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2014-04-21

When is a skipper a captain?

"Arr, matey, I be parallel parking this scurvy scow!"
Clearly, despite the eclipsing in most senses of the Age of Sail, the allure of the rank of Captain remains culturally intact, if at times nautically dubious. Now, as a title, it's never gone out of style as a military rank in various armed forces, nor is the usage of Captain a thing of the past for the commander of commercial, merchant vessels. But those uses are essentially professional in nature.

Slicker, peaked cap, spoked wheel and manly facial hair: Most male cruising sailors are using "old salt" as a style guide.
Is the skipper of a private yacht in any sense a captain? I've been called that, usually by someone trying to sell me something boat-related, but also occasionally by marine police or Coast Guard officials by way of inquiry. But despite a plethora of nautically themed headgear that imply a sort of braid-accessorized naval authority, I am unsure whether anyone in a sailboat (or powerboat, for that matter) is, unless such an individual is an actual current or former professional mariner or ex-Navy member, a "captain".

So, Captain Douchebagge, we meet again.
Certainly, as has been seen with the sad and disappointing cases of the captain of the cruise ship Costa Concordia and the recent sinking of the South Korean ferry, expectations are quite high and seem to include that "the captain stays with the ship" ...or at least isn't on the first boat off. Whether they are legally obliged to linger until they themselves are in danger of drowning is another question. Being captain is a job, not a holy office, despite what centuries of naval literature have suggested. Nonetheless, it's a rare job that has some real power when actually at sea. Not to mention a nice hat.

So the bumboat boys know who to pester
I've encountered holders of Royal Yachting Association (RYA) Yachtmaster qualifications who don't object if you call them "Captain"...but that's not quite the case, is it? "Yachtmaster" sounds a bit kinky when shouted across the deck, and yet that's most accurate. Harder to fit on a hat, though.

I see the YM course as a qualification, but not as a licence like a "ticket" from a marine school or institute. Some sailors obtain either through youthful employment or via military service or working on tall ships or coastal boats, certifications like a "60-tonne Master Limited". But generally, this pro or semi-pro level of mariner education is not pursued by those who wish to just sail their own boats, or, at best, run a rather limited sort of charter operation, 

But the lure of the title remains: The "ticket", leading to the stepwise attainment of the rank of Captain, is a sort of guild distinction. In the British Merchant Navy it's like being in a trade (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Merchant_Navy_%28United_Kingdom%29); you have to take both shoreside courses and "work study" aboard vessels if you want to get to second mate.
A Captain able to find rum before it's gone and all the occult treasure and seamonster one could wish. Docking, not so much.
Similarly, I don't think the licences the MCA issues are equivalant to RYA certifications in the sense that the person successfully completing the course is a licensed mariner. None of my research on RYA courses, despite a lot of informational crossover, lead me to consider them STCW qualifications.

I think the equivalency might be "private Cessna jockey" versus "commercial airline pilot", or private car driver versus the tractor-trailer driver of road freight. If I fly a Cessna for fun, it doesn't qualify me to fly a DC-3 for money, although if the DC-3 pilot has a heart attack, the Cessna pilot is probably the best option for experiencing a flame-deficient landing. The YM Offshore, which a good sailing friend of mine has recently achieved and is happily using on his sailing adventures, isn't a commercial or a professional certification, whereas a Captain is a sort of trade description, as well as a title or rank. Interestingly, until the mid-18th century, a naval Captain could be any titled lubber, Court hanger-on or Army guy, and was the person who made "naval" decisions based on the advice of the ship's master, the non-dilettante career sailor actually responsible for the sailing-not-sinking part. It took a series of reforms to professionalize the Royal Navy and to get the "place-men" reduced, although advancement still favoured the well-connected and the aristocratic.


If this is your charter captain, switch to a walking tour.
Anyway, while it's harmless to call yourself "Captain", I find it imprecise and allusive to professional attainments in an area other than pleasure craft operation. I would allow that the owner and skipper of any given vessel is its Master, but one doesn't need the RYA or the CPS to tell one that. Any warm body with a PCOC is an "operator" in front of the water cops, and a "master" in Admiralty law. I can claim salvage as a master of a sailing vessel, should I wander across something not under command or 'clearly adrift', although this is a very nuanced topic in law, and there are many who would suggest that the line between righteous salvage and vile theft is permeable. Skippers or captain, beware.

I have seen a document
on official RYA stationary in which the "am I now a Captain" question was answered with "we take no stance" is an attempt to say "call yourself Captain, because it doesn't matter".  If people think they are captains, or even armchair admirals, it's going to have some sort of persuasive effect on RYA course-taking, even though that is *never stated* in the literature; it's sold as "the opportunity to improve one's seamanship skills" (which it is, of course), or the opportunity to evaluate one's existing skills (which it also is, as in the case of professional mariners who can "challenge" the higher YM exams and basically get passed into them for the purposes of post-career mucking about in boats.  

Another fictional old salt, only this one is just "Skipper". Note the cardboard signage on "S.S Minnow". Good grief.


So while I'm happy with "Skipper", I'll leave "Captain" to the pros. The simple fact is that there are different expectations that are bundled up with "Captain", and if you screw up, as one does, it seems worse surrounded by braid than when one is just "Skipper". And as for the hat, I'll bow to my pasty Celtic ancestry and just go with something that keeps the melanoma at bay.
Also good for garden work, I would imagine. Gold braid and anchor badge optional.
 

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