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What You Should Know About Your Cruise Ship Captain

You’ve just booked your first cruise, and now the countdown begins for your trip. There are many things about a cruise ship that will be new and exciting, but there’s one person, in particular, on your cruise that’s shrouded in myth, so we’re sharing what you should know about your cruise ship captain.

A cruise ship captain is responsible for all the inventory, crew, and passengers onboard. The captain is charged with the safe sailing of the vessel, the seaworthiness, and all relevant port documentation, and can detain unruly crew or passengers and leave a passenger at a port. He is the ultimate authority and final decision. Keep reading to learn exactly what that means.

What Does A Cruise Ship Captain Do?

What you should know about your cruise ship captain is that they oversee the full function of the vessel and are given full authority to perform their duties on the cruise ship. That includes managing every major and minor detail onboard, and facilitating crisis management, when necessary.

Considering the largest cruise ship is 364m long and can hold almost 7000 people, it’s no small feat to have such a huge responsibility. The cruise ship captain has the respect and full cooperation of all staff and bridge personnel – a crew of over 2000 people. 

Besides the small, obvious things, you think a captain should do, here is a list of things they are responsible for daily:

  • The Captain must ensure the crew is compliant and fit for duty at their stations.
  • They are responsible for the safe departure from the port and must ensure compliance with every country’s laws wherever it will dock for the day.
  • They are required to verify the ship’s seaworthiness, cleanliness, and hygiene.
  • The Captain is responsible for all navigational decisions, documentation, and record-keeping of the cruise ship.
  • The Captain is responsible for the health and safety of every passenger on the cruise ship.
  • The Captain is responsible for maintaining law and order.
  • The Captain must comply with the International Ship and Port Facility Security Code (ISPS) of the International Maritime Organization code of security for the vessel.
  • The Captain must conduct the mandatory ISPS inspections and train staff on the security plan, which includes refugee or asylum seekers and terrorist and pirate threats in international waters. 
  • The Captain must maintain restricted spaces as indicated in the cruise ship ISPS manual.
  • The Captain is responsible for the cruise ship’s environmental footprint and waste management at every port and while at sea.
  • The Captain is responsible for managing crew changes at different ports and deserters. 

How To Become A Cruise Ship Captain?

Any aspiring mariner can become a cruise ship captain, provided they have the necessary qualifications and are compensated accordingly. It can take 20 years for a Third Officer to become a Ship’s Captain so it’s important to know it’s a long-term goal.

Depending on other requirements, examinations, and experience, a 3rd Officer can reach the Captain rank after 15 to 20 years of service in the preceding intermediate ranks, namely – 

  • Second Officer
  • First Navigation Officer
  • First Officer – Environmental or Environmental Officer
  • Chief Officer
  • Chief Officer – Safety or Safety Officer
  • Staff Captain 
  • Captain, or Ship’s Captain

What You Should Know About Your Cruise Ship Captain – Qualifications Required

  • A  4-year degree in Nautical Science with majors in any number of maritime subjects
  • The appropriate license and SID 
  • Onboard training as a cadet or apprentice officer
  • After some time, the cadet must write and pass the 2nd Mate examination 
  • Upon passing the 2nd Mate exam, the individual can work on a cruise ship as a 3rd Officer.

Much of the training to become a cruise ship captain will be done on board and under the supervision of senior ranking officers. Many hours of practice must be completed before an officer can take up the wheel.

Every mariner or captain of a sea vessel must have a license. The US Coast Guard regulates maritime transportation laws and mandates all mariners to have their TWIC and MMC licenses certifying citizenship through Homeland Security and the TSA.

Cruise ship captains must have a clear criminal record and be drug-free, or they can risk losing their careers. Drug screening is mandated by most cruise ship owners for all personnel. As the vessel’s size increases, so do the security measures and requirements.

Who Helps Navigate / Steer The Ship?

While there is a full maritime crew on board the cruise ship and the Captain is responsible for overall navigation and bringing the ship to dock, they may call upon a special mariner to assist with docking at various ports. 

The Captain of the cruise ship will bring the vessel to a halt in a waiting area outside the harbor and wait for a Maritime Pilot to arrive via a small boat. The Maritime Pilot will be taken to the bridge and made part of the team.

What You Should Know About Your Cruise Ship Captain

The Maritime Pilot will take over the steering of the cruise ship as they are highly skilled and have in-depth knowledge of the surrounding currents, depth of the harbor, and any hazards. A Maritime Pilot can steer any size vessel safely into and out of a port.

How Many Captains Are On A Cruise Ship?

There are two captains on any cruise ship at all times. One is the Ship’s Captain, and the second captain in command is called the Staff Captain. The Staff Captain will be on duty when the Captain is sleeping or needs to do an inspection, for example.

The main authority will, however, always rest with the Captain.

Different Ranks On Cruise Ships

Here is a rank breakdown you will find on a cruise ship: 

The Ships Captain 

The highest-ranking mariner has the ultimate authority to make decisions.

The Staff Captain

Second in command after the Captain and can take command at the request of the Ship’s Captain.

The Safety Officer

The Safety Officer is responsible for the health and safety of each crew member and passenger. 

The Environmental Officer

The ECO is responsible for all environmental policies and waste management.

The Officer Of The Watch – 1st Officer – Navigation

The 3-stripe OOW is the appointed navigation and watchkeeping officer under the Master.

The 2nd Officer

The 2-stripe officer is a member of the Bridge Team,  Navigation, and Watch Keeping.

The 3rd  Officer

The 3rd Officer assists the 1st Officer on Watch Keeping

The Apprentice Deck Officer

Usually reserved for young Navigation Officers or Nautical school graduates looking for hours and to gain practical experience.

The Deck Cadet

The Deck Cadet is a young graduate who wishes to participate in the training program to see if they wish to make it a career. 

The Chief Security Officer

The 3-stripe CSO is responsible for implementing and executing the security policies on board the vessel. 

The Deputy Security Officer

The 2-stripe DSO is responsible for access control on the vessel; this includes all points of entry and exit.

The Security Guard

The Security Guard is in charge of access points of the vessel and general guest screening.

The Bosun Or Boatswain

The Bosun is in charge of all the deck crew and plans their schedules.

The Quartermaster Or Helmsman – QM

The QM oversees all Watchkeeping Duties on the Bridge and performs ship control and navigational duties.

The Able Seaman – AB

The Able Seaman is not a registered Deck crew member and has duties such as routine maintenance of lifeboats and deck.

The Ordinary Seaman – OS

The Ordinary Seaman is not a licensed Deck crew member but an apprentice position and performs general maintenance tasks.

The Carpenter

The Carpenter is a registered Deck Crew member and is in charge of all woodwork and carpentry needs during the cruise.

The Fireman–Team Leader

The 2-stripe officer is in charge of all vessel firefighting equipment and coordinating fire drills and training for the Firefighting team on board.

Typical Day Of A Cruise Ship Captain

Each cruise ship captain is different, but most of them will have a similar routine, and it is more or less like this – 

  • Wake up very early and watch the sunrise on the bridge
  • Coffee and breakfast while checking emails. 
  • Check the day’s navigation and route, weather reports, and next port of call, and give instructions to the bridge crew.
  • Take a walk around the deck and meet with the hotel managers to get an idea of the day’s activities. 
  • Check on the engineers and make any necessary decisions.
  • In the evenings, attend a gala or event and meet and greet guests.
  • Return to the Bridge and get a debriefing. 
cruise ship captain

Are There Women Cruise Ship Captains?

Women can become cruise ship captains, although only a few hold that position currently. There are over 300 cruise ships worldwide, but only nine women are in captain positions.

Although that top ranking is low, there are at least 20% female workers in the cruise ship industry, and of that, at least 15% are in officer roles.

Spotlight: Celebrity Beyond Captain

One famous female captain, Kate McCue, became a Captain at age 37. She is the youngest female captain in the industry and is currently the Captain of the mega cruise ship Celebrity Beyond.

Lifestyle And Working Conditions For Cruise Ship Captains 

Typically the captain will have private quarters, and depending on the company they work for, the accommodation can be luxurious and spacious. Since they spend vast amounts of time on the vessel, it makes sense that they feel at home and comfortable when returning to their private space.

Captain Kate McCue posted a video on her Instagram showing her stunning private residency aboard the Celebrity Beyond. Special care was taken with finishes and personal touches, and most importantly for her, Bug, her cat, is accommodated and happy while they operate the ship. A captain’s accommodation will usually have the following – 

  • Main bedroom with BIC and full en-suite bathroom
  • Fully functional kitchen with appliances
  • Lounge
  • Dining room

Closing Thoughts

If you have at some point watched The Love Boat television series, it’s safe to say, the cruise ship captain in charge of your safety is a far cry from that comedic character. What you should know about your cruise ship captain is that they have a massive responsibility toward the ship’s passengers, crew, and owners. It’s a holiday for you, but it’s a job and business for them, one they take very seriously.

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