angry-ship-captain with captain's hat

Call Me Captain! (or not)

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July 26, 2017


angry-ship-captain with captain's hat
Photo of a ship’s Master who was just called “Skipper” by his crew.

By Colin Dewey, Ph.D., MNI When is it correct to call someone “captain?” And where is it appropriate for people to use the title themselves? What’s the difference between a captain and a “master?” (1) When does a master, or any mariner, get to be called “master mariner?”

The organized mind of a seaman naturally looks for structure: “Smokey, this is not Nam … there are rules.” At sea, however, many of the actual rules we follow are merely codifications of generations of practice and tradition. Why red-right-returning or port-to-port? Scratch the surface of the Colregs and you’ll find “that’s the way we’ve always done it” or “it just makes sense that way.” Nautical nomenclature is no different, and even more frustratingly, traditional usages are sometimes local – like the difference between IALA A & B buoyage systems. What, then, is the difference in meaning between “captain” and “master?” 

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The word “master” has a long and tricky history, even though it seems simple enough. Coming to us through Old English, the word derives from the Latin magis –“more,” and magister – “chief, teacher,” or simply: “more important person.” David Wilton, writing for says, “Many words have as many or more meanings than master does, but few have shown themselves to be as versatile in form.” The earliest appearances in English refer to authority or control other others, while the sense indicating advanced skill in a particular trade only appears several hundred years later. 

It would seem that the use of “master” indicating the person in charge of a vessel must be related to both this historic sense of authority and the sense of a high level of skill in navigation and seamanship. This second meaning has a related parallel in the system of guilds that arose in medieval Europe and also gave us the terms “journeyman” and “apprentice.” Here, “master craftsman” refers to the professional authority of the master as well as the duty to teach the trade to rising apprentices. There is accordingly a long history of using “master” to denote the person in charge of a vessel. It appears in Shakespeare’s Tempest (1610), where at the opening of the play, the Master calls the Boatswain to rouse the crew and save their ship: “speak to the mariners: fall to’t, yarely, or we run ourselves aground: bestir, bestir!” (I.i.3-4). Yet, in another of Shakespeare’s dramatic shipwrecks, the character in charge is called a “Captain.”

The shipwreck in Act 1 of Twelfth Night (1601) occurs offstage, but scene two opens with survivors, “Viola, a Captain, and Sailors” walking along a sea-coast. Here, the captain helps set the plot in motion, giving information about the inhabitants of the country on whose coast they’ve wrecked. This captain is never shown in action, and he exhibits political rather than nautical know-how.

The etymology of captain also reveals this slightly different inflection: captain shares the authority but has none of the practical knowledge implied by master. Captain comes into modern usage through Middle English from Old French capitain, which superseded chevetaigne (chieftan). This derives from Latin capitaneus (chief), which contains the root capit, or “head.” Even today, captain is used to indicate a variety of positions of authority: “captain of industry,” etc., while master is universally recognized as the title of a person who has achieved the highest level of competency in a particular profession or trade.

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For our purposes, this illustrates the difference between the maritime use of captain and master. Captain, in commercial non-military shipping, is a courtesy title usually employed colloquially, and never a rank, as it is in naval usage. Every vessel has a captain, from the smallest yacht to the largest containership. The captain is the person in command of a vessel at a given time – hence the Somali pirate in Captain Phillips can say to the ship’s master, “I’m the captain now.

Under pilotage, this issue becomes complicated since traditionally the vessel’s master always remains in command, while the pilot (also a master) merely advises (2). Master means a person who has the experience and has passed the required examination to be licensed to command a vessel according to both international and national regulations pertaining to the size and range of the vessels in which the experience was obtained. Captain is a general and informal term referring to someone in the act of performing in that capacity. Master refers to professional qualification, captain to a state of command or authority. It seems like this isn’t getting any simpler, but separating the historical meanings of captain and master shows us the way forward. In commercial shipping, master has an official regulatory meaning while captain does not. 

So if it’s relatively clear who is a captain afloat, how do we tell who gets to be called captain ashore? Once again, and frustratingly, it is a matter of personal choice and regional tradition – not regulation – that decides this question. There is no law against buying a sailboat and a “captain” cap to go with it, but that doesn’t mean you’ll be accepted as such among career mariners. 

The leading organizations that oversee professional matters pertaining to ships’ officers have established guidelines for their members and publications. The International Federation of Shipmasters’ Associations (IFSMA) represents individuals “who are in possession of an Internationally recognised Certificate of Competency, issued by the Government of an established Maritime Nation who are serving or have previously served, in Command of Seagoing Ships whether engaged upon International or Domestic Trade.”

The U.S. Council for American Master Mariners (CAMM) reserves regular membership for those who have sailed as master under an unlimited deck license or as First Class Pilots and calls those members “Captain.” (3) The Honourable Company of Master Mariners in London is “open to Class 1 foreign-going Master Mariners (or Royal Navy equivalent) with a British Masters’ certificate or the recognised equivalent.

According to the London-based Nautical Institute (NI), the “captain” is for those who have sailed in foreign voyages under the Master Mariner, Foreign-Going Class 1 qualification, the equivalent of holding a U.S. Master, Unlimited Tonnage, any Oceans. “Master Mariner” may be used by anyone holding an unlimited master’s ticket (4), but the implication of these organizations is clear: with few exceptions the courtesy title of “Captain” is for only those who have actual command time at sea in the highest position of the merchant marine, unlimited master.

So it is, that the organizations that represent master mariners carefully (some might say jealously) restrict use of the courtesy title to their own members. Their restrictions are based on long-held traditions of respect that are shared by many in the seagoing community. By recognizing traditions we feel that we are preserving something that belongs to us as a community of professionals, especially in an age where much of our traditional lore and cultural autonomy seems to be disappearing in a fog of regulation, convention, and restriction imposed on us from outside, from ashore.

But tradition does not have the force of law; it is often illogical and even self-contradicting. It lives only as long as it is useful to the community that supports it. I have tried to show how the history of words and how they’ve been used can give a better understanding of their implications in the present. I’m not interested in making a definitive claim about who can and cannot call themselves by a given title, but in suggesting something about where the distinctions arose and who has an interest in maintaining the conventions that exist. As a Master limited to 200 GRT, I would never refer to myself as captain in a professional capacity but I also don’t correct friends who do so informally. I may privately roll my eyes, but I don’t police the sport-fishing operators going by “Captain Billy” or “Cap’n Frank.” Different seagoing professions, and even different sectors of commercial shipping have different traditions and they’re welcome to them – my only hope is that people will sometime take a minute to wonder about the traditions that structure their part of the seafaring world. Maybe they’ll want to reject some things, but it might make their world seem a bit richer and more worth knowing about. 


This article is strictly limited to commercial shipping and intentionally excludes naval or military traditions, which are complicated and different in their own ways.



The master-pilot relationship is both traditional and legal and therefore complex and subject to intense scrutiny internationally, as a glance at previous articles in will show.



Even these organizations do not always agree with each other about titles. CAMM also uses “captain” for its Special members. Special members are those with unlimited licenses who have not sailed on them and limited masters of 500 GRT and above (with command time).



Captain John Dickinson, FNI, email message to author.


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