California Occupational Guides

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Detailed Guide for

Captains, Mates, and Pilots of Water Vessels in California

May also be called:
Captains: Barge Captains; Charter Boat Captains; Ferry Boat Captains; Masters; Relief Captains; Ship Captains; Tugboat Captains

Mates: Barge Mates; Cargo Mates; Chief Mates; Deck Officers; First Mates; Second Mates; Third Mates; Training Mates; Tugboat Mates; Vessel Masters

Pilots: Bar Pilots; Docking Pilots; Harbor Pilots; Marine Pilots; River Pilots; Ship Pilots; Towboat Pilots

Specialties within this occupation include: Shipping Vessel Captain; Powerboat Captain

What Would I Do?

Captains, Mates, and Pilots command or supervise the operations of many kinds of watercraft, on the open seas or inland waterways, such as estuaries, canals, rivers, and lakes. These watercraft include merchant ships, tugboats, towboats, ferries, dredges, and cruise ships.

Captains, sometimes referred to as Masters, are in command of the operation of a vessel and supervise the work of all officers and crew. Their primary duty, which they share with their department heads, is to see to the safety of the ship and its crew. They determine the course and speed of the vessel, give maneuvering orders to avoid hazards, and monitor the vessel’s position with charts and navigational aids. They ensure that proper procedures and safety practices are followed, check to make sure that machinery and equipment are in good working order, and oversee the loading and discharging of cargo or passengers. They also maintain logs and other records tracking the ships’ movements, efforts at controlling pollution, and cargo and passengers carried.

For those interested in the career of Fishing Boat Captain, see Fishers and Related Fishing Workers.

Mates are sometimes called Deck Officers, and when more than one Mate is necessary aboard a ship, they usually are designated Chief Mate or First Mate, Second Mate, Third Mate, etc. They direct the routine operations of the vessel for the Captain when they are on watch. All Mates stand watch for assigned periods, usually four hours on and eight hours off. However, on smaller vessels there may be only one Mate who alternates watches with the Captain. Mates also supervise crew members engaged in maintenance and the primary upkeep of the vessel. Mates assume command of the ship should the Captain become unable to perform his or her duties.

Pilots direct the navigation of vessels in and out of harbors, through straits, and on rivers and other confined waterways where a familiarity with local water depths, winds, tides, currents, and hazards are of utmost importance. Pilots on river and canal vessels usually are regular crew. Harbor Pilots are generally independent contractors who accompany vessels when entering or leaving port.

Important Tasks and Related Skills

Each task below is matched to a sample skill required to carry out the task.

View the skill definitions
TaskSkill Used in this Task
Steer and operate vessels, using radios, depth finders, radars, lights, buoys, and lighthouses.Transportation
Interview and hire crew members.Administration and Management
Supervise crew members in the repair or replacement of defective gear and equipment.Mechanical
Report to appropriate authorities any violations of federal or state pilotage laws.Law and Government
Operate ship-to-shore radios to exchange information needed for ship operations.Telecommunications
Arrange for ships to be fueled, restocked with supplies, and/or repaired.Operation and Control
Maintain records of daily activities, personnel reports, ship positions and movements, ports of call, weather and sea conditions, pollution control efforts, and/or cargo and passenger status.Coordination
Give directions to crew members who are steering ships.Instructing
Arrange for ships to be fueled, restocked with supplies, and/or repaired.Critical Thinking
Advise ships' masters on harbor rules and customs procedures.Speaking
Maintain boats and equipment on board, such as engines, winches, navigational systems, fire extinguishers, and life preservers.Equipment Maintenance
Steer and operate vessels, using radios, depth finders, radars, lights, buoys, and lighthouses.Spatial Orientation
Stand watches on vessels during specified periods while vessels are under way.Far Vision
Serve as a vessel's docking master upon arrival at a port and when at a berth.Depth Perception
Provide assistance to vessels approaching or leaving seacoasts, navigating harbors, and docking and undocking.Problem Sensitivity
Consult maps, charts, weather reports, and navigation equipment to determine and direct ship movements.Selective Attention
Source: U.S. Department of Labor Occupational Information Network (O*NET)

Working Conditions

Captains, Mates, and Pilots work in all weather conditions. Although they try to avoid severe storms while at sea, working in damp and cold conditions often is inevitable. While vessels seldom suffer fires, explosions, or sinkings, workers face the very rare possibility of having to abandon their ship quickly if it collides with other craft or runs aground. However, in rare occurrences, there is also the risk of injury or death from falling overboard. Captains, Mates, and Pilots must be aware of the dangers involved in working with machinery, heavy loads, and hazardous cargo. However, improved safety management procedures, modern emergency communications, and international rescue systems have greatly improved safety on board.

Most modern vessels are air conditioned, soundproofed from noisy machinery, and equipped with comfortable living quarters. For some workers, these amenities have helped ease the sometimes difficult circumstances of long periods away from home. In addition, modern communications media, such as e-mail, link mariners to their families. Some companies have added improved entertainment systems and hired full-time cooks. These amenities lessen the hardship of separation from family and friends. Nevertheless, some workers dislike the long periods away from home and the confinement aboard ship and, as a result, leave the occupation.

Work hours vary depending on whether one is a Captain, a Mate, or a Pilot. When sailing, Captains and Mates are on the job every day. Mates stand watch for assigned periods, usually four hours on and eight hours off. However, on smaller vessels there may be only one Mate who alternates watches with the Captain.

The rate of unionization for Captains, Mates and Pilots is about 36 percent nationally, much higher than the average for all occupations. Many join the Seafarers’ International Union, and the International Organization of Masters, Mates, and Pilots.

Will This Job Fit Me?

The jobs of Captains, Mates, and Pilots of Water Vessels may appeal to those who enjoy activities that involve practical, hands-on problems and solutions and to those who enjoy activities that involve leading people and making many decisions.

What Wages and Benefits Can I Expect?


The median wage in 2020 for Captains, Mates, and Pilots of Water Vessels in California is $68,178 annually, or $32.78 hourly. The median is the point at which half of the workers earn more and half earn less.

Change to Hourly Wages
Annual Wages for 2020Low
(25th percentile)
(50th percentile)
(75th percentile)
Source: EDD/LMID Occupational Employment Statistics Survey, 2020 Wages do not reflect self-employment.
View Wages for All Areas


Because of a high rate of union membership, Captains, Mates, and Pilots enjoy a wide variety of benefits, including medical, dental, and vision plans as well as vacation and sick leave.

What is the Job Outlook?

Most openings for Captains, Mates, and Pilots of water vessels are expected to result from the need to replace retiring workers, or those who leave the occupation for other reasons. Advertised job listings in California suggest some demand for work on commercial vessels, tug boats, and privately-owned yachts.

Projections of Employment

How Do I Qualify?

Education, Training, and Other Requirements

Entry, training, and educational requirements for Captains, Mates, and Pilots are established and regulated by the Coast Guard, an agency of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. The Coast Guard offers various kinds of licenses, depending on the position and type of vessel.

There are two ways to qualify to take a license exam: applicants either must accumulate sea time and meet regulatory requirements or must graduate from either a U.S. Merchant Marine Academy or approved maritime technical training school. The only U.S. Merchant Marine Academy is located in New York. The California Maritime Academy, located in Vallejo, is the only degree-granting maritime academy on the West Coast.

The academies offer a four-year academic program leading to a bachelor of science degree, a license (issued only by the Coast Guard) as a Third Mate, and, if the person is qualified, a commission as ensign in the U.S. Navy Reserve, Merchant Marine Reserve, or Coast Guard Reserve. Once Third Mate Status is achieved, a mariner, with additional service, can work his or her way up to Second Mate, First or Chief Mate, and Captain.

A merchant mariner document, issued by the Coast Guard, is required for all persons who work on U.S. commercial ships. This document is needed before any other Coast Guard exam can be taken, and requires the following:
1) Must be 16 years of age or older
2) Achieve passing grade on a drug test
3) Must be U.S. citizen or alien with residential status
4) Have clean criminal record

Harbor Pilot training usually consists of an extended apprenticeship with a towing company or a water pilots’ association. Entrants may be able seamen or licensed officers.

For further information on certification and licensing requirements, access the U.S. Coast Guard Web site, which can be found in the Other Sources section of this guide.

Early Career Planning

High school students interested in this type of work should take coursework in mathematics, science, electronics, computer technology, language arts, machine shop, and auto shop. Students who are interested in water transportation occupations might consider participating in a local Sea Scouts troop. Sea Scouting is a part of the Venturing program that the Boy Scouts of America offers for young men and women. This organization teaches high school students (ages 14-20) basic sailing and shipboard tasks on working ships throughout California, including inland ports on rivers and lakes.


Workers on ocean-going or Great Lakes vessels need occupational specialty licenses, issued by the U.S. Coast Guard, to work as deck officers. Those seeking licenses are required to obtain and carry a Transportation Worker Identification Card, for which applicants must be fingerprinted, provide proof of citizenship, and possess a valid Social Security number. Applicants must also undergo a physical exam and submit to a drug test. Contact the agency that issues the license for additional information.Click on the license title below for details.

Where Would I Work?

Captains, Mates, and Pilots work on vessels in deep sea or coastal waters, or inland on lakes, rivers, or the Delta. Some work for universities on oceanographic research vessels. Advertised job listings in California suggest some demand for work on freight and passenger vessels, tug boats, and privately-owned yachts.

Finding a Job

Captains, Mates, and Pilots of Water Vessels usually gain employment through union hiring halls typically found in major seaports. Contact information for local union halls is found through national union Web sites. Online job opening systems include JobCentral at and CalJOBSSM at

To find your nearest One-Stop Career Center, go to Service Locator. View the helpful job search tips for more resources. (requires Adobe Reader).

Yellow Page Headings

You can focus your local job search by checking employers listed online or in your local telephone directory. Below are some suggested headings where you might find employers of Captains, Mates, and Pilots of Water Vessels.

  • Container Freight Service
  • Cruises
  • Freight Forwarding
  • Marine Contractors
  • Recruiting-Armed Forces
  • Ships & Ship Operation

Find Possible Employers

To locate a list of employers in your area, go to "Find Employers" on the Labor Market Information Web site:

  • Select one of the top industries that employ the occupation. This will give you a list of employers in that industry in your area.
  • Click on "View Filter Selections" to limit your list to specific cities or employer size.
  • Click on an employer for the street address, telephone number, size of business, Web site, etc.
  • Contact the employer for possible employment.

Where Could This Job Lead?

Mates generally begin their career as Third Mate, promoting to Second Mate, First Mate, and Chief Mate as they gain additional sea time and experience. Chief Mates who have broad experience can promote to Captain by meeting the experience requirements and passing the Coast Guard exam.

With experience and proven ability, Captains enjoy higher pay by commanding cruise ships or other large vessels on international waters.

Related Occupations

Below is a list of occupations related to Captains, Mates, and Pilots of Water Vessels with links to more information.

Locomotive EngineersProfile
Railroad Conductors and YardmastersProfile
Sailors and Marine OilersGuide
Ship EngineersGuide
Transportation InspectorsProfile

Other Sources

These links are provided for your convenience and do not constitute an endorsement by EDD.

For the Career Professional

The following codes are provided to assist counselors, job placement workers, or other career professionals.

SOC - Standard Occupational Classification53-5021
O*NET - Occupational Information Network
   Ship and Boat Captains53-5021.01
   Interest Codes (RIASEC)ERC
   Mates- Ship, Boat, and Barge53-5021.02
   Interest Codes (RIASEC)ERC
   Pilots, Ship53-5021.03
   Interest Codes (RIASEC)RIC
CIP - Classification of Instructional Programs
   Marine Transportation, Other 490399
TOP - Taxonomy of Programs (California Community Colleges)
   Marine Technology095900