How to become a Merchant Ship Captain?

Hello everyone, I appreciate for your help and taking time out of your day to help a noobie. To begin with, I am 16 with absolutely no seafaring experience. I come from a poor family, around 30,000 US dollars a year. I want to become a Merchant Ship Captain for companies like Chevron Shipping (US based)

What would the process to become a Cruise Ship Captain also be? Would it be similar to Merchant?
Would my current financial status prevent me from getting to my dream? What would be the educational requirements to get there and where can I start at 16? What illnesses (if any) disqualify you from becoming a Captain?

Are you a US citizen?

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Yes I am

If you’re US Based, you’ll need to attend college at one of the State Maritime Academies, or the Federal Merchant Marine Academy (yes there are technically other paths, but let’s go with the the easiest and most realistic for a 16year old)

One school you might attend is SUNY Maritime for example, which you can pay for through Scholarships, Grants, and Student Loans, (if you’re a NYS resident you also may have free tuition available to you depending on how the Excelsior scholarship program is rolling out). You should note this path of study is academically rigorous. Meaning it’s kinda tough, make sure you’re a decent student. You also face other pressures that normal college students don’t face.

After you(hopefully) graduate, you’ll have a license as a Merchant Marine Deck Officer, specifically 3rd Mate(Unlimited Tonnage), as well as a degree such as BS Marine Transportation, BS Marine Business and Commerce, BS Marine Environmental Studies, or one of a few other similar degrees of various names. If sailing on a deep sea merchant ship is your goal, you’ll likely want to sail either for Military Sealift Command, which operates all the Navy’s non-combatant vessels. Basically all the supply, fuelling, forward positioning, research, etc ships for the navy. Those ships are all manned by Merchant crews. The other option is to sail out of the Union Hall, such as MMP, MEBA, and AMO. These three unions do the Manning for almost all US Deep Sea shipping. It’s a bit of an old fashioned way of doing hiring. A job comes up, say a billet as 3rd Mate on the Mearsk Denver, and whoever has the most seniority gets the job, if they want it, if not it passes down until someone take it. As a new applicant, fresh out of school, you may wait weeks or even months before your first job, get a side hustle to sustain you, like bartending, or boat repair, or whatever you want.

After your first Job as 3rd Mate aboard a ship, you’ll progress, over years, to 2nd Mate, Chief Mate, and someday Master (the proper term for Captain). That is if you don’t get a job shoreside first. Very few Mariners eventually rise to be a Master, most who go the route I describe sail for a few years and transition to shoreside management in the marine industry.

Some things that will prevent you from becoming a Deck Officer:

  1. Drug use or criminal history. Either of these come up in security and background checks. We also have federally regulated random and pre-employment drug testing, so even if your state legalised pot, you won’t be able to partake.

  2. Medical issues. Including but not limited to Asthma, heart conditions, mental/emotional disorders, etc. basically anything you might need to take medication for. There’s no pharmacies at sea. And the coastguard, who approves your medical info, frowns on any conditions that would impair your fitness to carry out your duties at sea, whether that’s standing navigational watch on the bridge, or responding to an emergency such as a fire aboard.


Would there be any excuses to Asthma? Unfortunately, I do have it, however I was diagnosed with it at an extremely young age and is not severe. It only kicks in when I’m sick, and even then is barely mild not even getting close to severe. I ask this because some US service branches are allowing recruits these exceptions and maybe it would apply to maritime.

I had asthma as a child, haven’t had an attack in decades. If you decide to bring up prior health conditions, just be prepared to back it up with documentation from a doctor.

Most medical conditions, if properly controlled, will not disqualify you. The CG will want full documentation from your Dr. The real disqualifier is illegal drug use.

So, just to clarify: After getting a third mate license, I should get into the Military Sealift Command as that will get seniority for a job opening like on the Maersk Denver. Correct?

And then after the years go by, I will finally get to Master if I am lucky enough and don’t go to shoreside. Interesting how most people that go that route transition to shoreside management. How come? Do they get tired of the job or the responsiblities it comes with?

To clarify, those are really two very different career paths. Military sealift command you’ll be a civilian federal employee on a USNS ship, they sail deep sea and are probably the single largest employer of US Mariners, so I included them. I’m not sure which union does crewing for Maersk Denver specifically, but that type of job would sailing purely civilian.

Most people at that point in life would rather settle down and have a family. It’s hard to do when you spend 6+ months at sea. Also as your career progresses seagoing opportunities with advancement narrow, while shoreside opportunities can increase if you’ve used the time to understand the industry better and find a niche to market yourself in. There’s many reasons why people stop, but more people go shoreside then spend an entire career at sea. It is possible to make Captain by 30 if you line up all the training and seatime correctly, end up lucking out with job opportunities that provide seatime and training and have no life besides sailing, but 35-40 is more likely. You might also have the qualifications on paper to be a Master but end up sailing as a Cheif Mate for a while before being selected for a Captain position, if ever. They don’t just hand ‘em out.

Bad example. Generally, asthma is only potentially disqualifying if it resulted in hospitalization in the past 6 years.

Thank you, I’m not too familiar with the details of what disqualifies a person vs. what they can waive. I know that anything that you might have to disclose can potentially cause more paperwork at the least. It’s generally similar to the armed services and FAA medicals.

They are the same thing. The extent of the condition, how it is controlled, the frequency and severity of symptoms, and the potential for an incapacitating scenario determine whether it is disqualifying, or if a waiver can be given.

In which case being color-blind can be disqualifying.

You may also wish to consider engineering, the pay is comparable and the opportunities, especially for promotion deep sea, are extremely more numerous

Consider engineering only if that sort of thing interests you. As much as I enjoy an occasional cup of coffee on the bridge I know that was not my place. Making things go in the engine room or all the stuff that happens in a shipyard was what satisfied me the most. That sort of thing is not for everybody.

MMP deck, MEBA engine.

Ah, I see. So how would I be able to get some good seniority to be considered for my first ever third mate job?

After you get your license, if you join a union you sit as an applicant and seniority is gained by time. That’s why it sometimes takes a while of waiting to get the first job it’s a mix of how long you’ve been waiting and if there’s someone who’s been waiting longer then you.

Ah, okay. So to conclude:

First I’d go to a maritime school like SUNY. If I hopefully graduate, I will have all the degrees I need to start a career in maritime. Then, I’d join a union like MMP and wait as I gain seniority to land my first third mate position which can take weeks or months.

Thanks for all your help! Stay safe & have a nice day/night.

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