Cruise ship captains do not just pilot boats. In fact, they are more like the chief executive officer of a medium-sized company, responsible for the enjoyment and safety of thousands of passengers and crew. A captain who masters his craft is skilled in many areas. He is a nautical expert, decision-maker, leader, legal expert, personnel manager, administrator, cargo specialist and mediator. Luckily, he is also paid handsomely for ensuring the ship sails smoothly at all times.
A cruise ship captain is a licensed mariner with ultimate operation of the ship. He is also responsible for the transportation of the ship's passengers and cargo — which could be many thousands of people — acting as final authority for everyone on board. The job is extremely varied. Day-to-day, the captain could be handling some or all of the following tasks:
- Using navigational aids to pilot the ship
- Maintaining a detailed log of the ship's journey
- Observing all maritime protocols and safety regulations
- Supervising the ship's engines and maintenance
- Supervising the crew
- Managing the ship's security plan for malfunctions, emergency evacuations, stowaways, hijackers and other threats
- Ensuring cargo is stowed in accordance to maritime regulations
- Complying with national and international maritime, immigration and customs laws
- Greeting and socializing with guests
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Cruise ship captains must complete a four-year program at a Coast Guard approved merchant marine academy. The program provides a foundation in mathematics, science and marine science, alongside specialized sea training and practical maritime operations. He or she will also need work experience, with many ship captains putting in thousands of hours as a deck officer before working their way up to the position of captain.
Licensing is required for these professionals. The relevant credential is called the Transportation Worker Identification and Merchant Mariner credential from the U.S. Coast Guard. You'll have to pass vision and hearing exams and a drug screening, as well as a character reference check. You might also need certification from the Department of Homeland Security to be eligible for this job.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics does not keep data specifically for cruise ship captains. The median salary for all ship captains (including commercial and cargo ships) was $69,180 in May 2018. The median is the salary in the middle, meaning half of captains earn more than this amount.
For cruise ship captains who hold the safety of thousands of passengers in their hands, you can expect salaries to be much higher. According to Payscale, a website which aggregates salary data from across the web, the typical cruise ship captain earns $97,192 in 2019 in a salary band that ranges from $48,485 to $180,308.
The cruise captain's job takes place on a cruise ship, but he is unlikely to be at sea for 365 days of the year. Most captains work two months on, two months off, or a similar pattern depending on the length of the cruise. The job may be more physically demanding than you imagine — the captain is essentially on call 24/7 while the ship is at sea.
Years of Experience
It takes many years of hard work to become a cruise ship captain. The payoff is a salary that starts high and rises fairly consistently with time and experience. A typical salary trajectory may look like this:
- 0-5 years of experience: $59,000
- 5-10 years of experience: $80,000
- 10-20 years of experience: $97,000
- 20+ years of experience: $113,000
Job Growth Trend
There should be plenty of opportunities for cruise ship captains in the coming years. The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that the number of jobs for captains of all water vessels (including cruise ships) will rise by 9 percent by the year 2026. This solid rate of growth is due to an increase in tourism.
On the downside, going on a cruise is a luxury that most people have to save for. If personal wealth tanks, then people will have less disposable income to spend on cruise vacations. For that reason, the job outlook primarily depends on the state of the economy.