Responsibilites of the Captain
This is the top maritime job, that of a Master or Captain on board a cargo or passenger ship. A Captain is, simply, overall incharge of the entire vessel and the highest authority at sea. More specifically, he is in charge of safety of the crew, vessel and cargo. He is charged with ensuring that all international and local laws are followed properly, and that all management policies are fully complied with.
He is responsible for the navigation and discipline of the crew. In addition, although the Chief Engineer is directly responsibility for the ship’s machinery or engines, the ‘Chief’ reports to the Captain on all operational matters, and the movement of the Engines are under the Master’s control.
The Captain is overall responsible for the cargo and its stowage, and also the ship’s accounts and the crew’s wages. He is directly responsible for all certification as it pertains to the ship, whether from the Flag State (the country who’s flag the ship flies), Classification Society (like Lloyds, etc) or any other. The Captain also communicates with shore authorities on any commercial or other matters, including in response to oil spills or other accidents. After the World Trade Centre attacks, a new onerous duty has been added to all of these- the Captain is responsible for the security of the ship as well.
If crew or passengers need medical attention, the Captain must ensure that approved adequate supplies exist on board to provide this, or to seek shore medical assistance, including medical evacuation in some cases where it is possible.
Finally, the Captain is responsible for ensuring that proper and accurate records are kept by the vessel, and are made available to shore authorities in the event of an accident or when otherwise required.
The Legendary Master
The Buck Stops Here
Even though one must be certified by the Flag State to sail as a Master on board any of their ships, this is not enough to get one command of a ship as a Captain. Owners are very particular about the people they appoint as Masters, since they entrust millions of dollars of ship and cargo to this one individual, not to speak of the lives of their crews.
Many countries award different Master’s certification, and sometimes limit the size (tonnage) of the ship a Captain can command. The highest certificate is an ‘Unrestricted tonnage’ certificate, which allows a Captain to command ships of any size without any limitations. Practically, many years pass by the time a raw cadet gets command, and is typically around 12/15 years at sea.
Safety and security remains the Captains primary concern. Safety will include safety of navigation, personnel, cargo, machinery and the environment. Security duties are diverse too, and the Captain must ensure that the ship follows approved security plans at all times, responding to threats from pirates, hijackers and other criminals.
Consequences of a Captain’s mistakes
If rules are not followed adequately, the consequences can be disastrous. Ships are routinely detained- at the cost of tens of thousands of dollars a day to the owners- for non-compliance of international regulations pertaining to safety, security or the environment.
Oil spills in the event of a leak can result in irreversible damage to the environment, along with claims of hundreds of millions of dollars. Masters and other officers and crew are sometimes arrested and criminally convicted for such incidents.
Lives may be put at risk if the navigation of a ship is unsafe. Alternately, if there is inadequate care of cargo, claims of millions of dollars are possible.
And, of course, laxity in security arrangements will endanger the lives of all on board. As an example, thirty five seamen were killed in pirate attacks worldwide last year.
High Pressure, Power and Responsibility
A Captain at sea has been, throughout history, an almost God like individual, exercising absolute power over his crew. Although the advent of modern legal systems and communication has changed all that to a large extent, the modern day Captain still has enormous operational and legal power at his disposal. This is almost invariably tempered by the heavy pressure and heavier responsibility that a ship’s Captain must carry.
A Captain realises very quickly that his is a uniquely sombre job. He may be a breed apart, but his responsibilities to his crew and the owners of the ship are very serious responsibilities, indeed, and the power one is given to manage these is not to be taken lightly.
Hesburgh Libraries, University of Notre Dame
This post is part of the series: Sea Cadets- the future Marine Masters
- Sea Cadets – The Future Marine Masters. Part I: Training
- Grooming Junior Deck Officers to Command Ships.
- The Second in Command on Ships at Sea – The Chief Officer
- Sea Captain: Master of the Ship