. Changes in the demand for bulk commodities, such as petroleum products, iron ore, and grains, influences the demand for water transportation workers. When demand slows, so does the need for workers.

Job openings occur as people retire or leave the occupation for other reasons.

Employment and outlook information is not available specifically for ship captains and mates. However, they are part of the larger group of "captains, mates, and pilots of water vessels."

Other resources

Inlandboatmen's Union of the Pacific (external link)
1711 West Nickerson Street, Suite D
Seattle, WA 98119
International Organization of Masters, Mates, and Pilots (external link)
700 Maritime Boulevard, Suite B
Linthicum Heights, MD 21090
Military SeaLift Command (external link)
CIVMAR Support Center
6353 Center Drive, Building 8, Suite 202
Norfolk, VA 23502
Profiles in Ocean Careers (external link)
Seafarers International Union (external link)
Shipbuilders Council of America (external link)
20 F Street NW, Suite 500
Washington, DC 20001
Transportation Institute (external link)
5201 Auth Way
Camp Springs, MD 20746


Career cluster

Career path

O*Net (external link) occupations

O*Net job zones (external link)

DOT occupations

Holland occupational cluster