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Obtaining Your US Captain's License

Updated on February 15, 2016
Captn Robert profile image

Robert Beringer is a Florida-based marine journalist who writes for most national sailing, boating, and outdoor magazines.

Is a career as a licensed merchant marine officer for you?
Is a career as a licensed merchant marine officer for you?
Good-paying careers await professional mariners.
Good-paying careers await professional mariners.

The Six-Pack Saga

There it was, calling out to me from the book rack every time I went into the marine store: “Get Your Captain’s License-the Complete Study Guide.” It’s something that I had wanted to do since I was a kid, and every time I saw that thing I would tell myself that someday I would do that, someday I’m going sit down and prepare for the captain’s license. Oh boy, the guilt was palpable—it got to where I would actually avoid that part of the store.

Now I had no intention of running away on a cargo carrier or ICW barge here; I enjoy my career as a college administrator, so my reasons for doing this were not driven by a midlife crisis or an unhappy home life. So I can’t say why I had such a strong urge to go through with it. A desire to be a better and safer boater, more qualified and competent to sail beyond our shores with my family, the ability to run charters on my boat, pride, vanity—I’m not really sure. Whatever it was I began the quest by buying the aforementioned book (Still $17 at The comprehensive study guide includes a test CD and covers the six major sections of the Coast Guard exam:

Rules of the Road

Deck General

Navigation General


Navigation Problems


At this point many would-be skippers go to one of the captain’s license schools that offer the whole shooting match, instruction, materials, and test for a set fee (see sidebar). Often these courses are taught in as little as two-weeks. I chose, however, the self-study route, knowing that I would be slipping in the requisite studying in between everything else going on in my life.

At first glance the information overwhelmed and humbled me. Despite having cruised on the water for twenty-years almost everywhere east of the Mississippi, there was an enormous amount of material that I had never seen before. I quickly resurrected the study habits that served me well back in college and got into a daily regimen of reading and reviewing. I developed mnemonic and rhyming devices to help me memorize things, particularly the arcane rules of the road.

Many people panic when they learn that there is a lot of math on the exam. Relax, there is nothing worse than the skills you use to balance your checkbook, and the very basic algebra and geometry that you should have learned in high school. Once I dove into the problems, it came back very quickly.

As with anything granted by our Federal government, there is an incredible amount of bureaucracy, paperwork, frustrating phone calls, and redundancy. It’s very important to read and follow the captain’s exam requirements very carefully—almost obsessively. And know that there are inflexible time limits on most of the requirements.

If you aren’t a patient person, I strongly recommend that you go to a school and let them help you to navigate through the quagmire of governmentese and administrivia.

The entire captain’s exam is multiple choice and it’s claimed there are no “trick” questions. Maybe, but there sure are a lot of trick answers. As you read, you learn that the wrong answer is always there, inserted by enterprising (read: conniving) USCG employees who attempt to lure the captain candidate down the path to failure. Do you recall your high school teachers telling you to read all the answers before making your choice? That strategy will serve you well here: I taught myself to attack the questions backward, eliminating three wrong answers to find the correct one. It takes longer to do it this way, but you have all day if you need it to complete the exam.

Question after question, back and forth over the six-sections until it became second nature; I took the study guide to work and to bed. Thousands of answers spun dizzyingly around my head. How would I remember all this stuff? Does anyone actually use all these knots? And who cares about the difference between a veering and a backing wind? But I digress, for before I knew it, it was…Test Day!

I arrived at the Coast Guard Regional Examination Center in Charleston at 0730 (7:30 am to you landlubbers), trotted up to 2nd floor, signed in and waited under a picture of George W. I met my proctor who read the rules of the day, handed me the test and it was show time.

Panic City

All the studying, all the hours, all the practice, didn’t prep me for what happened next: The first three questions looked like they had been written in Japanese. I had no idea of the answers and had to guess. This was going to be the longest day of my life. Had I studied the wrong material?

It was surprising how rarely I saw questions I recognized. But I guess with 9000 to choose from, it would be easy to flummox even the most well-prepared candidate. Because I was not very sure of myself here I did something that I cannot overemphasize to anyone wanting the license: I carefully re-read and re-answered every question before I handed it in.

Of the 140 questions that day, the 10 nav problems were by far the most arcane. The four choices for a “name the location” problem would be one-second apart. A "second" is one nautical mile on a chart that covers perhaps 300-square miles. Choice "A" would be N 41*26”15’ and choice "B" would be N 41*26”14’.

Get the idea? It wasn’t good enough to just get close with my calculations, I had to be dead-on accurate.

I finished the final test at 1515, and anxiously waited in the lobby. The proctor called my name and in very anti-climactic fashion told me, almost drearily, that I had passed. He sounded genuinely disappointed, I knew what came next: I raised my right hand, repeated the mariners oath, and it was over. A year of my life prepping for a ceremony that took 10-seconds to perform.

My test scores were well above the minimum to pass, with the exception of the ten navigation problems, which I just squeaked by with a 70%. The entire 140-question exam had come down to one question, so I was extra glad that I studied hard and double-checked my answers—despite being rushed by the tester.

I sat in my car, numb from the day’s effort, emotionally drained and satisfied. And the warm feeling of success stayed with me the entire way home.

A few weeks later my US Merchant Marine Officer License arrived. It read, “Having been duly examined and found competent by the undersigned is licensed to serve for the term of five-years from the below issue date as master of steam…vessel of not more than 50 gross registered tons.”

Oh yeah, call me captain and give me that open water.

Thinking of taking the plunge and going for your USCG captains license?

Take a look at many of the exam questions at:

These can be downloaded free, and stored on your computer. Block the answers in the left margin till you have attempted to solve the question

Some Captain’s License Prep Schools:

Boatwise, LLC 800.698.7373

Maritime Institute 888.262.8020 866.732.2278

National Captains Institute 800.345.6901

SeaSchool 800.237.8663

Initial Costs: Dr. appt. for physical-copay $15

USCG application & test fee $255

Study Guide (Charlie Wing) $17

Red Cross courses $100

Fingerprinting $18

DOT 5-panel drug screen $50

Sailing tools, charts $100

Study Tip; Make copies of the navigation problem plotting sheet, and number problems as you solve them for later review.

Underway on the St. Johns River, Florida
Underway on the St. Johns River, Florida


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    • Captn Robert profile image

      Captn Robert 2 years ago

      Good to hear from you John, I just renewed my license for the second time and the whole thing went rather smoothly. I'm good through 2020. Hopefully this article will help some future captains avoid the common pratfalls that so many candidates go through.

    • learntosail profile image

      learntosail 7 years ago

      Robert, how right you are! What a pain it is getting a Captain's license. Just renewed my 200GT Close Coastal. But without pain, no gain. Nice photo of you and the 1st mate in your profile. - Captain John