How to Become a Sailor | Complete Guide

How to Become a Sailor
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How to Become a Sailor? You might wonder what it is like to see one under sail as you stroll along the waterfront at a Tall Ships event one summer day. You might inquire about boarding one for a short sail, and you might even act on that idea. But it may not have occurred to you to consider becoming one of those men and women who stand tall on the quarterdeck and command one. The truth is that you could have an extraordinary career in the sailing industry. It is not as difficult as you might think, regardless of your age or background.


If you are college-eligible, there is a straightforward path that will take you from the viewing stand to the quarterdeck of a tall ship in as little as two years. You will also earn an Associate of Science degree. After two years, you can add a Bachelor of Science degree. No prior sailing or boating experience is required.

Are you over the age of 25? Do not dismiss the possibilities. Keep reading.

First, a few fundamentals: A sailing ship’s command structure is identical to that of any other commercial ship. There is a captain, one or more mates, one or more engineers, a number of able seamen (AB’s), and some more ordinary seamen (OS’s). Each of these jobs necessitates a US Coast Guard license or certificate.

You could sign aboard a sailing vessel with no prior experience and sail as an OS, gradually gaining experience and sea time that would allow you to “sit” for the exam for the next level up the chain of command. You would eventually get your license to be a ship’s captain or master. While technically possible, it has become so time consuming and expensive that it is no longer a viable option.

You would need to work as an OS for a few years, then as an AB for a few more years before studying and taking a multi-day exam as Mate. Navigation, seamanship, safety, rules of the road, regulations, and many other topics are covered. You would also need to obtain various certificates (both US and International) in Basic Safety Training (BST), Global Marine Distress Safety System (GMDSS), Bridge Resource Management (BRM), Ship’s Medical Officer, Automatic Radar Plotting Aids (ARPA), Firefighting, and others. Each of these necessitates its own course, which typically lasts a week and costs between $800 and $2000.


Given all of this, the old method of working your way up from OS to Master at sea (dubbed “coming up the hawsepipe”) has become exceedingly difficult, time consuming, and costly.

Enter Maine Maritime Academy. With a 50-year history of preparing seafarers for maritime careers (in the Merchant Marine) and two traditional schooners (the 88-foot Bowdoin and the 35-foot Puritan) to train on, developing a sail training curriculum was an obvious next step. Since the program’s inception in 2003, as many as 40% of incoming mate candidates have expressed interest in auxiliary sail licenses. Graduates from the last 35 years are already working as deckhands, mates, masters, and owners on a variety of sail training vessels. The American Sail Training Association (ASTA) directory lists over 150 vessels, all of which require trained, licensed mates. Most American (and many foreign) sail training vessels are now manned by one or more Maine Maritime graduates.

Maine Maritime Academy offers fully accredited 2-year (Associate of Science) and 4-year (Bachelor of Science) degrees, as well as 200 ton, 500 ton, 1600 ton, and unlimited licenses for power and sail vessels on near-coastal and ocean routes. With other programs in Marine Engineering, International Business and Logistics, Marine Science, and Marine Biology, as well as a Master’s Degree program, there are plenty of other relevant courses and degree options to choose from to round out a richly rewarding college experience.


The Sail Training Curriculum includes courses in Sailing, Ocean Survival, Firefighting, Small Craft Construction, Rigging, and Navigation; Basic, Intermediate, Advanced, and Professional Sailing; Ocean Science, Ship Handling, Stability, Meteorology, and Ship’s Medicine. There are two training cruises underway aboard the schooner Bowdoin, as well as three industry coops, during which you may sail aboard one of the other ASTA vessels in gaff or square rig. Coops and jobs are readily available due to the high demand for sailing vessel crews and MMA’s contacts in the field.

MMA’s sailing faculty includes several well-known sailors in the sail training world. The course work is hands-on, intense, and enjoyable. Consider going to college and having your homework involve sailing on one of over 50 sailing vessels ranging in size from 10 to 88 feet. It is the new way to begin your sailing career, and it is within your grasp.

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