So,You Want to be a Captain?

So,You Want to be a Captain?

What does it really take to get your captain’s license? And is it worth the effort? Chris Dixon takes the classes, marks the charts and breaks it all down.

This story’s been a long time coming. It started on a freezing California morning back in February of 1999. I had flown from my home in San Clemente up to an infamous Bay Area surf spot called Mavericks to cover the Quiksilver Men Who Ride Mountains surf contest. Climbing aboard a commercial fishing vessel, I nervously joined a wisecracking crew of journalists and big wave surfers. As we nudged to the edge of the thundering surf zone, I marveled not only at the waves, but the captain. It wasn’t just the depth of knowledge and the mental skill set it took to not get us obliterated, but the organizational skills he employed keeping track of everything: rowdy passengers, crew, food, radio conversations, making sure he didn’t run over anyone; oh, it was all just, freaking radical.

That day was a revelation. I’d grown up boating, but up until then, I’d not deeply appreciated how much work a proper captain actually does, how much that captain has to know and the consequences if they screw up. That captain was my hero and I resolved to one day get myself certified.

Chris Dixon running through his chart plotting calculations. He’d spend many hours hunched over his charts. Eventually, set, drift, deviation and variation started to click.

Of course, resolutions have a way of getting delayed—and in the face of the rigorous coursework, documented sea time requirements, and the need to support my family through wordsmithing, a captain’s license would remain out of reach. Finally though, came this job at Power & Motoryacht. The opportunity to make delivery runs for the magazine might arise. And as a dad, I simply wanted to be a safer and more informed boater. Dan Harding and I back and forthed—what about an article about going through the process? What do you actually learn? If you’re an experienced boater, is it still worth the effort? And are there unexpected ways you might put it to practical use?

After some word-of-mouth from a few local captains, I reached out to a Charleston school called RCM Maritime and met Owner Ross Mery, his instructor Rainee Hale and office manager Deidre House. Mery grew up inland in San Antonio, Texas. His parents had wanted him to attend a military academy for college, but during a high school career night, he discovered the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy. “I was not familiar with them,” he said. “Their pitch was: ‘We’re a federal academy, just like all the others. We graduate you as a commissioned officer in the Navy—except we don’t require you to go to Active Duty when you graduate.’ And that was always my issue. I didn’t want to be told what I was going to do as soon as I graduated. And then, of course, the pitch was the maritime industry as well. You travel the world. You get to work on these ships. It’s an adventure, and that really hit me hard.”

In the ensuing 15 years at sea, Mery worked his way up to a Master Limited license. Traveling the world as a single guy was amazing, but eventually he met his wife-to-be and would become a dad. “And I don’t like being away from my family,” he said. Mery and a friend reckoned—and prayed—Charleston’s deep maritime culture might support a specialty sea school—and took a leap of faith. “It certainly was nerve wracking, when you’re on the hook for a three-year, six-figure lease,” he said. “So it was like, okay, we’d better hit the ground running.”

You Need Schooling

Today, RCM offers over 28 different courses; able seaman, basic training, security, firefighting, fast rescue boats, lifeboats, advanced meteorology, refresher/revitalizations and of course, an ascending level of captain’s licenses. For my purposes, a simple OUPV, aka six-pack course seemed logical. OUPV—Operator Uninspected Passenger Vessel is the most basic license you can get—and the most restrictive. An OUPV operator can take as many as six paid passengers on a boat that doesn’t have to be inspected by the Coast Guard for seaworthiness. But that can still be a pretty big boat—as big as 100 tons. When you’re carrying six or fewer paid passengers as an OUPV captain, a rigorous USCG-certified boat safety inspection is not required, but as Hale pointed out, your vessel still has to be safe and meet any local compliance measures. Local USCG auxiliaries also offer complimentary safety inspections of OUPV captained vessels. If yours passes, you get a UPV decal to display on your vessel. If it fails, you’re given a list of deficiencies but no actual enforcement action is taken. But have an accident that centers around one of those deficiencies while carrying a paying passenger? Lawyer up.

Photo: RCM Maritime

Photo: RCM Maritime

I asked Mery and Hale whether I really needed a license and what I’d get out of a school versus just taking courses online and submitting my own documentation. “There’s a misconception that you only need to get your captain’s license if you plan to use it for some sort of profit,” said Mery. “It’s not just because they want to run charters, or take bachelorette parties out, or fish for a living. Maybe this is a little harsh, but the quote goes, ignorance is bliss, right? You’re out there. You don’t know what you don’t know. Not only is it dangerous for you, but you’re a danger to other people. I mean, for example, do you know the different lights? The different buoys and beacons and what they look like at night? We’ve had so many students come through the class. And when they’re done, they’re like, ‘Wow, I thought I knew everything because I had been boating for a long time.’ We have people who don’t plan on running charters at all, but they buy a boat and realize, ‘I don’t know what the heck I’m doing. I should probably do something about this.’”

“So many people come in and they’ve been driving boats since they were children,” added Hale. “They’re sometimes just shockingly unprepared for reading the navigation buoys and the charts. Even though they’ve been on the water, they see these buoys and charts, but they don’t know what they mean.”

I plead guilty. Sure, I knew “red, right, returning,” and keeping my boat between channel markers along the ICW. I knew some hazard signs and the basics of range markers, but honestly, most fixed and floating symbols? Establishing a course and calculating for tidal drift? Determining compass versus magnetic headings? I’ve seen commercial boats out on Charleston Harbor displaying patterns of lights, but did I really know how to steer clear of the hazards, say, a dredge might present? And sure, I knew a few of the basic rules of the road; a stand-on vessel and a give-way vessel, but what about the specific rules of passing and what horns to sound? I knew to give way to fishing boats and sailboats, but did I know the succession of vessels (a vessel restricted in its ability to maneuver, or constrained by its draft) that ultimately have the rights-of-way, and when, frankly, those rights of way should go out the window to save my ass?

House added that any proper school will also help with the substantial documentation and outside training aspect. You need service forms showing 360 total sea days (those can go clear back to age 16), with one day of service equal to four hours underway, and 90 of those days in the last three years. If the hours are on your boat, you can self-report. On someone else’s, the owner/operator must sign your form. There’s also required drug testing, CPR and First Aid certifications, and TWIC security clearance, with a background check and fingerprinting. Oh, and Coast Guard fees. “I walk everybody through this whole process,” House said.

“We literally just had someone in here who came to Deidre because he tried to do it himself,” added Mery. “He ticked the wrong box or something didn’t check properly, and it set him back months—and he does this for a living.”

Okay, sign me up.

School is in Session

The USCG requires 54 hours of classroom instruction time for an OUPV certification. My classes would be held over two weekends—full Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. The small classroom held about 15 hopefuls. Somewhat atypically, everyone was a male—though our instructor was a highly experienced merchant mariner named Karen McDonald. A few were young guys in their twenties, one of whom was looking to do fishing guide work, another to work for a search and rescue operation. Two were recent retirees who met on a Caribbean charter and would be going in together on a big boat to cruise the Bahamas with their families. I took a seat alongside a friendly fellow Charleston dad named Hugh Murchison. He was simply very into boats (we even ran into each other afterwards at the Fort Lauderdale boat show) and wanted to get his license for his family’s safety.

As part of our $699 course fee, we were issued a 13 chapter, 200 page, spiral bound, RCM customized textbook. Some content I recognized as very near what you’d find in a Chapman’s Pilot Guide or the USCG’s Safe Boating Manual. Other elements were crafted specifically by Mery and his staff. We’d study four overlapping disciplines and take four tests: Rules of the Road covers things like steering and safety rules, lights and marker shapes, operating in restricted visibility and distress signals. Rules would overlap with Navigation General, which would include all manner of marine weather knowledge and the dizzying array of Aids to Navigation (ATONs). That in turn would overlap with Chart Plotting. Using an old school paper chart (in our case of Block Island Sound), divider and parallel ruler, we’d dive deep into everything I thought I knew about compasses, but didn’t, deviation, lat/long, the ever important Distance (D) = Speed (S) x Time (T), position plotting, dead reckoning and calculating a course. The chart plotting test would only have ten questions. Miss more than one and you fail.

Deck General was the fourth category with again, dizzying topics; distress calls—like when to call out “securité”, “pan pan”, or “mayday” on channel 16, the different types of rope material and the properties of each, calculating the weight you’d pull with different sets of block and tackle, twin-screw propeller maneuvering, suction (an effect where an underway boat is pulled towards a bank it’s paralleling), types of fires, how they spread aboard a boat and why, for example, you should never use foam on electrical fires.

Off the Charts

I haven’t been in a classroom since studying for my open water diving certification twelve years ago. And this setting was tough. Professor McDonald turned out to be a terrific—and patient—teacher. Some of what she taught, of course; can vs. nun buoy symbols or light patterns, can be learned by rote memorization. But she’d also use her own experiences, say a chafed line stretching to a breaking point, a fire squelched by cutting off its oxygen or navigating around the less dangerous southwestern quadrant of a potent low-pressure center, to give texture and context to what we were learning. But I mean, man, you have to study. Fortunately, she also ran us through a litany of sample test questions and referenced online resources where we could find flash cards and answer sample questions.

The questions are designed to trip you up. You might think, for example, that a vessel “not under command” would also fall under the “vessel restricted in their ability to maneuver” category occupied by working minesweepers, dredgers or pipeline laying boats, but it’s not. Sure, a “NUC” is obviously restricted in its ability to maneuver, but that’s because there’s no one at the helm, or it’s facing a significant issue like a fire or loss of steering. Another question might ask about your role in a passing situation, giving the length of a vessel you’re about to pass. Actually, the length of the vessel doesn’t matter, the passing rule does. Another might state that you’re ‘turning for 10 knots.’ Turning which way? Gotcha. That’s simply a more nautical way of saying your speed is 10 knots.

My own personal gauntlet would be chart plotting. I failed calculus in college and I’m not good at visualizing numbers. I’ve had a basic understanding of nautical charts for a while, but actually putting the divider and parallel ruler to work to calculate where I’d be after, say three hours underway running 12 knots at 300 degrees with a 4-knot tidal current from 215 degrees with 4 degrees of compass variation, was challenging. Too often I got one element wrong—miscounting the minutes of latitude or longitude along the chart’s edge, or lining up my ruler to a magnetic versus true compass heading, and bang, wrong. Then there was the simple fact that if you didn’t erase the lines you’d drawn on the map from previous calculations, you’d accidentally follow the wrong line or maybe an “X” you’d drawn to mark an earlier spot.

My classmates and I spent hours with our charts laid out on the desks before us—and peppering poor Karen with questions. And I spent hours more with that chart spread out on the dining room table, working sample problem after sample problem and locking Karen’s vintage, politically incorrect navigator’s mnemonic True Virgins Make Dull Company, Add Whiskey into my brain. When you need to plot a course or determine compass error, you’ll learn why it’s a helpful acronym too.

You may not need a captain’s license for heading out on a typical inshore afternoon, but to Dixon, the education is just part of being a responsible dad—and passing on what he’s learned.

Photo: Luke Pope Corbett


At RCM—and most schools—you can take your four tests on your own time by simply scheduling them. They don’t need to be taken in a particular order and weeks can go by between them—but do them as soon as you can so the class content is fresh in your mind. I opted to get my Nav General and Rules of the Road out of the way first. Nailed them. After clearing the decks for two additional weekends just to study chart plotting, everything finally started to click, and I nervously beheld my ten questions. The first basically asked when my chart was published. That answer was so obvious, I thought it was a trick. But most of the others, lining up lighthouses, range markers, harbors and the compass rose to negotiate Block Island Sound, were not so easy. Heart pounding, I turned my test in. House looked up over her glasses at me with a smirking smile: 100.

Deck general would prove a tough test too, but honestly, after chart plotting, the rest was downhill. I’m now finishing up my paperwork and have calculated my sea time clear back to my days with my uncle aboard what’s now my Hydra-Sports off Long Island Sound in 1990. My CPR and First Aid tests are coming up, but I’ve been keeping up with that stuff for most of my life. I don’t do drugs, and I’m hopeful I won’t show up on either a domestic or international terrorism watch list. By House’s estimation, my captain’s license should thus arrive sometime in the early summer.

There was one final, off-putting point in this long process—and it’s something that concerns the folks at RCM too. Simply put, there’s a missing element in this country’s system of boating safety. Today, I could go to a broker, plop down a few million and drive away with a shiny new 70-foot yacht—with no training whatsoever. And in some states, I could even let my 12-year-old kid drive it. South Carolina just passed a law requiring any boater born after July 1, 2007 to pass a state-certified one-day safety course, but there’s no requirement for the cocky, 40-year-old who thinks he knows more than he does, to take any course. There’s no official “driver’s license” or USCG-certification where the criteria falls between the rigor of a captain’s license and a state-level 8-hour boater safety course. And there’s the issue of all that sea time too. It makes sense that a captain should have a lot of hours, but that’s a difficult proposition for some boaters who just want to do the right thing but can’t show 360 hours. “There’s a gap,” said Mery. “It’s basically like, not knowing anything, and then getting your captain’s license.”

Mery said he’s thinking of adding a ‘non-captain’s’ course that focuses, particularly, on rules of the road. “I think it would be great if everybody had to do that,” added Hale “I know that’s not a popular opinion, but I think it would be beneficial, because so many people are out there—and they have no clue what they’re doing.”

The Final Verdict

All in all, getting my certification at RCM was absolutely worth it. The time I spent—I’d reckon 130 hours including class time—has taught me so damn much—and made me realize how much more I have to learn. The time I’d have spent had I tried to do all the coursework online, would have been far higher, and I simply wouldn’t have learned as much. Now, I don’t have to rely on a chartplotter anymore to know where I’m going and I feel much more confident out on the harbor and amongst the many unqualified captains.

By the time you read this, I should be able to call myself “Captain.” Will my wife and kids call me that? Probably not. Will I ever pilot a boat to the edge of the surf zone at Mavericks? Probably not. But will I be a safer, more confident and responsible mariner? Definitely. And that’s why I did it.

This article originally appeared in the April 2024 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.

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