The role of a captain is cut out for those with a deep love of the sea and who don't shy away from responsibility. If you’re an experienced first mate or a bosun itching to take the helm, here’s everything you will need to become a yacht captain...
The most common path to a yacht’s wheelhouse is by rising through the ranks in the yachting industry, starting on deck and building sea time, gaining boat handling and geographical experience, and accruing licenses. But even after the golden ticket is earned — that 500GT or 3,000GT Master license — you’ll find there is more to getting the job than the piece of paper. Most rising crew will get the ticket before they are ready to assume the responsibility. Here is what crew agents and yacht owners have to say about what it takes to be a superyacht captain...
What is a Yacht Captain?
Simply put, a captain runs the vessel, in some ways like a CEO runs a business. He or she shoulders all the responsibility on board and reports directly to the owner or their representative. “The successful captains are all excellent leaders, able to set a common goal for their crew, and ensure motivation despite arduous seasons and long hours,” says Deborah Blazy, who, as general manager of Lighthouse Careers in Valbonne, France (near Antibes), specializes in placing captains. “Important character traits are to remain calm at all times but also to have the right sprinkle of charisma to keep crew morale and standards high.”
What Does a Yacht Captain do?
Driving the boat is just a small part of a captain’s job — many say the easiest part. Captains also hire and manage all other crew on board, plan and execute voyages around the owner’s and charter guests’ expectations, organize repairs and maintenance, control costs, and adhere to all international, flag, and port state regulations — all while providing personable, first-class service, and maintaining the highest levels of safety.
So the role requires a captain to be much more than a navigator; he or she is also part project manager, accountant, mechanic, human resources manager, concierge, and, most of all, chief problem solver. As Blazy puts it, they should have knowledge of the perfect anchorage, but also “have a direct dial to the most prestigious restaurants and be able to book the prime tables last minute.”
On smaller vessels, the captain will pitch in to assist in all roles on board, from changing the oil to washing the dishes. On larger yachts it is much more of an administrative position.
What Qualifications Do I Need to Become a Yacht Captain?
The captain must hold a license that is commensurate with the gross tonnage of the vessel and approved by the flag state. In addition, the yacht’s insurance company needs to be comfortable with the candidate’s experience and license and approve the hire. This is understandable when you consider that the underwriter is the biggest financial stakeholder in the vessel — on the hook for the cost of repairs or settlement if the captain makes a mistake.
Here are the licenses you will need to hold to become a yacht captain:
Vessels < 200GT
- RYA Yachtmaster Offshore (with Commercial Endorsement)
- or RYA Ocean Certificate of Competence (with Commercial Endorsement)
- or IYT Master of Yachts < 200T
- or MCA STCW Master (Yachts) < 200GT
- or USCG Operator Uninspected Passenger Vessel License (OUPV/Six-Pack) < 100GT (U.S. Green Card holders can apply)
- or USCG Master Inland/Near Coastal < 100GT (U.S. citizens only)
- or USCG Master 200 Ton Oceans (U.S. citizens only)
Vessels < 500GT
- MCA STCW Master (Yachts) < 500GT Certificate of Competence
- or USCG Master 500 Oceans or Near Coastal (U.S. citizens only)
Vessels < 3000GT
- MCA STCW Master (Yachts) < 3000GT Certificate of Competence
- or MCA Merchant Navy STCW Master < 3000GT
- or USCG Master 1600GT (U.S. citizens only)
- or USCG Master 3000GT (U.S. citizens only)
Vessels > 3000GT
- MCA STCW Master (Unlimited)
- or USCG Master Unlimited Oceans or Near Coastal (U.S. citizens only)
- or Marshall Islands Master of Yachts Unlimited
When it comes to the USCG licensing, Capt. Ted Morley, chief operations officer of Maritime Professional Training (MPT), notes that it’s “important to make the distinction regarding charter vessels, ocean routes versus coastal, and the number of passengers on board. The waters get murky when you talk about some of the other requirements — such as PSCRB for yachts with lifeboats, DP for vessels that are equipped, ECDIS, ARPA, and a host of other specialty requirements that many Flag and Port states will require of masters on vessels in particular service, areas, or equipment.”
What Experience Do I Need?
“I think a lot of mates with about five years of demanding sea experience and good work habits have the ability to be great captains,” says one owner, who has three large yachts.
The most important experience is time on yachts, as opposed to other types of vessels. “We have very little luck with a captain looking to join a yacht with zero yachting experience,” says Ian Pelham, director of Preferred Crew, a crew agency in Fort Lauderdale.
The yachting industry is quirky and far removed from the predictability of the commercial world. Pelham gives the example of a cruise ship, as he once ran a fleet personnel department for a cruise line: “A captain on a cruise ship has a number of perks, including a cabin steward who cleans the personal space of the captain, there will be mess stewards who will serve and clean up the crew areas for the officers. Generally there is solid rotation — you know exactly when you are to join and when you heading on vacation. When on vacation you do not get calls from the owner asking where you put the ‘good’ whisky when the cousins were aboard. On a yacht, even the big ones, the captain has to be ready to step in at any level, including cleaning up, to make sure the owner has a great time. Most commercial captains just have not had that kind of experience.”
Blazy adds, “[A commercial captain’s] experience is often best suited to the Passenger Code vessels over 3,000GT, where the duties and working conditions in terms of rotation are often similar. There is, however, a huge learning curve in terms of standards and customer expectations.” She recommends these captains gain experience on yachts before assuming the top role. “For the more junior candidates who are happy to start again from the lower ranks on board the yachts there is a big advantage; often they are bringing great transferable skills and relatively high tickets for the deck teams, and so are able to climb the ranks rapidly. Those with the ability to be flexible in terms of outlook and approach will always do well,” she says.
What Do Owners Want?
“Owners are generally looking for someone who will give them the ultimate holiday experience while making them feel safe on board,” Blazy says.
When it comes to specifics though, each owner will want a captain that precisely fits with their vessel size and itinerary. “Different programs call for different personalities,” Pelham says. “I have seen captains who are extroverts, introverts, confrontational, compromising, joyful, serious, etc., who have each been very successful in their individual programs. I also believe that this is part of what makes a captain a fantastic fit for one program and a complete miss on another.”
Despite being some of the wealthiest people on the planet, most yacht owners care deeply about the costs, so financial accountability is a big part of being a successful captain.
“It’s a big responsibility for the captain to take care of the owner’s large asset. Good common sense is required,” says one large-yacht owner. “Fuel costs and dockage fees need constant awareness. Transiting the yacht at 12 knots instead of 22 knots from Nassau to Lauderdale protects the owner’s assets. Of course there are some owners who just don’t care about costs, but a majority do!”
This owner also expects his captain to spend time in the yard with the yacht, not consider it vacation time, in order to keep track of the yard’s billable hours, and to have some good mechanical knowledge so they can “withstand the salesmen/ consultants suggestions about replacing everything on your yacht.”
How Much Does a Captain Earn?
With the stress of responsibility comes monetary reward. A captain can earn an excellent salary, with longevity and vessel size generally having the biggest influence on just how excellent that salary is. But just as the yachting industry is unique, so is each boat and what it pays.
“(There is) no such thing as average, or industry standard,” maintains Pelham. “My team has placed a captain on a 35-meter paying more than $20,000 per month, day one, and on a 100-meter paying about $8,000 per month, day one. I know of captains earning around $4,000 per month and I know of at least one couple earning $30,000. The pay of the captain is completely dependent on what the owner and the captain both believe it is worth.”
Dockwalk’s Salary Survey does give some good guidelines though. In its most recent 2021 survey, crew agencies provided a range of salaries, from the low end on vessels below 80 feet: $5,000 to $10,000 per month; to the largest vessels over 280 feet: $23,000 to $28,000 per month. Numerous captains working on yachts from 60 to 179 feet also shared their salaries and the average from their responses in each vessel size category fell right in the middle of the range given by the agencies.
What is the Best Way to Land that First Position?
“Finding your first captain role is no easy task. There is always the stigma attached that you have not done it before and so are you capable?” Blazy says.
Pelham seconds this: “Our clients love to see that the captain has already done what they want them to do next. If the yacht is 50 meters, they want to see 50 meters on the CV. If they are planning a circumnavigation, they want to see a circumnavigation in their history,” he says.
Of course, that isn’t good news for anyone looking for his or her first captain role. Pelham recommends emphasizing the experience on your resume that matches where you want to be. “Think about what you did as a mate on your previous yachts. Then pick those things that you will be doing as a captain on your next yacht, and highlight those aspects,” he says.
Blazy says the most common path on the bigger yachts is when the chief officer grows into the junior captain role, “moving forward steadily in terms of drive time and responsibility, covering for the senior captain while he is away. There is a mix of confidence and humility that is at play, and the timing will depend on the individual person and the owner’s expectations.”