The Average Salary of a Merchant Marine Captain

by Will Charpentier

Merchant Marine captains, licensed by the U.S. Coast Guard, command vessels that range from small water taxis on rivers to large freighters traveling worldwide. Salaries vary widely, from $31,610 to $125,930 per year, depending on several factors. The median salary for all is $66,150 per year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. This salary isn't based on a 40-hour work week, though. Captains earn a fixed wage for each day worked.

Different License Types

Merchant Marine captains are licensed by the Coast Guard. The type of license -- limited or unlimited -- is based on a captain's experience on the water, training and testing, and the size of the vessels they've worked on before. A captain who's only operated small boats doesn't have sufficient experience to run a large ship. Except for those licensed for boats of less than 100 gross tons, a captain must have served as a licensed mate. Mates learn to become captains by on-the-job training. Captains of large ships have at least seven years' training.

Hiring Basis

Captains may be employees of companies that own the vessels or they may be contractors, hired directly or through a union. Although some captains may work for a single voyage, ship owners prefer to have captains who are familiar with the quirks of a specific ship. This gives a captain a schedule, of sorts, where one month is followed by two weeks off or eight months is followed by four months off. Inland captains, who run the tugs that move freight on barges on the Mississippi, Ohio, Missouri and other U.S. rivers, may work one or two weeks followed by a week off.

Work Day

A captain is responsible for everything that happens aboard the vessel at all times. This means that they can be called upon 24 hours a day. On large ships, the first, second and third mates have control of the vessel most of the time, in four-hour shifts called watches. On small boats with a single mate, the captain's responsibility is the same, but the captain and mate each have control of the boat for 12 hours a day.


Captains who are employees are paid on a weekly, biweekly or monthly basis, just like any employee. Taxes and other deductions are taken out of their paychecks. Captains who contract to ship owners are paid at the end of their contract, unless they negotiate specific settlement dates. They are responsible for paying taxes, social security and other payroll deductions out of the money they receive from the ship owners. Captains who are hired through unions may receive up to half of their pay in cash, from the ship's safe. They receive the other half of their pay from the union when they are discharged, after completion of their tour aboard the ship.

About the Author

Will Charpentier is a writer who specializes in boating and maritime subjects. A retired ship captain, Charpentier holds a doctorate in applied ocean science and engineering. He is also a certified marine technician and the author of a popular text on writing local history.

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