Choosing a career as a boat captain requires some education. Years ago, most anyone who wanted could get a boat and take people out on it and make some money. Today everything is highly regulated and justly so for safety reasons. Anyone who has been out on the water when the weather kicks up knows that having a person on board who knows how to handle a boat and policies and procedures for getting help quickly is a lifesaver.
Start studying. The Coast Guard web site has a whole list of subjects that you will tested on. Each topic is important and must be understood. There are rules of the waterways that you will be expected to learn and abide by. Boat inspections, boundary lines, licensing of mates, towing boats, firefighting, discharging and carrying passengers are just a few of the topics you will be required to learn about. Things will come up on a boat that you would never think about that someone else with experience has decided as being important.
Get out on the water on a boat. You will need to record time on the water in a boat of the appropriate size for your category of license. When you go for the license, they will require at least 90 days within the last 3 years. So, it is no good if you used to work on a boat 20 years ago. In addition, you will be required to have spent 360 days of service as a supervisor of specific standing in inland water or 720 days of specific service if on coastal waters.
Schedule to have a medical and eye exam. The rigorous physical requirements of a captain will require that each licensee is in good condition and able to see properly, with or without corrective lenses.
Expect to have further testing if you are interested in sailing or towing with your captain's license. Actual experience on the water as a licensed master or mate will count towards the required number of hours necessary to pass extra endorsements.
Submit your application. Once all the requirements have been met and the numbers of hours have been fulfilled, the paperwork will still have to be submitted. Fingerprinting and criminal background checks will be expected for anyone interested in operating charter boats (head boats), small ferries, dinner boats, and whale watch vessels. Drug testing and certification of citizenship, age and identity is mandatory. This will be required every five years.