Been thinking about it for a while and last year decided to do it, become a licensed USCG Captain, or Master as it’s called. Just wanted to share my experience for those interested and thinking the same.
The first decision was where or who to take the course with. First decision was online vs classroom. I looked at the material and requirements and even though online fit my schedule much better I dismissed the notion quickly due to the depth and complexity of some of the material. More on that later. In my search for good classroom training I narrowed down my search to Chesapeake Marine Training Institute (CMTI) or Tidewater Community College (TCC). Both had good reputations but I opted for CMTI simply based on location, traffic, and commuting. CMTI offers day classes from 8 am – to 5 pm and the course can be completed in 2 weeks or you can do the evening classes which stretches the training out longer. I opted for the band-aid approach, right off quickly and did the day classes. After taking the training, I can’t imagine trying this with an online course w/o an knowledgeable instructor right there with you but I know others who have done it online and passed but I don’t think I could have done it that way.
My instructor from CMTI was Captain Amy Coppedge who is an excellent instructor. Very knowledgeable and very patient as she could just look at a student’s deer in the headlight stare (I did that often) and just know when we were not getting something and go over it until we did get it. She is very diligent on teaching the USCG lesson plan and will not just teach the test as many instructors or online trainers do. She is also a taskmaster with only short breaks and took us to 5 pm every single day unlike many military training where we get out by 2 pm with 20 minute breaks every hour. My point is if you want to learn the material to understand it for practical reasons then find an instructor like Captain Amy who teaches the material and not the test.
The course and exams were broken down into 4 sections.
- Rules of the Road, International and Inland
- Deck General, Code of Federal Regulations
- Navigation General including Aids to Navigation
- Chart Plotting Navigation
Day one I started out with the wrong attitude. I was thinking easy as pie, I’ll just breeze right through this. Wrong. Day 1 was Rules of the Road which is a huge amount of material and lots, and lots of rope memorization of shapes, lights, sounds, and right of way rules. And for this exam you must pass with 90% on a 50 question test which means you can only miss 5 questions. Good thing is they have student computers you can jump on to take practice Rules of the Road tests. So that becomes your break time and lunch time, practice Rules of the Road tests. At the end of the Rules of the Road training I did not have it down. In fact, based on the practice questions, I didn’t think I had it until test day. This exam is closed book so you got to memorize it all in your head. The thought is on the water when presented with a situation you don’t always have time to look up the answer although we are required to have a copy of the Rules on the boat. You will learn what this means…Only New Reels Catch Fish So Buy Some Worms.
Deck General and Nav General is a huge amount of material thrown at you. The only difference between OUPV/6-pack and Master 100 ton is some additional deck general material and 10 more questions on the exam so I opted for the 100 ton master training. Better to have the higher training and license now even if you don’t use it as you never know what the future might bring. There are some references you can use on the exam but you have to pay close attention so you at least have an idea of what can be looked up and where.
Chart Plotting is old school plotting paper charts. I enjoyed this portion and yes they do teach a lot of skills we will probably never use in the modern world of electronic charts chart plotters with a button that says go to with autopilot. You have to learn how wind and current affect steerage, true north vs magnetic north, deviation and variation. How to determine where you are with just a compass. Lots of good stuff and had fun learning it but most will never use. I do still take a compass heading when going offshore so if all electronics fail I can just do the reverse compass heading home. It all took me back to my early Army days where we navigated with maps and a compass (no GPS). And yes every once in a while I still call a chart a map.
The exam was also in 4 parts and took me all 7 hours to complete. Never had a 7 hour test in my life. But I got though it and pass the first time with 100% on Rules and 100% on plotting which shocked me. But I attribute that to mostly Captain Amy who made sure we all understood the material.
So I took the training and passed the test at the end of the 2 weeks but I’m not a Captain yet. Still had to take and pass a First Aid and CPR class. Had to pass a USCG physical. Had to take a drug screen test. Had to get a TWIC card. The TWIC is still required for you initial license but now optional for renewals. Then there is the long USCG application where you must also document all your sea service time. For boats that you own you just include proof of ownership and fill out the forms of sea time from your logs or memory separated by inland and international waters. Honor system here but I was honest as I’ve owned many boats and been inshore and offshore many times. For boats you don’t own you have to get the owner or Captain to sign off the USCG form verifying your time. All this gets sent off to the USCG and their process takes just under 2 months.
Now when your license arrives you still can’t charter just yet. You have to pay VMRC $190 for a charter/guide license. You need a separate tile/grouper permit and separate striper permit from VMRC. You have to get a business permit/license from the city you plan to charter from and likely have to pay taxes to the city (in addition to normal state and federal taxes). You have to declare all the tangible property including boat, tackle, and safety gear and pay taxes to the city on a stack of forms they send you. You may also want to form an LLC with the state to protect yourself better. You have to change over your insurance to cover chartering which costs more than just recreational fishing. If you charter outside state water in federal waters (outside 3 miles) you need to ensure you have the right federal permits. Your HMS pelagic permit is different for charters which covers tuna, marlin, sharks, and swords. And for mahi and wahoo you must get a permit from the South Atlantic Region NMFS as well as a separate operators cards which cost money. And if I was not already permitted out, had so also get a permit and operator card from the Greater Atlantic Region of the NMFS for bluefish, BSB, flounder, blueline tile, and golden tile caught in federal waters. And the Greater Atlantic office sends you a mountain of paper forms requiring you to report each and every fish caught (offshore and inshore) on the paper form and mail the form to them. They call them Vessel Trip Reports (VTRs) which started out as a requirement for commercial watermen but extended this requirement to charters as well. What a pain to mail forms in. So basically you have to report your catches to both state and federal agencies. If your boat is over 5 gross tons (or about 25 feet), you are required to have your boat documented with the USCG and can’t be state registered. And even though I just took a drug test you have a part of a some organization that does random drug testing. I use http://drugfreevessel.com/. I took another drug test a few weeks ago as you have to take it within a day of being notified.
Most importantly, you have to keep your customers safe even they are doing unsafe things on the boat. Obviously you have to get the fishing grounds safely observing all safety navigation rules. You have keep an eye on your radar, your course, your speed, the ocean conditions all the while keeping the back of your eye on all your passengers to make sure they are not doing anything unsafe and remain safely seated when things get rough. You have to be your own weatherman using all sources of weather available to you (you can’t rely on just NOAA). See my weather portal section. Many times you simply have to cancel the trip due to bad weather even though it means no paycheck that day. Yes having charter insurance is important but that may not cover everything if you, as the Captain, are negligent and do unsafe activities.
And then there are all the additional safety requirements as documented in this publication.
You have to keep your boat in good repair. Running trips more often means more maintenance and repairing things that break down quickly or you can’t go on trip. You have to advertise your business on websites and social media. You have to continually catch fish and give reports and pictures that show you are a Captain that can put fish on the deck or nobody will book you. Oh, and promise you I will not do a trick other Captains sometimes do, put up old pics trying to pass them off as recent reports just to book customers. You have to have good customer skills and act like a professional even when your customers are doing things you don’t want them to do. You have to be good at book keeping, math, finances, taxes, phone skills, computer skills, etc.
So I am still just a novice and beginner at this chartering thing but do work hard to put customers on fish. I will admit that sometimes no matter what I do the fishing is still slow but I will always put in 100 and 10% effort. If you are considering booking a charter, ask your Captain if they have everything in place I’ve outlined above because if not, take a pass on them because they are not fully legal charter operators. I’m not trying to say I’m the best Captain out there because I know I’m not. There are some great Captains out there that I’m still learning from. But do a little research before you spend your hard earned money to go fishing and make sure you get at least a legal Captain because there are many that are not legal and you are putting yourself and family at risk by booking illegal charter operators. Now lets go catch some fish.