The career path of a container ship captain?

Recently watched Captain Phillips, which got me to wondering:

how does one go about becoming the captain of a massive ocean-going vessel?

According to

So, it looks like it may be legitimately possible to work your way up through the ranks, as opposed to, say, a jetliner pilot.

Merchant Marine is good way to get that career. The Merchant Marine Academy gets you a big leg up. I know a couple of guys who went, one is still a marine engineer.

John McPhee wrote a good essay about the topic called “Looking for a Ship”.

In some countries the training towards that takes the form of a university degree, typically called nautical science (here is a prospectus from a university offering this programme with more information about it - PDF format). Graduating with this degree won’t make you a captain straightaway, but it will qualify you to become another officer on a container ship, and with sufficient experience in such a position you can become a captain later on.

Don’t you have to get USCG licensed, and then find a job and work your way up through the ranks (and corresponding licenses)?

Here’s a US school with the same sort of curriculum:

I don’t know anything about the US merchant marine and Ethilrist’s link is no doubt accurate for the US.

For international trading vessels such as the Maersk vessel portrayed in “Captain Philips” the usual route is to go to some form of marine college for basic training, often interspersed with periods at sea as an officer cadet or junior officer, followed by just working at sea to get experience, sea-time and promotions. Eventually with study and sea-time you will get your master’s ticket and then with the usual good luck, talent etc you may get promoted to master.

I do very occasionally come across masters who have worked their way up from being a rating (ie non-officer) but it is rare.

Besides the usual socio-economic reasons why working class people (ie ratings) don’t tend to rise up into management, there are also heavy cultural barriers. Most ratings on international trading vessels are Filipino. Most officers are from first world countries; often associated with the ownership of the vessel ie in my experience most Maersk masters are European.

Does serving in a nation’s naval armed force get anyone a leg up in such a career? Can military service aboard, say, an aircraft carrier, count towards some requirements?

The primary secret to becoming a container ship master is to learn to think inside the boxes.

sh-boom Thanks, I’m here all week. Try the veal.

I have a friend who is in the Merchant Marine. He’s a chief electrician. And he has a lot of buddies who crew for Maersk. And, among the industry, the word is Phillips broke every rule Maersk has for how he was supposed to handle that situation. I don’t know if he’s still with the company, and maybe the publicity saved his ass, but in a just world, he’d never captain a ship for any major line again.

Sea time can count if you have the right experience. I had a teacher at Cal Maritime who had a 1 on 1 Chief Engineer’s license. That means he was able to sit and take the Chief Engineer’s license test without being a 1str, 2nd, or 3 Assistant Engineer. He retired from the US Coast Guard as a Captain before taking the test.

I doubt an enlisted man could sit for any 3rds test. He probably would not have enough experience in all the areas required. But it could cut down on the three years required.

The are two routes to becoming a licensed officer in the US Merchant Marine.

The first is to sail in the unlicensed for three years. There is a minimum number of years in of the unlicensed position. And a year is 365 days under articles. After three years you can sit for the 3rds license. If you pass the test then your are a 3rd Assistant Engineer or a 3rd mate, depending on your experience and test taken.

The second is to attend one of the 5 state Maritime Academies, or the US Maritime Academy. At the end of your time at the academy you take the same test for a 3rd Assistant Engineer or 3rd Mate. If you pass all sections you are a Third Assistant Engineer any Horse Power Steam and Motor Vessels, or a 3rd Mate unlimited tonnage.

You have to sail 365 days on a US registered vessel unlimited tonnage or horse power. After a year you can sit for the 2nd’s license.

Then after you sail as a 2nd for 365 days you can sit for the 1st license.
Then after you sail as a 1st for 365 days you can sit for the Chief Engineer or Captain’s license.

These are not easy test. When I was taking the 3rds test We tested 8:00 Am to 4:00 PM Monday through Thursday. On Friday I finished my test at 3:00 PM in the afternoon. The test could have anything on it that had ever been on ships. I had to know stuff that was on steam ships when my dad was sailing.

Very interesting! What kinds of tests were these? Were they basically multiple choice trivia-type questions like “What is the regulated standard tonnage of a Type B6 Anchor? A) 4 tons B) 1 ton C) 1/2 ton D) 10 tons”, or were there essay or project-related questions like, “In two to three pages, explain how you would plan a trip from Hawaii to Costa Rica. List three major precautions you would concentrate on and explain how each would assist in maintaining vessel safety. Mention two potential hazards that are likely to be found on that route and explain how you could mitigate them using the precautions you mentioned earlier. Finally, use the grid on page 4 to chart a sample course, annotating any noteworthy rocks, shoals, pirate coves, or whirlpools along the route and indicate each’s applicable Danger Index to within .1 Grizzed Sailor Units. Show your work.”

The test now are multiply choice.
When I took my test only one section was multiply choice, but that was 1970.
Just guessing but for a deckie I would think the sections would be Navigation, safety, cargo loading, rules of the road, tides, maneuvering, line handelling, and a few other things.

For an engineer there were sections on electricity, math, safety, boilers, turbines and main engines, diesels, auxiliary machinery, water testing, pollution regs, refrigeration, I think there in now a section on gas turbines, I know I am forgetting somethings.

One of the questions from my thirds was after working on the piping of the hot fuel oil system including welding new sections of pipe what must be done before putting system back on line.

The Wikipedia page for Captain Richard Phillips says that they were sailing 240 miles off of the Somali coast when they were attacked, rather than the 600+ miles recommended by NATO. Apparently, he didn’t think the distance would have made much difference:

This seems like terrible reasoning to me.

The Wikipedia page for the movie also offered this:

So what did he do (or fail to do) that was not shown in the movie?

I never bothered to see the movie, so I don’t know what he did or didn’t do in the movie. What he was supposed to do IRL is after sending a distress call, shut down EVERYTHING. Propulsion, steering, ALL electrical power, (except a distress beacon) and head down to the safe room to lock himself and his crew in.

The reasoning is the 4 guys with AK-47s are going to have to, with NO lighting, find their way to the compartment where the generators are and start them. Then they’ll have to find the compartment where the circuit breakers are and find the correct breakers to switch on. And there’s no lighting or ventilation while this is going on. And for the record, ships electricians carry padlocks on their tool belts to lock breakers open as needed when they’re working on a circuit. Then the pirates would have to find the engine room and figure out how to start some engines. And engage the steering.

There’s a difference between operating a 40 footer and a 1,000 footer.

They have started to add safe rooms on ships?
An untrained person is not going to be able to start the hotel generators and bring them on line. But if the ship has an emergency generator (many do some don’t) starting it would not be a problem. Move one switch from off to auto or on and it will start. Opening the emergency breakers would slow down or possibly stop getting emergency lighting on. They do not need to know which is the correct breaker, just turn them all on.
I have never heard of an electrician carrying a padlock on their belts. It would add weight to the belt for something that would not be used everyday. They might carry one in a tool box.
I also agree that an untrained person would have a hard time getting steering going if shut off as an emergency. And I doubt that anyone unfamiliar with the engine room could start the main engines. Also if before going to the safe room starting air was bleed down then it would be very difficult.

In the movie,

[spoiler]most of the crew hid in the engine room, but the captain and a handful of others remained in the wheelhouse where they were captured by the pirates. The crew below deck did indeed shut everything down, but the captain and his wheelhouse crew had already been captured at that point.

The movie made no mention of a safe room. The crew were simply hiding in the nooks and crannies of a pitch-black engine room, hoping not to be spotted by a pirate with a flashlight.[/spoiler]

Lock-out/tag-out is standard practice in industrial settings, but the devices that I’ve seen for this purpose aren’t generally robust enough to function as security against a deliberate effort to defeat them; they’re usually made of plastic or stamped sheet metal and can twisted apart by a strong pair of hands. The exception would be if the padlock can be directly applied to a disconnect box made of heavy-gauge sheet metal (although even then that won’t slow a pirate with an AK-47 very much).

After Googling a bit, I found some articles where the crew were more specific about their gripe against the captain, including this one. This article does mention that the official plan involved shutting everything down and locking themselves below deck.

A lot of the criticisms I’ve read from the crew actually complain that Phillips did certain things that were portrayed incorrectly in the film. But in actuality the film, at least from my viewpoint, doesn’t really hide from Phillips’ mistakes:

  1. The crew have argued Phillips was at fault for not sailing further out to sea and the movie doesn’t portray. The movie in fact covers this, and mostly repeats the (flawed) logic the real Phillips talked about in interviews–he believed it wouldn’t be any safer to be further out, and the voyage was faster by not deviating.

  2. The crew have protested that Phillips was portrayed as “volunteering himself” as a hostage to leave with the pirates on the ship’s life boat when in fact that isn’t what happened. However, the movie actually shows this accurately: just like in real life, Phillips agrees to help the pirates get the life boat started and show them how to use it on the understanding they will leave the ship (with around $30,000 in petty cash–incidentally after the Navy SEALs stormed the life boat this $30k disappeared and has never been found despite intense naval investigations) afterward.

Instead, they double cross him and take him as a hostage. This is portrayed just like that in the movie, Phillips is painted up as being heroic to go into the boat with the pirates in the movie, but the actual facts are shown as they happened–Phillips is at least supposed to believe he’s just helping them get the life boat started.

  1. In real life Phillips wasn’t a popular captain, the claim is made that he’s portrayed as a great guy in the movie. This is mixed, the movie certainly shows Phillips is a bit of a dick but it portrays his dickishness as the necessary sternness of a ship captain (the crew in real life assert Phillips was especially difficult to work for even in comparison to other captains.)

The owner of the sailing ship I was on apparently had a very rare license, unlimited master, motor, steam, or sail. I can’t even imagine the tests you’d have to take to qualify for that.