The first question many people ask when considering obtaining a merchant marine captain's license is:  "What is required to obtain one?"
  • Physical Exam - must have good health & vision
  • Clean Record - any past criminal convictions make it much more difficult
  • Sea Experience - must have a substantial amount of actual documented sea experience on a boat you own or from a boat owned by a person who is willing to vouch and document your experience 
  • Exams - must pass some fairly challenging written exams
  • Clean Drug Test - they'll test you for the five most popular drugs
  • Background Check - required for the "TWIC" clearance from the Dept. of Homeland Security
  • Letters of Recommendation - three people in the marine field familiar with your experience and qualifications need to sit down and write letters to the Coast Guard for you
  • Captain's License Course or Self-Study - you've got to learn the material in the USCG prescribed reference documents below 
  • CPR & First Aid Certification - you need a recent certification course signoff on both of these
  • Citizenship Documentation - passport, social security card & birth certificate
And there is an assortment of fees and costs involved.  Here's an estimate for what to expect:

 Physical Exam & Paperwork    $120 
 USCG Evaluation Fee $100
 TWIC $130
 USCG Test Fee $110
 USCG Issuance Fee $45
 "Get Your Captain's License, 4th Ed" $40
 Red Cross Courses $100
 Fingerprinting $18
 DOT 5-panel Drug Screen $100
 Sailing Tools, Charts, Supplies $150
 Prep Course   $1,300
 TOTAL:  $2,213

For the physical exam there is a special set of USCG forms that the doctor must fill out in fairly complex detail.  Its best to use a doctor already familiar with the forms.  I recommend Dr. John K. Konstantin in Oakland (510-530-5400).   For the drug test, I recommend Dr. Nikki Pralon also in Oakland (510-444-4420).

Read, read, read, and read some more.  One of the fun challenges of the exams is that they pull questions from a surprisingly broad set of marine related books, manuals and publications.  Questions can and will come from the books at the USCG Recommended Reading to Prep for the exam.  They are known for asking quite a few esoteric questions to confirm that you have a significant breadth of knowledge on a variety of marine subjects.