We Are Not “Captains”

A captain looking through binoculars on the deck of a ship.

This post is going to get me in all kinds of hot water, but I just can’t stand it any more. I tried to ignore it, I really did, but it’s no good, I have to say something.

What’s making me crazy is the current fashion for recreational mariners, particularly on VHF radio, to call each other “Captain”. This seems to be confined to the US, although it is spreading to Canada too. As far as I know that’s as far as it has got…I fervently hope so.

You can call yourself “Captain” if you are:

  • A serving officer in the Army, Airforce, or Marines with a rank one below Major.
  • A serving, or retired, officer in the Navy with a rank one below Admiral.
  • You have an unlimited tonnage all oceans master mariner’s licence and command a commercial vessel at sea, which almost always requires four years at a recognized maritime university and several years serving at sea working your way up the ladder through various mate positions to command. You would also be entitled to use the title in retirement.
  • You sit in the left pilot seat in a large transport aircraft.

To quote Bugs Bunny, “that’s all folks”. (Actually I don’t know for sure that there are no other positions that are properly titled “Captain”, so if you know of one I missed, please leave a comment.)

You are not a Captain because you have a US Coast Guard 100 ton licence or a RYA yacht master. Heck, I have a good friend who has a Coast Guard 500 ton licence and has served as an officer on tall ships for over a decade. She does not call herself “Captain”.

If you command a yacht, you can call yourself “Skipper” or, if signing something official, “Master”. But you are not a Captain.

Not only do we look ridiculous, particularly to commercial mariners, when we call ourselves “Captain”, it is also extremely disrespectful to those that have put in years of study and sea experience to earn that title legitimately.

You wouldn’t call yourself “Doctor” after doing a three day first aid course would you? Or “Reverend” just because you go to church regularly? Or “Professor” at the end of your first year of university? Or “Engineer” because you did two years of shop at high school? Ok, I’ll stop, you get the idea.

Now I know that none of us yachties that do this mean anything bad by it. In fact, I think it has become a kind of verbal tic. But, none the less, let’s stop. Please pass the word.

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Sandy Garrity

Well said.

Nicolas

Hi John,
Sorry to disagree:
This is from Oxford English dictionary; meaning AND etymology
captain
n noun
1 the person in command of a ship. Øthe pilot in command of a civil aircraft. Øa rank of naval officer above commander and below commodore.
2 a rank of officer in the army and in the US and Canadian air forces, above lieutenant and below major. Ø(in the US) a police officer in charge of a precinct.
3 the leader of a team, especially in sports. Øa powerful or influential person in a particular field: a captain of industry.
n verb serve as the captain of.

DERIVATIVES
captaincy noun

ORIGIN
Middle English: from Old French capitain (superseding earlier chevetaigne ‘chieftain’), from late Latin capitaneus ‘chief’, from Latin caput, capit- ‘head’.

So as far as English language is concerned, regardless of one’s qualifications just being the chief of his/her own boat/ship or the boat/ship of someone’s else’s boat this does make him/her a captain. Even the children on racing dinghies are captains of their own boat. After all they are the ones in command. It seems rank is only one of the many meaning of the word captain.

scott

John,
I, too, disagree with you. You have presented your case with no evidence to back up your opinion. Certainly you are entitled to your (wrong) opinion, but Mr. Nicholas has so far presented more evidence against your ridiculous argument.
If you really must ‘go there’ , please make your case.

John

This past May I moved our 28 ft sailboat to another marina which involved going through a lock.

The Lockmaster addressed me as “Captain” on the VHF radio.

Nicolas

Hi John
I agree about the use of the word ship meaning a fairly large vessel. But as you said that does not rule out the alternative meaning of captain as a leader of a team. And this is what captains do when skippering a boat.

Easil McGarrity

Agreed. It took me many years of university and medical residency to achieve the puffed-up, arrogant, know-it-all attitude required of a doctor and I don’t cotton to that Dr. Dre fellow cheapening the title just to sell his new-fangled rap music and his overpriced headphones. In fact, I am beginning to wonder if he even went to medical school.

No, the honorific of ‘captain’ must be reserved for those whom we, in our infinite wisdom, have determined to be free of human foibles and therefore able to protect us infallibly against all perils. Without the magic moniker, there would be no way for us to abdicate responsibility for our own safety, and that is simply far too frightening.

We must preserve the incantation for people like Joseph Hazelwood and Francesco Schettino and Zaharie Shah so as to maintain confidence in our perfect system. Otherwise we’ll start to think that we might be just animals.

Doug

Is it OK if my grandkids and wife call me Cap?
To me it’s equivalent to “what’s up Doc?”

ChrisW

John,
You left out my Air Force… and the Marines… and the Coast Guards — bad juju, on those last two!

If calling someone “captain” improves their behavior, I’m all for it. If Captains feel denigrated by it, they may be a bit puffed up and need some air let out. Our societies are parting company with politeness in so many dimensions, a misplaced honorific that slows that process is fine with me.

There is no cure for hubris quite like running aground regardless of what folks call the culprit.

Emilios P.

Hi all,
Adding to ChrisW ‘s “misplaced honorific” I would like to remind us that the address “captain” in some form or other is used in most european languages with slightly different “real” values and very often as a courtesy by just about anybody (messing about with boats or in harbours etc) when addressing one older/wiser/etc.
So it may be very useful when outside one’s own country to use it in that way : just a courtesy.
I doubt a real captain would be annoyed because of such use.
Politeness is more important than precision in an informal international environment…
However if I ever saw an admiral of the fleet, in full regalia, aboard his dinghy, I would certainly be very careful… :-))

Emilios P.

P.S. 1 However, anybody calling themselves Captain when they are not as per the definition of the word, is definitely asking for it (having their leg pulled etc)
P.S. 2 I would certainly call you captain if ever aboard Morgans Cloud (or anybody else aboard their boat/ship) and certainly captain of this sailing internet site.

Simon Wirth

Hei Emilios
If you ever see your Admiral, please take a picture for me!
Would be the personification of a “do it yourself” man.
Regards
Simon

Cathy Norrie

Dear John,
OK… I admit my hubby and I are guilty as charged. Oops! Good point. We will now call ourselves co-skippers. Lesson learned. Wilco.

Fair winds
Cathy Norrie (and hubby and co-skipper Bill)
SV Terrwyn

Scott Kuhner

You mean now I have to call Kitty, “Skipper”?

David

In the south, our children call adult friends by their first names, with the word “Mr.” or “Mrs.” in front for respect. On the North Carolina coast, we call drivers of boats, of any size, “Captain” out of respect. It may be regional, it may be colloquial, but it is what we do… We call the bridge tender “captain”, also….
Welcome to the South…

Charles L Starke

Nope, just “Admiral!”

M. Mastrapasqua

Well said – Well done

Mark Boden

Often this is a problem of semantics and vernacular. When is a boat a ship? Sadly it is a self proclaimed world today. Last week I couldn’t spell “captain”…..now I be a “captain”. I have numerous licenses from various countries that certify that I am a captain….even though as you rightly point out, I am not. However, when I have paying passengers aboard, I have ex officio powers that make me captain.

Mark Trainor

In the fire service a Captain is the supervisor of a crew, or the boss on their truck (engine or ladder), which typically consists of a four person crew. In sports, a team leader is typically called a Captain as well. When aboard a vessel, a “Captain” is the designated leader. This is the accepted practice in the USA. I don’t think any one means any disrespect to any senior Naval Officers when they use it to call a yacht skipper. It is simply what we call a yacht skipper in this country and that is out of respect for their limited authority.

Conrad

You may call yourself Captain, but “Are you a Captain amongst Captains”?

Simon Wirth

Isn’t it also true that the Navy Captain equals a Colonal in the Army, and the Army Captain the Lieutnant in the Navy? So when all is said and done, it is a titel, and only the context gives it real meaning other than respect.
But I wouldn’t feel well about beeing called Captain anyway.

joec

While I agree with John in principle, I much prefer captain (lower case c) over ‘skipper’ or ‘skip’ which is often uttered with a hint of derision by bridge keepers, dock masters, fuel point service staff etc. I tend to use Sir when addressing others which connotes a proper degree of respect while avoiding the added baggage of formal titles.

bruno

hi john,
i understand your point of view, as a so called true Captain as described, and proud of it all, education and experience, i must say that my friends-collegues and i usually remain humble on what remains in fact a “function description” with more or less background and responsabilities …

when we indeed hear a traffic control or coastguard station proudly call a yacht or “small” vessel as a Captain, we just smile, but on the end i personally appreciate the effect of this “glorification” on the ego of the yacht or boat skipper … fortunatly suddenly trying his best to behave and appear as a professional in a very serious way …
actually just funny and constructive !

John Stafford

“A Charter Boat Captain commands a small vessel as a master, captain, or skipper and may have a sailing endorsement for sailing vessels and/or a commercial towing endorsement for vessels engaged in assistance towing.”
So says the US Coast Guard with regard to their credentialing program. They also refer to ‘operators’ and ‘mariners’ and credentials and licenses.
The educational industry that trains mariners to take USCG exams uses “captain’s license” pretty consistently. If the USCG says I’m a captain, I think that makes me one, on my own 11 ton vessel anyway. I prefer ‘skipper’ however and generally use that instead.

Sixbears

Sorry, you aren’t going to put that one back in the bottle. Go down the ICW and Bridgemaster after Bridgmaster will address you as Captain. What’s a Skipper to think?

Bill Attwood

Hi John. On reading your post, I was nodding and smiling. At last someone prepared to prick the pomposity of misusing the title. HOWEVER, on reading the comments I was forced to revise my opinion – always a painful process. I now understand that the title of “captain” is common usage in N. America. When necessary I refer to myself as Skipper, and for official documents have a stamp as master. Master sounds better than captain anyway! Master under God – trump that!
Yours aye,
Bill

Niels

I totally agree. There is something sadly comical about people who give themselves titles and worse yet, feel the need to bestow a title upon themselves. Pompousness knows no limits when it comes to small boats and their drivers. If someone gives me a business card where their name is prefixed by the title Captain, it always ends up in the nearest trash can. I cannot imagine a Navy Captain ever handing me his visiting card, so it’s a safe bet the cards I’ve binned we’re deserving of their fate.

Ramon Jesus

I agree.
With everyone.
My nickname is Jefe. My under 5 foot grandmother gave me that nickname when I was 11 months old. One translation is Chief. At almost 61 I’ve been called Jefe many times even when the person does not know that my family calls me that. Today it fits a little better. But although I can sail a craft close to shore, I would never describe myself as “Captain”, but you do have two World Travelers who communicate on this site who once were our neighbors. I have no problem calling them both, Captain Dock and Ginger . They deserve that credit considering their enormous gifts as a sailing couple.
For most of my youth I did not realize how special the name was that my Nana bestowed on me. Looking back it may have been strange to the other adults when my family addressed me the little guy as Chief. When I think back maybe that’s why one of my Uncles used to call me “Basuda”, the Spanish word for trash. It was sick and hurtful. Took me years to get over it. Now when someone calls me Jefe, I think of my loving Nana.

Richard Dykiel

Whatever You say John
But tell that to the marina people, bridge operators, and even the US Coast Guard, who in my experience in New England, all call you Cap. I was surprised at first and would never call me so but it seems common practice here. Much ado about not much here IMO…

Richard Dykiel

You got me here 🙂

Rob

I agree with you, but the US Coast Guard and mexican authorities of all stripes were unswerving in referring to me as captain in my recent trip canada to mexico.

In a related question, is it appropriate to refer to the wife/significant other as ‘Admiral’? 😉

Nicolas

So are the legal consequences following an error of judgement or break in regulations from a skipper that lead to loss of life or property any different if someone is a ‘skipper’ or a captain ?

If yes then by all means all men chiefs of their own or other yacht and not ship should be called skippers.

RDE

Hi John,
Looks like you really stepped in it this time! LOL

Language is not a static library of meanings handed down by Noah, but a dynamic and fluid part of the social system. Words are simply an agreement that when we hear a certain sound we assign a certain meaning to it. So when bridge tenders, fellow drinkers at the bar, and the guys who issue “captains licensees” call the guy driving the 30′ Bayliner “captain”, by golly he is!

As a retired techie, you might be interested to know that a new smart phone app that does nothing but answer with the quasi-word “Yo” has raised a million dollars of investment capital. Looks like there is a great business opportunity for a similar one for boaters that answers “This is your Captain speaking—–“

Wendy

Fun article to read, as well as all of the comments. I figured I would throw this in the fire also. I read a few years back of the derision intended behind the term “skipper” vs “captain.” According to the commentary, and I wish I could provide it, Skipper is intended for those who “skipped” any formal training and/or education when it came to being on the water in any form of craft.
I remembered when my dad got his first boat, and my mom got him the ‘captain’s’ hat complete with scrambled eggs. To me, it seemed way too pretentious and though well-intended, it was never used. I have the utmost respect for those in service, whether military, maritime or public, and believe they are deserving of their titles. I do have a master’s license and have used it as a qualification for hire, both in public safety and commercially. Personally, I don’t care what they call me, as long as it’s not bad names. I believe your title should be earned with experience and professionalism, with your work performed the same way. On my own boat, I just try to operate in the same way, keeping in mind the differing levels of expertise out there.

Brett Anderson

John,

Having come from an aviation background and being relatively new to sailing (unlike many, I did not start sailing as a kid, I had never even been on a sailboat until my early 30s, about 15 years ago) I was perplexed by the habit of calling everyone who owned a boat “captain”. I am a real “Captain” of a 737s for a large airline and it took me many years and lots of schooling, testing, and experience to attain that position. In aviation you don’t see light plane pilots going around calling themselves “Captain” when they fly a Cessna or other light, non-transport category aircraft. Hell, I don’t even call myself “Captain”, even though I earned it, unless I am dealing with some person in an official capacity. It always seemed kind of pompous to me. As a sailor and boat owner, I’ve alway been perplexed and embarrassed when someone at the dock calls me “captain” because I felt like, unlike in my career, I have not earned it.

I think your assessment is spot-on. You gotta earn the right to the title.

Ken Bloomfield

I see the point about earning the respect associated with the term Captain. However, I guess I would wonder out loud a couple of issues, being (a) When I got my Captains License [6-pack] why was it called a “Captains” license if I am not a Captain. Second of all, rest assured that in any court of law that in the case of an accident, especially involving injury or death, and also especially since I have the license, that I would certainly be termed the Captain of the vessel and held responsible.

Bryant

The guy who sells me my paper at the robot(that’s what we South Africans call traffic lights) calls me Captain -I let him keep the change. I think he calls everyone Captain and I’m certainly not going to correct him or stop calling him Captain . Our little ritual is just going to have to offend Cap’n John.

Fred Wittenberg

Hi John,
First of, I totally agree with you on your post. We are not deserving of being called captain if we don’t have the required education and hands on sea training it takes to be a bona fide captain. I cringe every time I am addressed as cap’n. I must lack that particular ego which is stroked by that, and feel like sailing under a false flag. It also downright irks me to hear it so loosely used on others. It is non deserving. Nor is this a subject to have fun with. To me it is another example of our deteriorating times where cultural and social borders are being blurred.
By reading all the comments I am truly surprised that the majority feels ok with using this captain’s title so loosely. They actually bring reasonable proofs to the table as to why they feel that way.
RDE says: “Language is not a static library of meanings handed down by Noah, but a dynamic and fluid part of the social system”.
In view of all this I must be a dinosaur in need to loosen up a bit and change his stance.
Not easy at this age as I am a bit older than 61 John, but I shall try.

ChrisW

As to the origin and usage of “Skipper.” My Grandfather, born in 1896, sailed on the USS Jefferson (of Roosevelt’s Great White Fleet). He was a Yeoman 1st. He explained that Skipper is a form of familiar address (NOT Rank) and could only be used by those specifically GRANTED its use by the Captain and almost exclusively among the officers aboard. While lower ranks might refer to the “Skipper,” they were wise to do so out of earshot of the Bridge and the Chiefs. This conversation came about when he expressed disgust at how the actors portraying Naval personnel in WWII movies were murdering polite Naval speech.

Chris

Well done Captain! You prefaced this post predicting that it would get you into lots of hot water and 42 responses later…….

Laurent

I understand that, in France, very often you shouldn’t call a ship commanding officer “capitaine” when aboard that ship. The word “commandant” will often be much more appropriate. “Commandant” refers to a function (commanding officer of the ship you are aboard…) while “capitaine” refers to a rank.
I understand that in some ship you might have several officers with the rank of “capitaine”, while there must be only one with the function of “commandant”. So perhaps addressing the second in command as “capitaine” is OK (provided he has the rank, which is the case in many military ships for instance..), but, in that case, addressing the commanding officer as “capitaine” instead of “commandant” might be considered inappropriate.
I guess that nowadays in France “capitaine” is a rank that corresponds to qualified merchant marine commanding officers, 3 different french navy ranks, and one french army, or french firefighters, rank. French army “capitaines” are just one rank above “lieutenants”, which means that, at least today, there is not much fuss about the title. I understand that it has still some value among french merchant marine officers, but I guess that everywhere else, including in yachts circles, it doesn’t attract much interest or attention…
Personally, I think that words that refer to functions are often OK, because in some cases, they are probably quite useful to avoid misunderstandings, but I am a bit wary of words that refer to ranks. I understand that overusing them is often a source of unnecessary frustrations and subsequent willingness to cheat.
It is true that you generally don’t address the commanding officer of a 20 meter tugboat as “commandant”, but more likely as “capitaine”, which is a bit strange because he has generally not the rank of “capitaine” as defined in the merchant navy (“certified commanding officer of unlimited tonnage cargo ships…”) . So, I don’t think that calling a french yacht’s skipper “capitaine” should be considered as grossly inappropriate, but I’m afraid that most of them might not be very enthusiastic about that, appropriate or not…..

bruce

you could add – if you are a member of a pop duo called Captain & Teniel. I doubt I spelled that right. Thank you for the info, but it was nice having the wife and kids call me Captain, while it lasted. though it didn’t seem to affect their behavior much.

Gretchen

I don’t find the use of captain offensive but I DESPISE the use of “admiral” for the female half of a cruising couple!!

vincent bossley

This barrage of comments highlights just how shallow we all are, getting all riled up about an honorific used correctly or otherwise. After all, ‘what’s in a name’?
This AAC very excellent site is about serious technical matters relating to sailing upon which we can and do leave our various ( normally studied ) comments, sometimes few, sometimes many.
The outpourings on this subject remind me of Parkinsons Law whereby a board of a large corporation can for example pass a motion to purchase a nuclear power plant for billions of dollars with hardly a word of discussion, but when it comes to what brand of paper clips to buy, everyone has an opinion and the wrangling can go on interminably.
For what it is worth, in my experience the use of the word Captain for yachties stems from the European continent where it is used as a matter of course.
Coming from New Zealand as I do, we used the term ‘skipper’ or ‘skip’ (note the no use of the capital ‘S’) and it wasn’t until I began sailing in Europe that I came across the term Captain, which was used as a reference rather than an honorific and seemed quite normal for them.
In this age of the search for celebrity status, no doubt many of the new brand of recreational sailors will feel a glow of satisfaction every time they are addressed in this fashion.

TomT

Walt Whitman’s poem, O Captain! My Captain!, is an elegy to Abraham Lincoln. That raises the bar a bit.

Thomas Jackson

Would a captain be seen in a salon?

Virgulino

I agree.

Best regards,
Sir Virgulino, First Lord of the Admiralty.