If you've ever been on or around a ship and wondered what the captain does on board, the answer is -- everything. The captain of a ship holds the ultimate authority and responsibility for the vessel and all those on board. Although crew members may have specific duties, such as navigation, maintenance or staff management, the ultimate responsibility for all activities on board begins and ends with the captain.
The captain is responsible for getting the ship to where it is supposed to be, when it is supposed to be there. They are navigators first, studying maps and charts to determine the most convenient and least dangerous route to a destination. Once the captain sets the course, she calculates fuel consumption based on sea conditions, wind speed, port availability and ship speed. Computers do a lot of the work on large modern ships, but on most smaller and older vessels, the captain's still the one who does the math.
The ship's captain is in charge of operating or driving the ship. Depending on the type of ship, this can involve manual or computer-guided operation. Big ships need a licensed local pilot to bring them in and out of port. The pilot is an expert on the local underwater topography and the specific motions and speeds required to maneuver the ship safely in relatively tight quarters. Once at sea again, the complete responsibility for every movement that the ship makes lies with the captain.
The captain inspects the ship inside and out to ensure that it's completely seaworthy and safe for passengers and crew. Different types of ship are subject to different sets of local rules and regulations. These regulations also vary by the size and purpose of a the ship. The captain must be intimately familiar with all regulations and is responsible for ensuring that the ship adheres to every one.
Remember the Titanic?
In the worst-case scenario -- a serious collision or sinking -- it's the captain's duty to manage the evacuation of the ship and to remain in position and in control throughout. Life boats are loaded and distress signals sent out. Once the ship is completely empty of both passengers and crew -- and everything humanly possible has been done to remove the ship and its cargo from danger -- the captain makes an assessment of the situation. If the ship is still seaworthy, the captain stays and manages as much of the rescue and salvage effort as possible from her post on board. If not, the captain can leave the doomed vessel and do her work from her rescue boat.
- CBS Pittsburgh: Local Ship Captain Offers Insight On Responsibilities
- University of Washington School of Law; The Captain's Duty on a Sinking Ship
- Los Angeles Times: Harbor Pilot Known as Master of the Sea
- Forbes: A Captain's Responsibility, by a Former Norwegian Cruise Lines Safety Manager and Ship Master
- Virginia State Government: Career Guide for Ship and Boat Captain
- National Public Radio: How Large Ships Use Navigation Systems
Robert Morello has an extensive travel, marketing and business background. He graduated with a Bachelor of Arts from Columbia University in 2002 and has worked in travel as a guide, corporate senior marketing and product manager and travel consultant/expert. Morello is a professional writer and adjunct professor of travel and tourism.