What is a paper captain?

In short, a paper captain is someone who holds a license who can’t drive or control a vessel themselves

If you hold a license and have not held at least 5 years sea service with it (and are not currently on the water) you are a paper captain. I would appreciate the input of this forum for further consideration. I hate shoreside people hiding behind a “captains license”.


Are you referring to all of those with “Captain” on their Business cards and mail boxes? Here in Central FL anyone that has a 6 pack calls themselves Captain and I love asking them “so just what license do you have and where have you sailed”.

Back when I had my business, I did have “Retired Chief Engineer” on my Cards but never on my mail box. LOL


Pretty much spot-on. Plenty of master license holders out there with not much real world experience as master, and it shows…usually in how they handle the boat…and we all know being a good boat handler isn’t the be-all/end-all. Being a leader and utilizing a crew to their maximum potential is an art too.
As funny as it sounds, making a boat dance doesn’t define a captain’s character in itself either.

Some aspects are the same and some aren’t. We talking deep sea or osvs/tugs/crewboats? Plenty of ships masters would make shitty crewboat captains and visa-versa.

Some guys manage to get promoted too quickly and some bi-pass the school of hard knocks and end up in the office managing people that have forgotten more than they know.


I disagree with your definition slightly. I’ve seen two uses of the phrase I agree with:

  1. Instructors at an academy (who are all referred to as “captain”) who have the license but have never sailed as Master. Many of them started teaching with a junior officer license and advanced their license based off of summers on the training ship so never even legitimately worked as Chief Mate.

  2. A person on a vessel who is “captain in name only” who doesn’t know the operation or how to operate the boat but has the license. Usually a mate (if there is one) or deckhand is actually the person in charge running the operation.


I’m annoyed by people who introduce themselves by saying “My name is Captain John So-and-so” or “My name is Doctor John So-and-so”. Really dickhead? That’s the name on your birth certificate?


It seems Florida is some gathering spot for weirdos who like to be called “captain” while on dry land. I’m sure the other states have those over compensating title searcher too but I’ve only ran across them in Florida. I met a Floridian convenient store clerk who used the title of captain because he owned a 30 year old pontoon boat. I always get the feeling I’m in the presence of a conman or shady used car salesman when someone on land introduces himself as captain. Too bad those guys don’t have a buddy or family member with more common sense to explain to them that no-one buys that crap & it causes the exact opposite reaction than the title searcher wishes to earn.

But now that I think about it, it does add to the novelty of Florida, more power to them I guess?

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Never was one to pay much attention to titles outside of the Master and Chief Engineers. It’s not what they do, but what they are responsible for, and they will receive my respect for that despite any personal opinions which may arise. That title is bestowed by the company and authorized by the flagstate, never by your own desire. Everything else is just noise to me, define it how you want. I have always introduce myself by name, and then vessel position (vessel Master in recent times). I have yet to see the title “Captain” bestowed upon me by either flagstate, the company, or listed on the MSMC.


I agree with you but would add chief officer & chief steward on vessels with large steward departments. On bigger, more complex vessels those 2 positions aren’t just given to anybody holding the correct documents to fill the spot, they usually earn the title.

The same for bosuns on anchor boats where the bosun is in charge of the deck during anchor jobs. The crew learns real quick if they have a real bosun or an AB filling a spot.

Agreed 100%. I was just speaking in terms and in the context of smaller vessels. Hence, the original post of the “Captain” actually boat handling and expectation that should happen. The larger vessels you speak of, with larger departmental structures, the Master nor the Chief Mate maneuver the ship or even hold a navigation watch, except for maybe temporary relief. I haven’t handled a vessel, outside of my own center console, for more than a decade, but of course, it wasn’t always like that. On large anchor boats, in the US GOM, unfortunately, those never had a bosun, and anchor handling crew, although generally very good, were 3rd party companies.

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Preach it bro. It’s terrible here in the Tampa area.


I suppose this depends if you consider the job of captain to primarily be focused on the conning of the vessel. While the limited time I get to handle the ship on approach to port and in and out of anchorages is my favorite part of the job, the job is multifaceted on a large ship. I feel more like the wizard behind the curtain at times, chained to my email, safety management system, payroll and budgets.

It is no less challenging a job to do it well though I certainly do push a lot of paper. I still go by Captain on the ship and only on the ship.


I agree with this, I’ve don’t recall anyone using titles on a tug with four or five crew.

But imagine joining a deep-sea ship where the captain and bos’n were calling each other Mike and Bob or whatever. You’d have to wonder what their relationship was. But if they are using each other’s titles they are sending a message to the crew that they consider their relationship to be a professional one.


You know it’s going to be good when the story starts out “A Florida man…”.

All about Florida Man


On small vessels it is usual to refer to the Master as being the skipper, the Chief Engineer as the Chief and the mate as simply the mate.
The courts rarely refer to the title Captain and use the term Master whatever the size of ship one is in command of.
I was always addressed as Captain by my employer when I sailed deep sea when I was physically present on the ship.

Near coastal areas of SoCal are also littered with these “captains”, just about anybody who passes their 6 pack or 100 ton calls themselves a captain and it’s both amusing and highly irritating. I think it’s got a lot to do with the maritime training schools here referring to their little 100 classes as “captains course”. Everybody gets to be a captain, how fucking cool is that! Also, on boats that do require two officers, the mate is almost always the “second captain” :roll_eyes: oh really? Then, in emergency, who the fuck is truly in charge? And those little companies foster this nonsense.
Where I come from, the title of a master or captain is nothing to be played around with, but here… this goes back to the topic of the the public’s knowledge of things maritime in the US, in comparison to that in certain regions of the rest of the world.

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This thread was never meant to take away from a working captain or god forbid, someone trying to become one. It was meant to discern between the shoreside guy/gal who got off the boat and speaks down to the guy/gal on the boat. This happens A LOT inland and they tend to forget where they came from. Hence the title port CAPTAIN, they tend to stress the Captain part of that title even though they have little or no experience on the water. I recently worked with a guy 63 years old staring retirement in eyes that has more experience and knowledge about boats in his pinky finger than I do. Never once would he mention to anyone “Hey it not Paul, its Captain Paul” like some people shoreside I know…I admire guys like that and I call them Capt out of respect even though they don’t demand it. ALSO, as a Mariner, I have NO problem with anyone pursuing a career on land and being home everyday, just don’t forget where you came from.

I was slotted into a “second captain” temporary gig by Tidewater to help out an inexperienced “first captain”. When I showed up on the Nancy boat, The “first captain” explained to me that I was actually the “third captain” but would fill in for the “second captain” because he was a “paper captain”; he could barely be trusted to run a set course, especially at night. That’s the image seared into my brain of what a paper captain is.


I’ll agree with that addition to the definition. We never called them a paper captain, we just laughed at them behind their backs.

  1. A person who has never sailed as captain but holds a master’s license that calls himself “captain” in his shore side office position and/or on his business cards. Usually, the less vessel experience they have the more of a prick they are about use of the title.

As you rightly said, the official title is
and only as long as one is signed on the ship’s books as one.

That’s what the wife of a “Ship’s Captain” reminded him of, when he tried to meddle in the domestic issues.

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I haven’t heard them called “Paper Captain” but I have heard them called “Capt’ Cubicle,” as in “Get a load of what Capt’ Cubicle wants us to do now”