Believe it or not, in the US, you are not required to have a captain’s license to drive a boat. And, if you are traveling to foreign ports as a US citizen you are still not required to have one. However, many people have completed sailing circumnavigations without one. Every experienced mariner does their best to learn what they need to know to move their vessel safely. There are plenty of books available to teach the basics. But, ultimately, you must learn the basics to be a mariner – the ocean environment is unforgiving to the uninitiated.
In the US, you are required to understand basic rules of navigation and are required to have items of safety including the written rules of navigation on board vessels of certain sizes. The rules are based on similar international rules. All mariners traveling abroad are expected to adhere to international rules of navigation (known as the “rules of the road”), and have required onboard safety equipment (including lighting, fire extinguishers, foghorn, etc.).
As a private pilot, I found the training to get a pilot’s license was very valuable because it requires you to understand critical systems, understand traffic rules and regulations, and steps to take for safety and emergencies. Not only that, but pilots are required to periodically review all such material and have a certified instructor re-test their knowledge.
So, I’m now in the process of getting a US captain’s license. Although not required, it will give me more confidence in my basic boating knowledge, and help validate my level of skills when visiting other countries or when encountering coast guard vessels. The basic US captain’s license also provides the option for a captain to carry passengers for hire (the first level only allows up to six passengers and is known as a “six pack”). We have no plans to carry passengers for hire, and such rights don’t apply when you’re in another country. But, who knows what the future holds? There are other levels to the licenses available and endorsements for special boating such as sailing, and towing. Once I complete the captain’s license, I may get the sailing endorsement as well.
The US Coast Guard now allows you to get your captain’s license through approved online courses. I’m taking my course through MarinersSchool.com who I found at the Miami Boat Show (but, also saw in online searches). The online course includes practice tests and final exams which must be passed before you can take the final test. The final test is taken at a USCG approved testing center. You have to pass a drug test, sign an affidavit that you have the required nautical experience, and provide required identification.
By the way, if you don’t have the time, or want to spend the money to take a formal online course, I highly recommend you take advantage of the free online training course for boating safety by BoatingBasicsOnline.com. They even provide courses based on your state (which may have slightly different rules and regulations). They actually cover the vast majority of the course material required for a captain’s license.