In 2019, when we first started talking about selling Vigilant and buying something in the 50-60’ range, Mrs. Horne said to me, “If you want something that big, you better get your Captain’s license.”

In March 2020 – a week into the pandemic shutdown, I signed up for the Online Captain’s License training course at Mariners Learning Systems.

For the next year, I took the entire course, but I never felt like I’d mastered the material. We’d also bought Relentless, and at the time, we considered it our last boat, so when the time came to renew the course in March of 2021, I let it expire.

Fast Forward to late 2021, and life had changed; we’d signed papers to commission a Maritimo M55 in 2023, and I started thinking about getting my Captain’s license again.

I never considered going back to Mariners. For one thing, as polished as their material was, it was incredibly boring. The “lectures” weren’t lectures at all. It was a professional voice actor reading the lesson out loud. I could barely get through two minutes without falling asleep.

My other problem with Mariners was their lack of “hand-holding.” There’s much more to securing your Master’s Credentials from Coast Guard than simply passing the exam.

Here is a high-level overview from the US Coast Guard:

They also have a Top Ten List of reasons your application for a Captain’s License gets rejected:

So I set out to find a school with more interesting material than Mariners and one that offered to walk me through the entire licensing process.

I’d heard of a class in LA that involved full-time training for two weeks culminating with the exam, but when I searched for it, it was gone (another victim of government shutdowns).

I started looking for other quick and intense training programs and found several in New England. The Massachusetts Maritime Academy was undoubtedly qualified, but it was an eight-week In-house course conducted Monday through Thursday evenings – certainly not for me!

Confident Captain – Middletown Rhode Island

I discovered Confident Captain just outside Newport. They offered both in-house and online classes, along with tutoring. They also conducted tests, taught First Aid/CPR, and had tools to help me get my license processed through the Coast Guard.

They let me take a sneak peek at the course content, and I liked what I saw. It wasn’t as dull as Mariner’s, and it looked like a video of an actual lecture, complete with instructors speaking in plain English, cracking an occasional joke, and telling a few stories.

When I took the Mariner’s class, my goal was simply to pass the exam. I thought I could condense all the material down to something I could memorize and then quickly take the exam before my old brain forgot everything.

I finally abandoned my quest under Mariner’s when I realized there was just too much material to memorize well enough to pass the Captain’s Exam successfully.

I approached the Confident Captain course with a different goal; my new goal was to master the material to the point I could teach it myself.

The beauty of the Confident Captain online course was that it was a recorded lecture, providing good audio along with content-rich PowerPoint slides. This turned out to be a massive advantage over in-person classes.

With a live classroom lecture, you only get one pass at the presentation, while the online version could be taken over and over again – which I did!

The first module is Rules of the Road. Another Captain told me that 90% of his class dropped out after struggling with this module. There are 38 individual rules in this module and 50 questions on the Captain’s Exam. You must score 90% or better, which means you can only get five answers wrong!

The Coast Guard publishes these 38 rules in a 218-page book:

These rules are hundreds of years old and constantly changing. I’m sure the words in this book are all true, but they are a tad difficult to digest at times.

Take a look at Rule 34…

Confident Captain translated this indecipherable prose into visual aids that make it somewhat more digestible…

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In addition to the excellent slides and interesting lectures, Confident Captain also provided quizzes after each module. The quizzes helped me zero in on my weaknesses. Every time I got a wrong answer, I made a screenshot and used them like flash cards to drill the correct answer into my brain.

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While the Rules of The Road are far and away the most daunting, they actually only make up 20% of the course content and one of the five exams required to earn your license.

There are 17 other course modules that prepare you for each of the other four exams.

Navigation General

These classes lay the foundation for learning how to navigate a ship taking into account natural and manmade aids.

  • Weather
  • Aids to Navigation
  • Tides and Currents
  • Navigation Equipment
  • Voyage Planning
  • Magentic Compass

Deck General

These classes cover a wide range of skills Captains and Crew must master to operate a ship.

  • General Seamanship
  • Marlinspike (ropes, knots, pulleys, etc).
  • Ship Handling
  • Marine Engines
  • Survival

Environmental and Saftey

It’s vital for everyone who shares the sea to protect it from pollution, so there are a lot of environmental rules that Captains must learn and enforce on the ship. Since the captain is responsible for everything onboard, there’s a lot of safety training to cover – in addition to a separate 8-hour First Class and Life Saving class.

  • The Code of Federal Regulations
  • Pollution
  • Firefighting
  • Shipboard Drills
  • Ship Stability (Center of Gravity and Bouyancy Math)
  • Survival
  • First Aid
  • Marine Communications (Radio Operation and Protocol)

There’s a ton of content in these three modules, so much so that the Coast Guard only requires you to get 70% of the answers correct.

In addition to the lectures and quizzes, Captains are directed to learn Chapman’s massive book Piloting. This is a 1,000-page encyclopedia of everything one needs to know to pilot a ship.

Throughout the winter and early spring, I listened to the lectures for about an hour a day while riding my bike in Southern California. After each lecture, I’d pull to the side of the road and retake the quiz.

By mid-April, all the lectures and all the quiz quizzes were burnt into my brain. I had not set out to memorize the material, but that’s how it ended up.

Confident Captain was conducting a USCG “proctored” exam on May 14 in Rhode Island, which became my deadline to master the material.

Since mid-May is the start of our cruising season, I knew I had to pass the exam the first time, or I’d probably give up on the whole idea.

Having completely mastered the online course material and quizzes, I thought passing the exam would be the proverbial piece of cake. But just to be safe, I booked an hour of tutoring for $40.

My tutor was Captain Tony Bessinger. Like most of the instructors at Confident Captain, Tony has a day job as a full-time Captain. Tony runs the big cat ferries from Quonset Point in Rhode Island to Oak Bluffs…

My tutoring started with a Zoom call while I was still in California. I told Tony about my learning regimen and asked him if that was enough to pass the exam.

“Not by a long shot,” Tony said, “There’s a lot of things on the exam people miss, but I can teach it to you if you like.”

Tony emailed me thousands of sample quiz questions he’d harvested from the internet over the years. He also gave me a few tips on how to plot on a chart without making mechanical errors.

I scheduled a three-hour session with Tony and started cramming like crazy. I set up a table in our guest suite and studied 8 hours daily for the first two weeks of May.

I heard several times that the Coast Guard does not want Captains to memorize the answers to the questions but rather learn them.

I’m not sure what the difference is, but I do know that after taking the quizzes three or four times, I found that I knew what the next question was before it came up!

And knowing that I had to get 90% on the Rules of the Road exam, I assembled my own set of flashcards and drilled, drilled, drilled.

I also drilled the navigation plotting problems over and over again. Plotting is a physical challenge – take a look at this problem:

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As you can see, the first two choices are 7° apart. It’s incredibly easy to make a 3° error using parallel rulers and dividers, so simply mastering the navigational formulas isn’t enough. You have to also develop visual and mechanical precision skills to the point you’re never making more than a 1° error.

The Captain’s Exam

I took my exam at the Confident Captain’s offices in Middletown, Rhode Island. It was conducted by USCG licensed Captain. Three others were taking the OUPV license exam. I was the only one taking the 100T Master Exam.

SIDE NOTE: The primary difference between an OUPV license, which is often called a six-pack license, and a Master license is the number of passengers you can carry. An OUPV license allows the operator to carry up to six passengers for hire (hence the name six-pack), while a Master license allows you to carry more than six.

The OUPV license has four exams, and the 100T Master has five. You can take them in whatever order you want, and if you don’t pass them all, you do not have to retake the exams you’ve already passed.

I started with Rules Of The Road since that was the last thing I crammed the day before. I got a 98 (one wrong out of 50 questions).

I then did Navigating because it was the other exam that required a 90% to pass. I got a 100, but it wasn’t easy. On two questions, I plotted out my answer, and it wasn’t one of the four possible multiple choice answers.

On the fly, I came up with another method to figure out the answer. I plotted out each of the four possible answers on the chart and then selected the one that got me back to my starting longitude and latitude

The other three exams only required 70% correct answers, and I hadn’t spent that much time studying these. I got high scores on Navigation General and Environmental and Safety.

I wasn’t prepared for Deck General (78% right). There were a lot of technical seamanship questions that I had never encountered in the online course. Thankfully, my tutor and my years of experience were enough to eke out a passing score.

I later learned that the online class was created to deal with Covid and the need to license experienced pilots with classrooms closed. The online course assumed a certain level of seamanship and general deckhand knowledge because the target student had been working on ships for years.

Key Takeways

While it’s true that I did learn a lot of information that I’ll never use again, the entire experience added breadth and depth to my ability to Captain a vessel.

  • As Captain, my job is to get everyone from Point A to Point B as safely, efficiently, and comfortably as possible. The wind and the sea will always be the wild cards, but by knowing everything that is knowable, you can significantly mitigate risk.
  • I have always felt responsible for the safety of my crew and boat, but the training drives home all the things that can conceivably go wrong at sea. I have a greater sense of responsibility than I did before.
  • Now that I’ve committed the Rules of the Road to memory, I can quickly spot a clueless boater. Knowing that the other guy is unqualified changes my calculation for a safe distance.
  • I have also dramatically improved my navigation skills and working knowledge of all of the electronic equipment on Relentless.

My Advice To Potential Captains

It may surprise you to hear that I don’t advise others to do what I did. Yes, the online class was invaluable, but I still think it needs to be augmented with classroom training.

As mentioned earlier, I recommend Confident Captain. The online class has easy-to-digest audio lectures that really lend themselves to drilling what you’re learning by doing it over and over again.

I also like their two-week day-long in-class study too. I think the night classes that extend for months are an unreasonable personal sacrifice.

My advice would be to sign up for a two-week in-classroom course At Confident Captain that’s months down the road and immediately start taking the online class in your spare time. This way, you’ll already know 70-80% of the content before you get to class.

MM-Seas

One last tip. The testing and paperwork you must submit to the Coast Guard to get your Captain’s license is daunting. A clever entrepreneur has simplified the whole process in a web service called MM-Seas.

Not only do they QC your license submission, but for $299, they’ll also submit it.

Atmed – Warwick

The USCG requires a number of tests as part of the Captain’s license (occupational physical, drug test, hearing, eye, etc). Rather than travel around, I used Atmed in Warwick. They were quick and reasonably priced.