One of the things I’ve really wanted to do for awhile is to get my Coast Guard Captain’s license. I’ve been kicking around the idea of an occasional part-time or seasonal job to add a bit of structure to my day (fluffing up the cruising kitty is an added bonus), and I knew that I didn’t want to work in an office or do anything related to law. If I was going to work, it needed to be connected with the marine industry, preferably outside. With a Captain’s license I could drive a launch, a water taxi, a tour boat, do deliveries, etc., and I could do it in any state. THAT’S my idea of the perfect part-time or seasonal job! So once we arrived in San Diego, and we were finally going to be in the same place for awhile with solid internet, it was time to hit the books.There are basically two ways to get a license: in a classroom or self-study. I had researched both options and decided that, for me, self-studying was the way to go. I wanted to be able to take my time and really learn the material vs. cramming it into a two-week course. Mariner’s Learning System (MLS) had good reviews, and I had some cruising friends who had used it successfully, so I ordered up the package and got to work.
Honestly, getting the license wasn’t as difficult as it sounds. There are different license levels depending on how much sea time you have and the boat size the sea time is on. One of the popular licenses is an OUPV/Six Pack which allows you to take up to six paying passengers. In order to take more than six, an upgrade to a Master license is required which involves one additional test.
I wanted to maximize my options so I decided to do the Master upgrade and the sailing endorsement. The tests are all multiple choice, and the OUPV/Six Pack test covered Rules of the Road (50 questions – 90% minimum score), Plotting (10 questions, 90%), Navigation General (50 questions – 70%), and Deck General (50 questions – 70%). The Master upgrade was an additional 70 question test with a 70% minimum score, and the sailing endorsement was 20 questions with a 70% minimum score.
The course really worked well no matter your learning style (reading or listening). Each of the four subject areas had subsections with reading material and videos, plus the reading material had an audio component. Before you could move on to the next subsection you had to pass a multiple choice test with a 90% score, and at the end of each subject there was a longer test that required a 90% or better to progress to the next subject. Finally, before you could take the exam itself, you had to pass yet another longer exam with at least 90%.
Prior to cracking open the first book, I had read a lengthy blog post from someone else who used MLS. She said that she wouldn’t have passed her OUPV/Six Pack exam if she had relied solely on the course, and the only thing that saved her was doing literally thousands of practice questions that she found online at different sites.
Well, I have no idea how thoroughly she went over the study materials because, based on my experience, that was completely unnecessary and certainly something I didn’t do. If you listen to the online audio lectures and read the material, learn it, and do the practice questions until you know them cold – both online and in the books (I ordered the deluxe version with books because I’m old-school and still like to learn from an actual book) – there is absolutely no need to waste your time taking other practice exams. I ended up with 100% on four out of six tests, and a 94% and an 88% on the other two.
For the real exam I had the choice of going to a testing center or taking it online. I had never taken an online exam before, but with the delta variant surging I wasn’t keen on spending several hours in a room filled with other people. Our laptop has a webcam and microphone so I figured I’d do it online, and the whole process was seamless. Although I was initially irritated to discover that it would take several days to get my results because they need to review the video (in-person examinees get the results before they leave the classroom), in reality I received an e-mail later that evening saying I had passed. It’s always great when an entity underpromises and overdelivers!
In addition to passing the exams, I needed to get CPR/First Aid Certification (done primarily on-line with a 30 minute in-person skills demonstration), pass a physical and drug test, and get a TWIC (Transportation Worker’s Identification Credential) which involved a TSA background check and fingerprints. TWIC’s are valid for five years, and I’ve had mine since 2018 when I started kicking the idea around of getting a license, so that part was already taken care of before I even started studying.
After that, it was just a matter of completing the application which included documenting my sea time, which I have been keeping track of for several years. Some applicants pay someone to help with the application to ensure there aren’t any delays from incomplete or inaccurate information. Since I spent most of my working career as a municipal attorney, I decided paying someone was unnecessary. Frankly, I would have hung my head in shame if I couldn’t have accurately plowed through it!
MLS has an excellent help section for the application process, and the processing center also has a help desk for any questions, so I don’t think paying a third party is really needed as long as you’re detail- oriented, can follow occasionally less-than-clear instructions, and know when to ask for help. I was able to submit the application package by e-mail, and I received regular automated updates as it was forwarded to each division for review. Less than a month after submitting it, my application was approved and the credential was in the mail. We won’t talk about the fact that it was lost in the mail, and I had to pay $45 and submit another application to finally get it. Ugh.
Bottom line, if you don’t need the structure of a classroom setting to take a course, I would highly recommend using MLS. At no point did I think I wouldn’t be able to pass. Yes, yes, I’m a good test taker and have taken a lot of exams in my life. And yes, it’s a lot of information, and granted, some of it was a bit easier now that we’ve spent three years cruising. But it’s not hard.
Even if you don’t necessarily want to use the license for a job, the information is good to know. For example, I finally know the day shapes and light configurations for various ships! So if you’ve thought about getting your license, and you have the sea time to qualify, don’t hesitate. One thing is for certain – learning the material is definitely more fun than studying for the bar exam!