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January 30, 2009

Licensed to Fish

So you want to be a professional captain? Here's how.

Before private companies like Sea School were allowed to administer the final test, everyone took his or her test at one of the 17 Coast Guard Regional Exam Centers. Those facilities are still in operation, but the National Maritime Center is now the sole clearinghouse for evaluating and processing licenses. I spoke with Tina Bassett, who is the NMC's Mariner Evaluations division chief.

"Our mission statement is to issue credentials to fully qualified mariners in the most effective and efficient manner possible," Bassett says. The goal of this dedicated processing facility is to turn around "clean" applications within 30 days. Delays are typically caused by improper paperwork or questions about legal matters or qualifications.

"The biggest glitch is when medical forms are not complete. When people get their physicals, they need to make sure the doctors don't leave anything blank or incomplete," Bassett explains. "We're adding more staff to our medical branch to speed up the evaluation process, but it can still be a bottleneck for those reasons.

"Our toll-free call center is a great way to stay abreast of your application status," Bassett adds. "We field 20,000 calls a month for all types of licenses. The operators can answer most routine inquiries or direct applicants to our subject matter experts if the question is more involved."

In addition to license evaluations, the NMC is also responsible for approving courses and developing the bank of questions that exams are randomly pulled from. Once a license has been approved, the center produces and mails it to the applicant. Taking the OUPV test costs $85. There is also a $100 fee for the application evaluation and a $45 fee for the actual license.

Before you start fishing clients professionally, you also have to secure liability and commercial boat insurance (which starts at around $1,000 annually).

Yes, getting your captain's license is an expensive and time-consuming proposition. But after a long, successful day on the water, when your clients are tired and grinning ear-to-ear, you'll smile to yourself and say, "It's all worth it."