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How/why to get your USCG Captains License

Cruisers Academy |Liveaboard Sailing School


Do I need my United States Coast Guard Captain's License to sail locally or cruise around the world?


The answer is no! This is a common question we get from many of our sailing students who are surprised to hear that you don’t actually need any official qualifications to sail. In fact, many people who have sailed around the world have never even taken a sailing course!


That being said, there is value in getting a jumpstart with a sailing course on the fundamentals. There are offshore sailing courses where you can learn about weather, navigation, boat systems, seamanship, and safety at sea. You’ll only need your USCG Captain’s License if you want to work in US waters in exchange for money—think chartering companies, cruises, sight-seeing tours, Scuba Diving businesses, fishing trips, or Cruiser’s Academy Captains!


USCG Captains License Book
USCG Captains License Book

USCG Captains License: Online vs. In-Person Courses


There are two main ways to take the course, in person over a two week period or at your own pace online. Surprisingly enough, there is no portion of the test that takes place on an actual boat.


Let us start by saying that if you have the option of the USCG course in person, this is 100% the easier and smarter option. The catch is that this course specifically is only offered in select locations and usually runs 8 hours a day Monday through Friday for two weeks, which may be difficult for those that are unable to take that much time off work. The main benefit of taking the course in person is that the agency that gives the course creates their own test. Instructors can easily guide students toward important content that should be highlighted and will likely occur on their specific test. They want a 100% success rate for their students, so they essentially make it easier for you to get there… How nice is that?


The other option is to do it online, with Mariners Learning System being the most popular option. This is what Blue did, wrongly thinking this would be the easier option. Although it seems appealing, it's actually a much harder route for various reasons. Unlike in the in-person course, there is no instructor to point out which material to focus on and how best to prepare for what will be on the actual test. Having no guidance makes it that much more difficult to figure out what to focus on out of all five books, which is a TON of content. Blue had a theory that if she re-took the practice quizzes over and over again until she saw no new questions, and built her flashcards on the questions being asked, she would be familiar with whatever she found on the final exam. And after many, many hours of studying, she still saw questions on the final test that she had never seen in any of the practice quizzes. In her personal opinion, she also felt many of the questions weren’t very practical, and also phrased in a ‘DMV’ style, in that they feel like they were designed to trick you on a vast array of obscure, rarely used regulations.


If you choose to take the online course, there are some tips and tricks that can help make the process less painful. The first one is to carve out a dedicated amount of time to study the material and take the test. It's easy to think that you can do it in the background of whatever else you have going on in life, but the final test requires that you truly know the material. It’s also important to note that there is a one year timeline on how long you can drag the course out, and if you don’t complete it in time, you will need to pay an additional $95 to reinstate the course. The final test is taken online in your own home, but under strict rules that make it impossible for anyone to cheat.


We will outline the sections of the test below, as well as share some resources that can help you study. It’s also important to mention that the turnaround time for getting your Captain's License in hand (which makes it then legal for you to work) can be about six months from the time you submit your paperwork to the USCG- this does not include however long it takes you to complete the course! One way to help streamline the process is to make sure you get all the “extra” things completed simultaneously while taking your course so that you are ready to submit your application once you finish the course itself. We will share more about this in the 'Application' section below, but first let’s talk about different course options.


Two courses: OUPV vs. Master Captains License


In addition to choosing between either online or in-person courses, you must choose whether you want the Operator of Un-Inspected Passenger Vehicles (OUPV) License, also called the “Six-Pack Captains License", or the Master Captains License, which is the highest level captains license issued by the USCG.


The OUPV/Six-pack Captain’s License ($495 online) allows the holder to carry up to six paying passengers plus crew—hence the term “Six-Pack.” This license allows you to operate un-inspected vessels up to 100 gross tons (about 75-90 feet long), but those who have this license are usually operating smaller vessels that engage in charter fishing, SCUBA diving or sailing cruises.


There are certain requirements to obtaining this license, which include:

  • Be at least 18 years old

  • US Citizen/Lawful admittance to US for permanent residence (Form I-551, Alien Registration Card)

  • Drug test

  • Physical, hearing and eye exam

  • CPR/First Aid—must meet specific qualifications and be within the last year

  • Transportation Workers Identification Credential (TWIC)—background check done through homeland security

  • Completion of the Mariners School™ USCG-approved OUPV/Six-Pack classroom course

  • Sea time signed-off on by owner/operator/master of a vessel on a Small Vessel Sea Service Form: In the last three years, you need to have 90 days on inland waterways (commercial bays or lakes), on the great lakes/inland, or in oceans seward of a boundary line oceans, depending on which type of license (Inland, Great Lakes or Near Coastal) that you want


The Master’s License ($695 online) distinguishes between 25, 50 and 100 Ton vessels and can be acquired without first getting an OUPV License as long as you have the required boating experience. Unlike the OUPV, you must have 720 days sea service in total with 360 days seaward of the boundary line for oceans or on the Great Lakes to qualify for the Near Coastal. The 100 ton license will allow you to operate commercial inspected vessels. In addition to the requirements listed above for the six-pack, there are also specific qualifications based on boat tonnage:

  • 100 ton captain’s license requirements: 90 days on vessels of at least 51 gross tons OR 180 days on vessels of at least 34 gross tons

  • 50 ton captain’s license requirements: At least 1 day on vessels of at least 5 gross tons prior OR 90 days on a vessel of at least 26 gross tons OR 180 days on vessels of at least 17 gross tons.

A common route is for people to acquire their six-pack first, gain more sea-time and then if needed, upgrade to the master license (an additional $275 online).

Mariners Learning System Study Books
Mariners Learning System Study Books

Breakdown of USCG Course/Exam Sections


You will receive five books for the course, a practice chart and chart-plotting tools. The hard copy books act as a resource the online course if you are taking the online route, but you will still need to make your way through each section of the course before moving on to the next one. Each section has lots of reading, videos, and review quizzes associated with it. You can move freely through a section and bounce around, but it's best to do everything in order and never move on from a chapter if you can’t pass the review quizzes without looking in your books or study material.


These are the sections of the course, and therefore the sections of the final exam. The exam is all multiple choice, 130 questions.

  • Rules of the Road: Must correctly answer 90% of 30 questions on final

Definitely the easiest section, content is implied by name!

  • Navigation: Must correctly answer 70% of 30 questions

What most people consider the most difficult section because you need to know all instances of navigation lights and day markers, colors and shapes of buoys, etc.

  • Plotting: Must correctly answer 70% of 10 questions

This part is done on a physical chart, and if you practice enough to thoroughly understand the concepts, it is quite straightforward. Blue also found this section the most informative and fun!

  • Deck General & Safety: Must correctly answer 70% of 60 questions (two sections)

This section includes a wide array of topics including firefighting, marine engines, environmental protection, life-saving equipment, seamanship, boat handling etc.


Note: For a master captain’s license: Master 25/50/100 Ton you must correctly answer 70% of 70 questions.


If you fail one or more modules, you are allowed to retest within 3 months of the original testing attempt or prior to the course expiration date, which ever date comes first. Those who do not pass a USCG license exam module after three attempts must retake the entire online course and retest all modules online prior to their year course expiration date and wait a period of 45 days to retest.


Blue practicing the plotting module
Blue practicing the plotting module

Application & Additional Costs


Once you have all the prerequisite materials, you will want to submit your application at your USCG regional exam center via a PDF in an email. One possible tip for speeding up the acceptance process, is to pick a slow exam center instead of the closest one. Blue had noticed that whenever she called her closest center in Oakland, she had a hard time speaking to anyone or getting questions answersed. She decided to submit her application to Anchorage Alaska, and they called her immediately to tell her one more thing that was missing from her application. At a busier center, this could have held up her application for who knows how long!


It’s important to note that many of these things will include additional costs outside of your course fees.


You’re application must include:


  • Merchant Mariner Credential (MMC) Application Form (CG-719B)

  • Copy of Certificate of Training from online or in person course

  • Copy of the front & back your CPR & First aid card from an approved course: Verify your course with the USCG before taking it!

  • TWIC application receipt

  • Conviction Disclosure Statement (if convicted of anything) (CG-719C)

  • Small Vessel Sea Service Form (CG-719S) & additional documentation/letters

  • Medical Form (CG-719K): When you make the appointment for your physical, request a doctor who is familiar with filling out this specific form.

  • DOT/USCG Drug Testing Form (CG-719P)

  • Oath Form

  • Receipt of payment (you can pay applicable fees at Pay.gov)


Again, acquiring these things can take time so try to start checking off these items either before or while you're doing the course. Once you submit, you will need to follow up within a month or so to make sure nothing is missing and advocate for yourself to have all the materials reviewed in a timely fashion. Most people Blue talked to had some hiccups with their submission and needed to provide extra documentation.


All in all, it took Blue over six months to recieve her Captain's Book (it looks just like a passport) in hand after submitting her application to the USCG. Remember that your license doesn’t become valid once you submit, it becomes valid once you receive your book!


Resources


Having good resources can make a huge difference!


  1. USCGQ Website is the most useful resource. You get a certain amount of free questions before you have to pay, but it is well worth the investment.

  2. Flashcards on Amazon

  3. Boat Lights App IOS or Android

  4. SeaTrials.net Practice Tests

  5. As mentioned before, utilizing Chegg to make your own flash cards, or search other peoples decks to study from is a super efficient way to keep track of what you need to study more of as you make your way through the material.

  6. Quizlets are a great way to use practice materials that many others have used and to practice with flashcards:

  • Here is an example.

  • But, if you search any combination of the words “USCG Captains License” or specific section headings you should find others

There is also this facebook group where you can ask questions and discuss any issues your up against.


Why NOT to get your captain's license...


While you may learn a lot about what being a captain entails, there are reasons not to take the course and choose other courses more tailored to what you’re looking for:

  1. This course is a huge time and cost commitment to comply with all the requirements.

  2. This course requires a minimum 90 days of sea time, which may be a lot for people just getting into boating.

  3. If you don’t plan to charge for your boating services, there are much better options for attaining real world experience. Check out some of Cruisers Academy Fundamentals Sailing Course or their Offshore Sailing Courses in Mexico!


Sailboat undersail in Mexico
SV Lintika, the sailboat used for offshore courses in Mexico!

This blog was brought to you by Kira Kessel, a young Cruiser who sailed the South Pacific with her family and is enraptured by the cruising lifestyle!


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