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So You Want To Be A Captain?

A Title… you’ve always wanted… A TITLE! Get elected to political office and you’re forever after entitled to “Senator,” “Congressman,” “Representative” or “Judge” proceeding your surname. Alternatively, take on the expense and effort of earning a medical or Ph.D. degree then go haughtily through life as “Doctor”… or a law degree and successful BAR exam begetting you the succeeding moniker “Esquire.” Ah, the privilege of it all.

But who in the world really aspires to be a politician, or genuinely wants to endure the rigors of joining the ranks of doctors or lawyer? There must be some title out there that’s a bit less rigorous to achieve but still garners universal admiration and respect. Especially around the docks, is there anything more respected than “Captain” stitched over your breast pocket? Absolutely not! It’s the nautical pinnacle, an undeniable affirmation of your commanding saltiness, connoting that all other dock rats scurrying about the marina are but a rabble of lesser-esteemed swabbies. Many people call themselves “captain” merely by virtue of owning and running their own boat, and over the VHF we all amiably address one another as such, but to make it legally and recognizably official there’s the minor detail of a U.S. Coast Guard certificate. If you intend to run boats for hire you must have a license, but many people who don’t actually aspire to be a working waterman still feel it’s a distinguished and satisfying certificate of accomplishment to have framed and mounted on the bulkhead. Despite the many misconceptions over additional responsibilities placed upon those who hold a captain’s license, even if not officially operating a vessel as such, there really are none. For instance, some people will tell you that as a licensed captain you are required to render assistance to another boat in trouble such as a boat aground. But it’s no different than being a doctor and seeing someone hurt: although your conscience should goad the Good Samaritan in you, you don’t lawfully have to render any assistance at all. In fact, those who have a license gain two significant benefits. First, your insurance rates will be considerably lower and second, even though the licensing process does NOT include actual boat operation, you’ll naturally be a much more knowledgeable – and therefore safer – boater, hence the insurance discount. As with other modes of transportation, the U.S. Congress eventually insisted that passengers on vessels are afforded the same level of protection as those using other forms of public conveyance (planes, trains and the like), resulting in the codification of the Federal Boat Safety Act of 1971. In addition to requiring vessel operators to have the skills and knowledge necessary for safe operation, legislators also wanted to reduce the threat of vessel casualties caused by operators under the influence of drugs or alcohol. To meet those goals they enacted legislation requiring licenses and drug testing and the Coast Guard is the primary federal agency with the responsibility to administrate and enforce those licensing regulations. The U.S. Coast Guard issues over 60 different types of licenses for all manner of mariner, most of which apply to the commercial shipping industry, all the way up to an “unlimited master” license qualifying you to captain a supertanker or cruise ship. That process is lengthy and involved; requiring attendance at one of the six U.S. accredited maritime academies, along with thousands of hours of onboard time and a lot of lesser license rungs to grab on the ladder the way up. But here, let’s just concentrate on the most basic type of license, an O.U.P.V. or Operator of Uninspected Vessels. Colloquially known as a “Six-Pak,” this license permits you to carry up to six “passengers for hire” on any inland vessel up to 100 gross tons displacement, most commonly done on fishing charter boats. (There is an exception here in the case of sailboats which require an additional “Sailing Endorsement.”) If you want to carry more than six people then the boat must undergo regular Coast Guard inspections and you must upgrade your license to coincide with the “rating” of the vessel, meaning its classification according to its gross tonnage and number of passengers permitted. And an additional license upgrade is required to operate a vessel offshore. “For hire” is a very broadly defined term. Some official sticklers have (unsuccessfully) argued that if your fishing buddies bring the lunch, beer and pitch in for bait and fuel it’s a paying situation. However, the law is quite clear in that, even if running a boat to simply show waterfront properties to prospective real estate purchasers, it requires a licensed captain. If you do intend operating as a captain but just can’t be bothered with the license, be mindful that fines can reach $10,000 per day, exponentially more (and possibly jail time) if anything goes seriously wrong or somebody gets hurt while you’re at the helm. Getting a basic captain’s license isn’t quite as rigorous as a Harvard degree, but it does have some requirements. First off, you’ll need to document (“log”) a certain amount of actual onboard time. For example, the most basic O.U.P.V. license for inland lakes, bays and sounds requires a minimum of 360 days total boating experience on any type and size of powerboat with 90 of those days being in the last 3 years. You don’t need to be a U.S. citizen but the minimum age to apply is 18. The test itself is divided into several sections, the lengthiest being “Rules of the road”; then knowing day and night navigational and vessel light signals, and general vessel safety right down to knowing the proper fire extinguisher for a particular type of onboard blaze. Plus, forget the video chart plotter- you’ll need to know how to chart courses the old fashioned way: with paper charts, calipers, some sort of triangle and a calculator, slide rule or your fingers and toes. Then there’s basic first aid/CPR and of course, the drug test. There are literally hundreds of preparatory courses and programs offered to make the process and learning easier. It’ll cost you a good few hundred dollars but the expense is well worth it to avoid frustration and be able to take and pass the test the first time around. Earning that coveted and respected title of “Captain” remains a LOT less expensive and aggravating than running for office… much less attending eight or more years of higher education and the commensurate internships. There are no coy interns or co-eds involved either, gentlemen and forgive me for saying so, ladies but those marina mermaids sure do swoon over a man with rightful stripes on his epaulets!

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