How To Become a Sailor

The Old Way, and The New Way

By Captain G. Andy Chase

As you wander along the waterfront at a Tall Ships® event one day in the summer, you might wonder what it’s like to see one under sail.  You might make some inquiries about getting aboard one for a short sail, and you might even follow through with that idea.  But it may not have occurred to you to consider becoming one of those men and women who stand tall on the quarterdeck and command one.  The fact is you could have an extraordinary career in the sailing industry.  It’s not as hard as you might think, regardless of your age or background.

If you are eligible for college, there is a straightforward path that will get you from the viewing stand to the quarterdeck of a tall ship in as little as two short years.  And you will get an Associate of Science degree to boot.  Another two years and you can add a Bachelor of Science degree.  No prior sailing or boating experience is required.

Are you past college age?  Don’t ignore the possibilities.  Read on.

First, some basics.  The command structure of a sailing ship is no different from any other commercial ship.  There is a captain, one or more mates, one or more engineers, a number of able seamen (AB’s) and some more ordinary seamen (OS’s).  Each of these positions requires a license or a certificate, issued by the US Coast Guard.

You could sign aboard a sailing vessel with no prior experience and sail as an OS, gradually gaining experience and sea time, which would allow you to “sit” for the exam for the next level up the chain of command.  In time, you would find yourself with the license to be captain, or master, of a ship.  While this is still technically possible, realistically it has become so time consuming and expensive that it is no longer a very attractive option.

You would need to work for a few years as OS, earn an AB’s certificate, work for a few more years as AB, then study and sit for a multi-day exam as Mate.  Subject areas include navigation, seamanship, safety, rules of the road, regulations, and much more.  You would additionally need to earn various certificates (both US and International) in Basic Safety Training (BST), Global Marine Distress Safety System (GMDSS), Bridge Resource Management (BRM), Ship’s Medical Officer, Automatic Radar Plotting Aids (ARPA), Firefighting, and several more.  Each of these requires its own course, typically taking a week, and costing anywhere from $800 to $2000.

Given all of this, the old way of working your way up from OS to Master at sea (called “coming up the hawsepipe”) has become inordinately difficult, time consuming, and expensive.

Enter Maine Maritime Academy.  With a 50 year tradition of preparing seafarers for maritime careers (in the Merchant Marine) already in place, and two traditional schooners (the 88 footBowdoin and the 35 foot Puritan) to train on, developing a sail training curriculum was an obvious step.  The program was inaugurated in 2003, and since then as much as 40% of incoming mate candidates are interested in auxiliary sail licenses.  Graduates from the past 35 years are already serving as deckhands, mates, masters and owners of numerous sail training vessels.  There are over 150 vessels in the American Sail Training Association (ASTA) directory, all of which need trained, licensed mates.  Nowadays, most American (and many foreign) sail training vessels are manned by one or more Maine Maritime graduates.

The programs at Maine Maritime Academy include fully accredited 2-year (Associate of Science) and 4-year (Bachelor of Science) degrees; 200 ton, 500 ton, 1600 ton and unlimited licenses for power and sail vessels, for near coastal and oceans routes.  With other programs in Marine Engineering, International Business and Logistics, Marine Science, and Marine Biology, plus a Master’s Degree program, there are plenty of other relevant courses and degree options to choose from to fill out a richly rewarding college experience.

The Sail Training Curriculum includes courses in Sailing, Ocean Survival, Firefighting, Small Craft Construction, Rigging, Navigation; Basic, Intermediate, Advanced, and Professional Sailing; Ocean Science, Ship Handling, Stability, Meteorology, and Ship’s Medicine.  There are two training cruises under sail aboard the schooner Bowdoin, and three industry coops, during which you might sail aboard one of the other ASTA vessels in gaff rig or square rig.  With the demand for sailing vessel crews and MMA’s connections in the field, coops and jobs are readily available.

MMA’s sailing faculty includes several sailors well known in the sail training world.  The course work is practical, intensive and fun.  Imagine going to college where your homework involves going sailing on one of over 50 sailing vessels from 10 to 88 feet.  It is the new way to start your sailing career, and it is within your reach.

Are you past college age?  No worries.  MMA has numerous “non-traditional” students from 24 to 60 years old seeking a career change or just fulfilling a lifetime dream.  Do you already have a college degree?  Consider enrolling in our Masters & Commander graduate program, where in 5 semesters you can earn a Masters Degree in Maritime Management and a 200 ton USCG license.