Obtaining a USCG Captain’s License

Over this past year, I have been asked several times what is involved with obtaining a US Coast Guard (USCG) Captain’s License. After some formal fact-finding and the recollection of my own experiences, I will share some of the basic requirements and offer additional tips on the process.

The USCG offers a series of Merchant Mariner Credentials (licenses), all of which vary in functionality. A basic license is available to legally “guide” paying customers (up to six) on a USCG uninspected fishing charter or sunset tour all the way to complex licensing for USCG Inspected ocean liners carrying thousands of paying customers. A potential licensee would typically obtain one of the initial and basic licenses first. Over time, any additional experience on larger and more complex vessels offers the ability to upgrade to a license having greater capacity (higher gross tonnage or special functionality).

For intents and purposes, most who wish to “guide” in the fly-fishing business will require a USCG Operator of Uninspected Passenger Vessel (OUPV) Six-Pack License. Note: There is no requirement to obtain this license first however – if you have prior experience (sea time) on larger/ applicable vessels, you may obtain your Master or Mate Inland or Near Coastal 100 Ton License initially. I took this path myself.

Qualifying Sea Time for Licenses

All credentials below can be obtained through your initial application. Your credential will depend on your sea service relating to the size of vessels served on and the location of waters where under way.

USCG Operator’s License (6-Pack)

Uninspected vessels (6 paying passengers) up to 100 GT on up to 100 miles off-shore:

At least 360 days of boating experience including 90 days off-shore and 90 within the past three (3) years. If you do not have coast-wise experience, you can get an Inland license. Non US Citizens may be restricted to undocumented vessels with a 5 net ton limit.

USCG Master Inland/ Mate Near Coastal

Inspected or Uninspected vessels up to 100 GT on Inland Waters:

At least 360 days of boating experience including 90 within the past three (3) years. If you have 180 days of off-shore experience, you can also get Mate Near Coastal (200 miles) license. If you only have 90 days of off-shore time, you can also get OUPV Near Coastal. If you do not have any near-coastal sea service, apply for a Master Inland. If all sea time is under 5 GT you will get 25 GT. If 90 days is over 5 GT, you will get 50 GT license. If 180 are over 34 GT, you will get 100 GT license.

USCG Master Near Coastal

Inspected or Uninspected vessels up to 100 GT on up to 200 miles off-shore:

At least 720 days of boating experience including 360 days off-shore and 90 within past three (3) years. If all sea time is under 5 GT you will get 25 GT license. If 180 days is over 5 GT, you will get 50 GT license. If 360 is over 34 GT, you will get 100 GT license.

Required Documentation

There is a stack of documentation required to apply for this Merchant Mariner Credential (MMC). Before detailing documentation, here’s a list of basic requirements in simple form:

  • Merchant Mariner Credential Application (Form CG-719B)
  • Small Vessel Sea Service (Form CG-719S)
  • Medical Evaluation Report (Form CG-719K)
  • Periodic Drug Testing (Form CG-719P)
  • US Passport
  • Transportation Worker Identification Credential (TWIC)
  • (3) Character References (notarized)
  • Merchant Mariner Oath (notarized)
  • CPR Certification
  • Maritime Training Certification
  • USCG Merchant Mariner Evaluation User Fee

Some may have challenges with obtaining enough sea time to apply right away – others may be challenged with obtaining a US Passport. One thing is for sure, don’t underestimate the amount of time it will take to study and pass the USCG Merchant Mariner Exams. More on this below in the Maritime Training Certification section…

Merchant Mariner Credential Application (Form CG-719B)

This form is straight forward with the exception of Section II. I strongly suggest you talk to someone who fills these forms out for a living. I originally prepared all of my documentation (without advice) and e-mailed it directly to the USCG. To my surprise, I correctly completed all documentation the first go-round. This does not happen to often for most. I was fortunate enough to speak with Ann Aylesworth, the Admissions Manager of Maritime Professional Training (MPT) in Fort Lauderdale, in time to amend my application before printing. Ann not only helped qualify what license I should be applying for, but also helped with understanding how I could upgrade to a greater license without additional schooling or fees. She also will have you optimize Section II of the application to add other important inclusions and endorsements which apply to your experience and mariner education. See the Maritime Training Certification section below for additional information.

Small Vessel Sea Service (Form CG-719S)

A Small Vessel Sea Service form will be used for all sea service requested on vessels under 200 gross tons. Owners of vessels may attest to their own service; however, those who do not own a vessel must obtain evidence from licensed personnel or the Owner of the vessels listed. The documentary evidence produced by the applicant must contain the amount and nature of the applicant’s experience, vessel name, gross tonnage, shaft horsepower, official registration numbers, routes upon which the experience was acquired, and approximate dates of service. It can be difficult recounting for time spent under way, especially when reaching a few years back. Keep in mind, most will have less time on the water in Winter months, during school months, etc. Your estimated time under way should reflect this. Remember, a day’s credit can only be given if time under way is greater than four (4) hours. I suggest building a spreadsheet of all hours you intend to claim. You will definitely want a record of this.

Medical Evaluation Report (Form CG-719K)

This is a general medical evaluation and can take very little time. I filled out the CG-719K form with all pertinent info and visited my GP for additional assessment and signature. I brought with me some results from a free Costco hearing test – he added the records to my file. The CG-719K form will disclose your:

  • Current Medications
  • Medical Conditions
  • Visual Acuity
  • Hearing
  • Physical Information
  • Demonstration of Physical Ability
  • Medical Practitioner Recommendations

Drug Testing (Form CG-719P)

This requirement simply includes a one-page form you will give to the drug testing facility (administration) to have completed by a registered physician upon reporting your results. Always double check the form to make sure the form is properly completed with all applicable signatures/ information. For those who may pay cash, this test typically ranges from $30 to $60 in most locations.

Proof of US Citizenship

Proof of US Citizenship (Birth Certificate or Passport) will be required for Master/ Mate credentials. Proof of Permanent Residency will be required for the OUPV Six-Pack credential.

Transportation Worker Identification Credential (TWIC)

The US Transportation Security Administration (TSA) issues a Transportation Worker Identification Credential (TWIC) to all USCG credentialed merchant mariners and maritime workers requiring unescorted access to secure areas of port facilities, outer continental shelf facilities, and vessels regulated under the Maritime Transportation Security Act (MTSA) of 2002. Applying for this credential should be done ASAP in the licensing process, as the appointment to process a TWIC and the waiting period to receive it can be lengthy. TWIC processing fees were $130 in my case. A TWIC is valid for five (5) years.

(3) Character References (notarized)

This requirement should be considered low-hanging fruit. Character Reference letters are relatively simple in nature and attest to the licensee’s character as a responsible and upstanding citizen. Letters should suggest the licensee holds a capacity to be a professional officer and is personally endorsed to have a Merchant Mariner Credential.

Merchant Mariner Oath (notarized)

The oath is also an easy requirement to complete. You may download a template of the form suitable for notarizing on your own, or save the $20 notary fee and use the oath taken in your mariner’s training course at Maritime Professional Training (MPT). MPT will notarize the oath for your MMC application submittal package.

CPR Certification

Many have already taken CPR courses for work or other service oriented disciplines. If you wish to register and take this course on your own, make sure the USCG will accept the course content/ certificate. I took my course through the American Red Cross, as they are a USCG approved provider. If you go with an American Red Cross first-aid course, it needs to include the mandatory training (i.e. Adult First-Aid, CPR, and AED). I believe the certificate issued is valid for two (2) years. Some maritime training programs may bundle courses, offering cost effective rates – inquire at the least.

Maritime Training Certification

After quite a bit of research, I decided to use Maritime Professional Training (MPT) for my “sea school” training. MPT came highly recommended by random professionals in the business and happened to be close by in Fort Lauderdale. Quite a few training organizations offer coursework, but not in-house USCG approved exams (with passing guarantees). I had two students in my specific class who indicated their prior training program didn’t optimize their application and curriculum to take advantage of a more encompassing license. Needless to say, I was impressed with how much knowledge the administration office had to offer. During my Master 100 Ton course, the Administration Manager made a point to coach the class on the ins-and-outs of the application process. I was amazed at how many questions came up. None the less, MPT offered complementary training/ testing for MMC Endorsements (Assistance Towing and Auxiliary Sailing) for those who requested them. My Course instructor was Capt Chris Chavez. He carried a fast paced, relaxed, and entertaining 11 day course offering his extensive maritime knowledge and sense of instructional leadership. We spent eight (8) hours of time in class each day and had four (4) hours of homework each night. Capt Chris suggested students memorize “Rules of the Road” information and review a selection of example exam questions nightly. MPT has a recipe for getting students to pass the USCG exams the first time. My advice? Follow MPT course management suggestions very closely. Passing USCG exams becomes effortless.

USCG Merchant Mariner Evaluation User Fee

Evaluation fees are simply processing fees. The Evaluation fee is $100 and the Issuance fee is $45. This $145 payment will be processed by

Other Considerations

Today’s USCG MMC application process takes advantage of current technology – they allow correspondence in e-mail and the transfer of digital documentation. This is a huge advantage when you think of all the copies, envelopes, certified mailings, post office delays, and other potential hurdles you could encounter. Follow the MMC e-mailing instructions so your application moves through the process efficiently. Keep in mind e-mail submittals are sent to a formal address given in the MMC instructions. A subcontracted organization has been helping the USCG National Maritime Center deal with the application process for some time – they are formally known as Advanced Government Solutions (AGS). If you have any follow-up questions or requests for status, e-mail AGS. Their response time averages about three (3) working days.

Important – Some may think of the USCG as a highly regulated unwavering entity with impeccable accuracy and consistency. Unfortunately, this is not the case. They too are comprised of people who work diligently processing high volumes of paperwork and push their productivity as they see fit. Do yourself a favor, keep your originals/ records in a secure place, safe from fire and flood. There are documented instances where the USCG archives have been obliterated by hurricanes and other natural disasters. The USCG reserves the right to request your documentation to replace/ update their files. If you lose your original documentation/ records, you may in fact lose your license. Do not rely on the USCG to maintain your credentials. This is the case even when moving through the application process. I was asked twice, after my original submittal, to resubmit the signature page of my application – they indicated they lost it. Strange though, I submitted it via e-mail in one PDF (digital document). In other words, they would have been missing the whole document, not just the last page. None the less, maintain your own files!

Disclosure Regarding Liability – The above information is offered to help prospective licensees “pre-qualify” their potential for becoming a USCG Captain and better understand the credentialing process. The above is abbreviated information found on the USCG’s National Maritime Center‘s web site and Maritime Professional Training‘s web site. Those deciding to pursue a USCG Captain’s License should use both sites and the associated professionals to obtain current and detailed information for licensing.

If you have personal experience with licensing or any details/ advice which would help others steer clear of additional challenges, please feel free to share!

USCG National Maritime Center

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