Mention licensing and there’s no shortage of venting that yacht captains want to do. Those under the USCA scheme complain about the MCA; those under the MCA scheme complain about the USCG. Insurance companies are a favorite scapegoat of both sides, and not even owners escape the wrath.
But there has been some objection in recent years from yacht captains who have spent a career working up the licensing ladder only to be stopped at the top. It seems the tonnage on their ticket isn’t enough to qualify them to operate vessels of that tonnage. Nor should it, perhaps. There is no shortage of captains — and owners and brokers and insurance people — who will say experience is infinitely more important.
Yet yacht captains are still required to have the license. So what’s all the fuss? Why is so much time and money spent to get forever larger licenses if it’s the experience that really matters? What comes into play as captains move up in their careers?
Our assembled captains were an interesting mix of USCG, MCA, USCG-turned-MCA, yachting and commercial. Only one had the highest MCA yachting ticket; no one had the unlimited USCG ticket (even after 40 years of running boats).
Despite the varied backgrounds, are captains always still working on that next license?
“Pretty much the whole time,” one captain said, with a laugh.
As always, individual comments are not attributed to any one person in particular so as to encourage frank and open discussion.
“Your license is good for the tonnage; with a 3000-ton license, you can drive up to 3,000 tons,” a captain said. “The problem is the insurance company. You’re driving 120-foot boats and you want to drive a 240-footer, it’s too big a leap. You might have the license, but the insurance company will turn you down.”
Actually, another captain said, “You can go over your tonnage; the insurance company is OK with that.”
But it depends.
“Insurance companies, when they hire, they want a resume as well as your license,” a captain said. “They are looking at both.”
“That only started 10 or 12 years ago,” said another. “They kind of got smart about that.”
And then at least three of the captains told stories of working on small boats (smaller than 80 feet) many years ago, and then suddenly being put in command of large boats (bigger than 150 feet), simply because they had the paper ticket.
“I was terrified,” one captain admitted. “The night before I was to move the boat, I stayed up, waiting for the wind to shift. As soon as the sun came up and the wind moved around, I yelled to cast off the lines.”
Sometimes, though, captains can make a big leap if the owners fights for it.
“It depends on the boss,” a captain said. “If he’s got enough muscle with the insurance company, he can flex that muscle and make it happen.”
Many of these captains remember the days of yachting when a captain didn’t need a license to drive a boat. At least in the United States, that’s still true with a strictly private vessel; there is no law that says the driver of a recreational boat needs a license. (It’s the insurance company that requires it.)
“Commercial vessels are one thing; private vessels are a whole different ballgame,” a captain said. “It used to be that you could run a yacht with no license. But those were small boats. Now, these private yachts are huge, and they’re having accidents, so you have to be properly qualified.”
And rules or not, “If you don’t have a license, you can’t get a job,” another said. “If you are up for a job with five candidates, your license plays a huge part.”
Which is why yacht captains are forever getting larger and larger tickets when they can, even if they don’t intend on moving up. One captain said he fully expected the safe manning certificate that applies to commercial vessels to work its way into yachting, requiring certain operational positions to hold certain licenses. No one disputed that.
“The bigger question is, why don’t they do it like they do in aviation?” one captain said. “When you buy a jet, it’s included in the price the education for your crew. They have to be licensed and type-approved. They get the time every year to go to school, and still get paid. It’s just standard in the industry.
“But in our industry,” he said, “some boats are as expensive as a G5 but it’s not acceptable that the crew have to take time to renew their certifications. It’s not OK with yachts.
“That’s going to change,” another captain said. “It has to. There’s got to be an allotment in contract negotiations with owners for education and renewal time, no matter how big the boat is.”
There has to be a way for the industry to support education for crew with time off so they don’t have to lose their job to move up.
“It’s the captain’s responsibility to push for it and get benefits for the crew,” one captain said. “If you don’t ask, you never get it. Crew stay longer and are happier if you fight for their benefits.”
What if you had it all to do over again? What license would you go for?
“Engineering,” one captain said, to some chuckles.
“I agree,” said another.
“I’d go for a dual license — master and engineering,” said a third.
“I’m happy with my license,” a captain said. “I just wish it [the paperwork] wasn’t such a pain.”
“For non-U.S. crew, go with the license that will let them drive the largest number of boats,” one captain said. “Seventy to 80 percent will accept MCA licenses. That’s the one you should have.”
Most captains in the room were happy with the tickets they had, and weren’t constantly trying to get ever bigger licenses. Only one had the MCA 3000 ticket, and none had the commercial unlimited.
But they predicted that in the future, coming up through the hawse pipe will be harder than ever.
“You will have to go to a maritime college, come out with 3rd mate unlimited,” one captain said..
So what’s their advice to career-minded deck crew:
“Go to college,” one said.
“Don’t get discouraged,” another said.
“Ask your captain for more responsibility” said a third. “Learn to start everything, practice driving the tender.”
“And stay ahead of the curve,” said another. “Everyone in this room has to take two courses before the end of next year and I’ll bet no one knows what they are.” He was right; no one did. (Basically, deck officers need ECDIS certification, where applicable, and the HELM course to stay compliant with the STCW. Check with your preferred school for details based on your license.)
Lucy Chabot Reed is editor of The Triton. Comments on this story are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you make your living working as a yacht captain, e-mail us for an invitation to our monthly Bridge luncheon.