A sea captain, ship's captain, captain, master, or shipmaster, is a high-grade licensed mariner who holds ultimate command and responsibility of a merchant vessel. The captain is responsible for the safe and efficient operation of the ship—including its seaworthiness, safety and security, cargo operations, navigation, crew management, and legal compliance—and for the persons and cargo on board.
Duties and functions
The captain ensures that the ship complies with local and international laws and complies also with company and flag state policies. The captain is ultimately responsible, under the law, for aspects of operation such as the safe navigation of the ship, its cleanliness and seaworthiness, safe handling of all cargo, management of all personnel, inventory of ship's cash and stores, and maintaining the ship's certificates and documentation.
One of a shipmaster's particularly important duties is to ensure compliance with the vessel's security plan, as required by the International Maritime Organization's ISPS Code. The plan, customized to meet the needs of each individual ship, spells out duties including conducting searches and inspections, maintaining restricted spaces, and responding to threats from terrorists, hijackers, pirates, and stowaways. The security plan also covers topics such as refugees and asylum seekers, smuggling, and saboteurs.
On ships without a purser, the captain is in charge of the ship's accounting. This includes ensuring an adequate amount of cash on board, coordinating the ship's payroll (including draws and advances), and managing the ship's slop chest.
On international voyages, the captain is responsible for satisfying requirements of the local immigration and customs officials. Immigration issues can include situations such as embarking and disembarking passengers, handling crew members who desert the ship, making crew changes in port, and making accommodations for foreign crew members. Customs requirements can include the master providing a cargo declaration, a ship's stores declaration, a declaration of crew members' personal effects, crew lists and passenger lists.
The captain has special responsibilities when the ship or its cargo are damaged, when the ship causes damage to other vessels or facilities. The master acts as a liaison to local investigators and is responsible for providing complete and accurate logbooks, reports, statements and evidence to document an incident. Specific examples of the ship causing external damage include collisions with other ships or with fixed objects, grounding the vessel, and dragging anchor. Some common causes of cargo damage include heavy weather, water damage, pilferage, and damage caused during loading/unloading by the stevedores.
All persons on board including public authorities, crew, and passengers are under the captain's authority and are his or her ultimate responsibility, particularly during navigation. In the case of injury or death of a crew member or passenger, the master is responsible to address any medical issues affecting the passengers and crew by providing medical care as possible, cooperating with shore-side medical personnel, and, if necessary, evacuating those who need more assistance than can be provided on board the ship.
There is a common belief that ship captains have historically been, and currently are, able to perform marriages. This depends on the country of registry, however most do not permit performance of a marriage by the master of a ship at sea.
In the United States Navy, a captain's powers are defined by its 1913 Code of Regulations, specifically stating: "The commanding officer shall not perform a marriage ceremony on board his ship or aircraft. He shall not permit a marriage ceremony to be performed on board when the ship or aircraft is outside the territory of the United States." However, there may be exceptions "in accordance with local laws and the laws of the state, territory, or district in which the parties are domiciled" and "in the presence of a diplomatic or consular official of the United States, who has consented to issue the certificates and make the returns required by the consular regulations."
Furthermore, in the United States, there have been a few contradictory legal precedents: courts did not recognize a shipboard marriage in California's 1898 Norman v. Norman but did in New York's 1929 Fisher v. Fisher (notwithstanding the absence of municipal laws so carried) and in 1933's Johnson v. Baker, an Oregon court ordered the payment of death benefits to a widow because she had established that her marriage at sea was lawful. However, in Fisher v. Fisher the involvement of the ship's captain was irrelevant to the outcome. New Jersey's 1919 Bolmer v. Edsall said a shipboard marriage ceremony is governed by the laws of the nation where ownership of the vessel lies.
In the United Kingdom, the captain of a merchant ship has never been permitted to perform marriages, although from 1854 any which took place had to be reported in the ship's log.
Spanish and Filipino law, as narrow exceptions, recognise a marriage in articulo mortis (on the point of death) solemnized by the captain of a ship or chief of an aeroplane during a voyage, or by the commanding officer of a military unit.
Japan allows ship captains to perform a marriage ceremony at sea, but only for Japanese citizens. Malta, Bermuda and the Bahamas permit captains of ships registered in their jurisdictions to perform marriages at sea. Princess Cruises, whose ships are registered in Bermuda, has used this as a selling point for their cruises, while Cunard moved the registration of its ships Queen Mary 2, Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth from Southampton to Bermuda in 2011 to allow marriages to be conducted on their ships.
Some captains obtain other credentials (such as ordination as ministers of religion or accreditation as notaries public), which allow them to perform marriages in some jurisdictions where they would otherwise not be permitted to do so. Another possibility is a wedding on a ship in port, under the authority of an official from that port.
In works of fiction, ship captains have performed marriages in various media, including the 1951 film The African Queen, and episodes of The Love Boat, How I Met Your Mother, The Office (U.S. TV series) and various Star Trek series.
To become a master of vessels of any gross tons upon oceans in the United States, one must first accumulate at least 360 days of service (Recency – 90 days in the past three years on vessels of appropriate tonnage) while holding a chief mate's license. The chief mate's license, in turn, requires at least 360 days of service (Recency – 90 days in the past three years on vessels of appropriate tonnage) while holding a second mate's license, passing a battery of examinations, and approximately 13 weeks of classes. Similarly, one must have worked as a third mate for 360 days (Recency – 90 days in the past three years on vessels of appropriate tonnage) to have become a second mate.
There are two methods to attain an unlimited third mate's license in the United States: to attend a specialized training institution, or to accumulate "sea time" and take a series of training classes and examinations.
Training institutions that can lead to a third mate's license include the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy (deck curriculum), and the six state maritime academies in Maine, Massachusetts, New York, Texas, or California or the Great Lakes Maritime Academy, or a three-year apprentice mate training program approved by the Commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard. Furthermore, third mate's licenses can be obtained through the U.S. Coast Guard Academy and the U.S. Naval Academy with approved courses and requisite sea time as an Officer in Charge of a Navigational Watch.
A seaman may start the process of obtaining a license after three years of service in the deck department on ocean steam or motor vessels, at least six months of which as able seaman, boatswain, or quartermaster. Then the seaman takes required training courses, and completes on-board assessments. Finally, the mariner can apply to the United States Coast Guard for a third mate's license.
An alternate method of obtaining a license as a master of vessels of any gross tons upon oceans, without sailing as a third, second, or chief mate, is to obtain one year of sea service as a 1st class pilot of any gross tons or mate of vessels of any gross tons upon Great Lakes and inland waters. Then pass an examination for the license of master of vessels of any gross tons upon Great Lakes and inland waters. A master of vessels of any gross tons upon Great Lakes and inland waters may, without any additional sea service, take the examination for master of vessels of any gross tons upon near coastal waters. If the candidate does not already have sufficient deep sea experience he may with six months of additional sea service, in any licensed capacity, take a partial examination consisting primarily of celestial navigation and have the near coastal restriction removed. 46CFR 11.403
A master of 1,600 ton vessels can, under certain circumstances, begin the application process for an unlimited third mate's license.
Some employers offer financial assistance to pay for the training for their employees. Otherwise, the mariner is responsible for the cost of the required training. A Chief Mate to Master formal training generally takes about 12 weeks and provides the knowledge, skills and other soft skills training to take on the duties and responsibilities.
Various US states require and issue shipmaster or captain licenses in order to be employed in operating a vessel for hire, while navigating within "non-federal" waters. (Such as a lake or river charter boat "skipper"). Most states honor a USCG master's certificate as an alternative to their state licensing. These state licenses certify that the captain has given satisfactory evidence that they can safely be entrusted with the duties and responsibilities of operating or navigating passenger carrying vessels of the tonnage and upon the waters specified. The state licensed captains command vessels that range from small uninspected vessels to large excursion vessels that carry over 100 passengers, so the licenses are not issued haphazardly. For example, see Washington State's Certification of Charter Boats and Operators licenses