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January 30, 2009

Licensed to Fish

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

In an economic climate where corporate "downsizing" is featured on every nightly newscast, being self-employed is certainly becoming more appealing. And when a potential new career also means a daily commute on the water and having clients pay top dollar to put them on fish, it's easy to see why more than 6,500 captain licenses are issued or renewed every year. Before quitting your day job and ordering a new boat, however, be forewarned: Getting your ticket requires reams of paperwork and special qualifications, along with a sizeable chunk of money and hard work.

Issued by the U.S. Coast Guard, an Operator of Uninspected Passenger Vessel (OUPV) license requires 360 days of total boating experience. Known as a "Six-Pack" license because it is limited to six passengers, the OUPV ticket is good for inland or near-coastal operation. The Near Coastal Endorsement is valid for inland or offshore waters up to 100 miles. Included in that total experience, 90 days must be accrued within the last three years. In addition, there's a second 90-day requirement for near-coastal operation. Days are counted as four-plus hours of operating personal boats or spent aboard someone else's, with proper documentation. Sea service time starts after age 15, and you must be 18 to be eligible.

The successful completion of an accredited course is the biggest hurdle for most aspiring mariners. Self-study courses are available online, but the most popular method is through accredited classes like those offered by  St. Petersburg-based Sea School. It is one of the largest private institutions specializing in this type of instruction, and Ron Wahl has been the company's director of training for 32 years.

"We have eight  fixed locations and roving classes in 83 cities," Wahl explains. "All of our instructors hold a license equal to or higher than the class they teach. They're approved by the Coast Guard and subject to constant monitoring by the service's training officers."

The Rules of the Road comprise the biggest portion of the classes. Other segments include navigation and plotting, aids to navigation as well as personal and on-board safety. The typical Sea School curriculum is 54 hours taught for two full weekends and the five weeknights in between. The final exam is based on the material taught.

"For a whole bunch of reasons, going to a classroom school helps most students focus and complete the course work," Wahl says, adding that an average of 86 percent of first-time students pass. The fee for the course is $595. Other associated courses, such as CPR, carry additional charges. Counselors are available afterward to help with the license application paperwork. "Our motto is: 'We'll hold your hand until it holds the license,'" Wahl says.