What experience does the typical modern Cruise Ship Captain have?

A lot of commercial airline pilots tend to be (at least in the past) former military due to their years of experience and training. Do you tend to see former military (either actual captains or other officers) as cruise ship captains or non-military but still experience boat captains?

In general are cruise ship captains people who were in another shipping job and were enticed to join the cruise ship company, or are they people already with the company who were promoted from within to become captain?

IANACSC. :slight_smile:

It sounds like the path involves (a) a degree (maybe including a masters) in marine engineering or marine science, and (b) lots and lots of experience.

From what I’m seeing, it sounds like experience (and working one’s way up the ladder) in on passenger ships is the norm. I imagine it’s possible to transition from a military career or working on freighters, but maybe not an easy way to do it.

From the documentaries I’ve seen on large ships (which includes cruise ships, as well as container ships, tankers, and the like), most of the captains worked their way up from the junior officer ranks. Also, a cruise ship would likely be a more prestigious captaincy than say a large freighter, so you’d occasionally see captains transferring from other ships and companies, but not as often as promoting from within.

A Navy Captain is equivalent in rank to a Colonel in the other services, so being captain of a cruise ship seems like it would be a huge step down from that.

But you don’t have to have the rank of Captain to be given command of a vessel in the US Navy.

There’s a difference, though, between flying a plane in the military and exploiting that skill in civilian life, on the one hand, and commanding a naval vessel and exploiting that skill on the other. A pilot flies his own plane. He may work with a navigator or second officer, or on his own, depending on the plane. But having command of a ship involves executive responsibility for managing and directing a huge team of people doing a variety of highly specialist tasks. You’ll spend a lot longer in the Navy before being given command of a ship than you will in the Air Force before flying a plane.

Which means that the skills of ship’s master take a lot longer to develop, but they are much more adaptable and transferrable. Having flown planes doesn’t, in itself, equip you to do much besides fly planes, or do closely related tasks. But having commanded a ship and its crew gives you management and executive skills and experience that can be adapted to a wide range of situations. Especially if we are talking about a ship that is in any way comparable in size and crewing requirements to a cruise vessel.

Which means that people leaving the Navy with this experience under their belt don’t have to gravitate towards the merchant navy in order to make use of their training, skills and experience. They have a much rrange of options open to them than does a pilot seeking to exploit his flying abilities.

No. Look back at our discussion of the Costa Concordia disaster and Captain Schettino:

Not sure about Captain Stubing but the fine sequel to Love Boat,Love Boat the Next Wave starred Robert Urich as a retired naval officer.

Jonas Grumby’s naval service record remains unavailable, beyond service in the US Seventh Fleet. That suggests to me some sort of high level top secret role.

I asked a similar question four years ago:

The career path of a container ship captain?

I’ll also note the existence of the Port Revel Shiphandling Training Centre, which trains budding captains on the intricacies of handling very large ships under various circumstances. Big ships are tricky bastards, owing to their vast inertia, low power-to-weight ratio, and non-intuitive handling characteristics under a variety of circumstances (undersea topography, local currents, proximity of other ships and obstructions, etc.). Instead of using full-sized ships that weigh thousands of tons, Port Revel students operate 1:25 scale models that weigh thousands of pounds and are fitted with a motor of just a few horsepower. The student pilot’s head is positioned where it would be on the bridge of the full-size vessel, so everything looks approximately the same. Because of this scaling, maneuvers take place on much shorter distance and time scales; all of this makes training safer and faster than it would be on full-size vessels.

Port Revel has a YouTube channel with some interesting videos. Here’s one, a clip of one ship passing a stationary ship; note how the “stationary” ship is displaced by the moving one.

FWIW: I’ve heard that some cruise ships have two captains. The one that commands the ship and then the one with a nice uniform that has dinner at the captain’s table with guests.

Anyone know if a cruise ship captain need to be skilled in celestial navigation?

My banker in France recognized my email as being a Greek word meaning “the sea”. Turns out he was a former Captain in the French Navy. Like my (merchant) grandfather and uncle, when he’d left the sea it was to get married.

Grandfather got a civil servant job in his hometown’s City Hall, eventually becoming their Treasury Department (he was the whole department, now there’s half a dozen people); his achievements include creating the town’s Savings Bank. Uncle became HR manager in an automotive factory; later, his language skills got him hired for a position with our local Chamber of Commerce, visiting trade fairs, regions our companies considered of interest or which had requested our assistance for development projects… another merchant captain I know left the sea to become a Jesuit priest and the pastor of a valley in the Pyrenees.

Definitely much more flexible than the mental image us land people have of “a naval captain”.

Is there any Navy in which you do?

There is only one ‘Captain’ The buck stops with them so they are in charge. Like any senior manager, there are different departments and cruise ship staff are clearly split between ‘deck’ and ‘passenger’ grades.

Deck officers and crew have a similar hierarchy to any large ship while passenger staff have much more in common with an hotel. On some cruises, dinner with the captain or a senior officer is a perk for passengers in suites or who want to pay for it. Some captains are better at this function than others, but with few exceptions, they are all excellent sailors. As for celestial navigation, I have no idea, but many of them are old enough that it would have been a requirement when they first went to sea.

Although almost no cruise ships have US operating crews, some other countries have the US equivalent of the 4 yr merchant marine academies (federal at Kings Point NY, several states have them). To be an operating engineer you get a degree in marine engineering. To be a deck officer you get a degree in something like ‘marine transportation’, anyway it’s traditionally a separate track (more recently some countries have gone to a system of a single type of officer). Once a deck officer, right, you sail lots of years and might eventually work your way up to captain. Also sure, if you’ve sailed tankers your whole career, a cruise ship company isn’t likely to hire you as captain, but lots of merchant officers sailed different types of ships over their careers.

It’s fairly unusual for US merchant masters to be ex-USN officers. Unlicensed merchant mariners are more often ex-USN enlisted. Older merchant officers at one time went back to the Vietnam or pre-Vietnam draft so might have been enlisted USN. Similarly for countries which still have universal military service. So for example South Korean merchant officers will almost always have served in the ROK military, and likely the ROKN, because almost everybody has to serve. In countries without that system it’s less common, and rare in general across the world’s merchant fleets for masters to be ex naval officers. Working your way up to merchant master is something you typically focus on from the get go, not after a detour to building a career as a naval officer, fairly different things. Of course there are exceptions.

Some people also get jobs as unlicensed merchant mariners after less schooling/training, like basic seaman’s course in the Philippines for example, and work their way up to junior licensed, then in theory it’s possible to work up to master from there. But the extra time to get to licensed makes that harder. And also as was mentioned a lot of merchant ships are owned by first world companies with mixed nationality crews (either under a separate version of their own flag which allows foreign mariners, like the NIS registry in Norway, or flags of convenience), but they tend to favor their own nationals as senior officers. Whereas the unlicensed people are usually from developing or ex-Communist countries. Around 25% of world mariners are from the Philippines, the largest single country though not a majority.

He taught us all that one requirement for a cruise ship captain is looking good in shorts.

Retired Naval Officer here.

U.S. Navy Officers don’t go that path, and I’ve never even heard of one. Being on a commercial vessel and being the commanding Officer of a Navy warship are pretty different. Much, much more different from flying a C-40 from flying a 737.

Naval Officers frankly aren’t the ship drivers in the world. We don’t spend a lot of our time doing it, and aren’t nearly as proficient as commercial officers are.

The degree for a Deck officer would be in Nautical Science. The marine engineering degree would belong to the engineering officers.

Don’t see how it is a step down.
If there was an equivalentcy A Unlimited Master would be equal to a Navy Captain. 4 stripes and all.


The path to become a licensed officer takes time. To receive the US Coast Guard licenses requires the following
To become a 3rd mate unlimited you have had to sail on unlimited size (I have forgotten the tonnage) inspected US vessel for 3 years in the various positions. Take and pass the 3rd Mates test. Then you can sail as a 3rd mate. Another way to become a 3rd mate is to attend and graduate from one of the maritime academies. They are now all 4 year schools.
To become a 2nd mate unlimited you have to sail on unlimited size inspected US vessel for 365 days as a 3rd Mate. Take and pass the 2nd Mates test. Then you can sail as a 2nd mate.

To become a 1st mate unlimited you have to sail on unlimited size inspected US vessel for 365 days as a 2nd Mate. Take and pass the 1st Mates test. Then you can sail as a 1st mate.

To become a master unlimited you have to sail on unlimited size inspected US vessel for 365 days as a 1st Mate. Take and pass the 1st Mates test. Then you can sail as a Master.
The US Coast Guard and most foreign contries rate the time serving as a deck officer as 1/2 days. So it takes 730 days (2 years ) to up grade.
A cruise ship will have a Senior Captain, he is the big boss his word is final on deck. Under him will be the Staff Captain who manages the staff. And more deck officers standing the watches and unlike other ships there will be more than one officer on a watch.
A Navy Captain O-6 will normally not qualify for a Masters ticket. That is unless he has plenty of sea time and connections in the Coast Guard. I do know of one retired Coast Guard Captain who had a 1 on 1 Chief Engineer’s license, He never sat for the 3rds, 2nds, or 1st license. But he was the exception. And he was a hell of an engineer and teacher.
I would doubt that a cruise line would hire as a captain someone who did not come up through the cruise lines.

One other thing. The captain is not responsible for the running of the engine systems. I have seen and heard about some funny things happening when deck officers come into an engine room.