What Size Boat Requires A Captain’s License?

Published Categorized as Buying Guides

When you’re a teenager, you get your learner’s permit before your driver’s license. If you want to learn to fly a plane, you go to flight school. But what do you do if you want to be the captain of a boat? What size boat requires a captain’s license, and how do you get one? 

Most beginners are shocked to learn that you don’t need formal training or a license to drive a boat as long as it’s for recreation. But before you hit send and submit that down payment for that 105-foot Azmut you’ve been lusting after, let’s talk about what it involves. While you might not need a Coast Guard credential, you must do a few important things.

What Size Boat Requires A Captain's License?

Table of Contents

An Overview of US Boat Captain’s License and Boater Education Requirements

New boaters often find what size boat requires a captain’s license confusing because the exact requirements vary from state to state. Plus, things have changed in recent years. So here’s an overview of what you need to research to find out how to legally operate your boat in your state.

First, everyone wants to know if they need a captain’s license. This is the only part where the United States Coast Guard is involved, but the Coast Guard does not issue a “captains license.” Instead, they issue Merchant Mariner Credentials (MMC) with different grades, from engineers and deckhands to mates, operators, and masters. A “captain,” at least in Coast Guard standards, is considered a “master” or ‘operator.”

So, who needs a USCG captain’s license? The only person who must have one is when operating a boat for commercial purposes with paying passengers onboard. It could be an inspected vessel or an uninspected vessel. If a commercial vessel or an inspected vessel, you must hold a master’s license with the appropriate tonnage. If it’s an uninspected vessel with six passengers or less, you can use an OUPV license (Operator of Uninspected Passenger Vessels–commonly called the “six-pack license”).

So, what if you are a recreational boater–not working for anyone and not carrying passengers or cargo for hire? In this case, no “captain’s license” is necessary per the federal regulations or Coast Guard rules.

There are, however, a slew of state laws you must follow. In the past 20 years, most states have passed laws requiring most recreational boaters to have passed a “safe boating course.” These boating laws vary from state to state, so you must research the rules where you live. The Boat US Foundation is a great place to get started. They have a list of every state’s requirements.

Generally, the boater education requirement is a simple online course you take and pass once. You might also be able to attend a traditional in-person class hosted by the US Power Squadron or US Coast Guard Auxillary. If you take formal classes for training on your boat, chances are you can have it counted. For example, the ASA 101 course (American Sailing Association) can often be used in place of a state-sponsored course. 

private boat captain license requirements

Boat Insurance Requirements

As described above, in most cases, recreational boaters only need to have completed an online safe boating course. There are no legal requirements for someone to have had any hands-on, on-the-water training–which is pretty shocking when you think about it. Boating can be pretty dangerous, and there are a lot of ways that a lot of things can go wrong. You can’t drive a car without getting training, and you can’t just hop in an airplane and take to the skies. But you can buy a boat and sail away. 

There’s one sticking point, however. More and more people are taking up boating, and boats have become larger, more complex, and more expensive than ever. Insurance companies have begun to notice and are setting much stricter limits than they once did. 

There once was a time when you could buy a boat–almost any boat you could afford–and get full coverage insurance relatively cheaply. Now, the insurance companies want assurance that you can safely operate that boat. Unfortunately, since there’s no official system to ensure boaters have experience or a license, the underwriters have had to devise their own ways to figure it out.

In many cases, it depends a lot on the size and cost of the boat. If your first boat is a modest 20-foot cabin cruiser, fishing boat, or trailer sailer, you can likely get insurance from a major underwriter with no hassles. Take your safe boating course along with a few lessons from a local training captain to learn how to dock. 

When it’s time to upgrade to a bigger boat, you’ll have had some boating experience–and hopefully a claim-free insurance record. So if you step up to a 30-footer, you might have a similar, easy experience. For this reason, the best boat for beginners is usually a smaller one to build experience on before moving up.

If, however, you have never boated before and want to try living on a sailboat in the Caribbean, taking a 40-plus-foot monohull sailboat to cruise the coast, or purchasing the best boat for the Great Loop and setting out on America’s waterways, you are going to have trouble finding insurance. There are many reasons for this, and none matter to this article. What’s important is that you realize that getting insurance might be much harder than finding a boat.  

In all of these cases, often, the only path to getting insurance is to prove that you have experience operating a similarly-sized vessel. But how do you get that if you don’t have it? The best way is to hire a training captain and go through a course on your boat. The insurance policy will stipulate that you must receive “x” days of training from a qualified captain before taking the boat out alone.

Insurance has been a hot topic among boaters in the last few years. This episode of the Liveaboard Sailing Podcast has some great information from industry expert John Neal.

Private Boat Captain License Requirements Around the Globe

The US has one of the most lenient systems regarding boater education and licensing. Many other countries require a skipper’s license for recreational boaters. So if you’re a US boater contemplating a bareboat charter or a world cruise, you’ll need to look beyond what the US and Canada offer regarding training and licensing. 

The world standard for training is the British Royal Yachting Association. Their training programs range from day skippers to Yachtmaster-Offshore, indicating you are training in long passage making, including celestial navigation techniques. These programs are offered both for recreational and commercial purposes. 

Most countries, especially in Europe, will require at least an ICC, or International Certificate of Competency, to operate internationally. To get it, you must pass the RYA Day Skippers course, including classroom and on-the-water training. If you already have some experience, you can skip the course and take the exams (written and on the water).

Private Boat Captain License Requirements for Charter Ton Boat – Bareboat, Sail, or Power

If you want to rent a charter boat, you have a few things to consider regarding licensing. For crewed charters, all you need to do is show up. 

But suppose you’re interested in a bareboat charter, where you’re responsible for the safe operation and navigation of the boat. In that case, you’ll want to determine the company’s local policies. All charter companies will have you complete sailing resumes and requirements checklist. Plus, when you arrive, you’ll always get a check out from a local captain.

How Do You Get a Real Boater Education?

Buying a boat is pretty easy, but yacht brokers conveniently forget to tell you about a lot of stuff. One of the most disadvantageous is the necessity to get some kind of training on your vessel. However, it’s a vital component of going boating, and it makes it more fun. When you’re confident in your abilities to handle the boat, you’ll be more relaxed and enjoy your boat more. 

The “good old” days of hopping in a boat with no formal boating education are ending. While you still don’t need a full-fledged Coast Guard captain’s license, you need some boating experience. Start with an online course that meets your state’s laws, and then get a few hours at the helm with an experienced training instructor to learn how to dock and handle your boat in close quarters around a crowded marina.

boater education

Coast Guard Captain’s License and Boater Education FAQs

What is the largest boat you can operate without a captain’s license?

The US Coast Guard only requires “captain’s licenses,” more properly called masters or operator credentials, when operating for hire, carrying cargo, or paying passengers. Recreational boaters do not need captain’s licenses, but most will need to pass a state-approved safe boating course and meet the requirements set by their insurance companies.

Do I need a captain’s license for my personal boat Florida?

No, but you must take and pass an approved safe boater course. You can take the FWC course online, or you can take an in-person class from the Coast Guard Auxillary or Power Squadron. A list of FWC-approved safety education courses can be found online.

Can you captain your own yacht?

It depends on where you are in the world. In many places, if the yacht is longer than 9 meters, you need some sort of skipper’s license or Certificate of Competency. In the US, if it is an inspected vessel or operated for hire, you will need a CG master’s license. In most other cases, you will need to have at least passed a state-approved safe boater course.

What size boat requires a captain’s license in California?

To operate any recreational vessel in California, you must pass a state-approved safe boater education course and apply for a Boater Card from the State Parks Division of Boating and Waterways (DBW). See California Boater Card for more details. Large vessels operating for hire, with cargo or passengers, require you to have a USCG captain’s license.

By Matt C

Matt has been boating around Florida for over 25 years in everything from small powerboats to large cruising catamarans. He currently lives aboard a 38-foot Cabo Rico sailboat with his wife Lucy and adventure dog Chelsea. Together, they cruise between winters in The Bahamas and summers in the Chesapeake Bay.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *