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Ship's Master

Poutikanga Whakahaere Kaipuke

Alternative titles for this job

Ship's masters are in charge of a ship, its crew and any passengers or cargo it is carrying – on the water and in port. On tugs or pilot boats, ship's masters may guide or assist ships in and out of harbours or through difficult waterways.


Ship's masters on small vessels usually earn

$47K-$70K per year

Ship's masters on large, foreign-going vessels usually earn

$125K-$250K per year

Source: Maritime New Zealand, 2017.

Job opportunities

Chances of getting a job as a ship’s master are good due to a shortage of workers.


Pay for ship's masters varies depending on their skills and experience, and the type of vessel they work on.

  • Ship's masters on small vessels, such as launches, usually earn between minimum wage and $70,000 a year, and often work part time or seasonally.
  • Tug masters usually earn between $60,000 and $90,000.
  • Harbour pilots can earn between $100,000 and $130,000.
  • Ship's masters qualified for large, foreign-going vessels, such as cruise ships, usually earn between $125,000 and $250,000.

 Source: Maritime New Zealand, 2017.

(This information is a guide only. Find out more about the sources of our pay information)

What you will do

Ship's masters may do some or all of the following:

  • look after passengers, cargo and the vessel's safety
  • plan and execute the vessel's route
  • ensure all maritime laws, rules and regulations are followed and records are kept correctly
  • ensure maintenance and repairs are carried out
  • oversee any emergency operations
  • supervise cargo handling.

Tug masters and pilots may also:

  • guide and assist ships in and out of harbours and other difficult waterways
  • assist with hazard identification, firefighting, pollution control and rescues.

Skills and knowledge

Ship's masters need to have:

  • knowledge of how to run and handle a vessel
  • understanding of their vessel and its equipment, including radio and electronics equipment
  • navigational skills
  • understanding of tides, waters, coastlines, marine hazards and the weather, and how these vary depending on where the vessel is
  • knowledge of maritime laws and health and safety regulations
  • the skills to apply safety procedures such as firefighting, rescues, and collision prevention.

Working conditions

Ship's masters:

  • usually work shifts and are on call 24 hours a day while at sea. When working for international shipping companies, ship's masters often work three months at sea followed by three months' leave, though this depends on the company and ship
  • work in all weather conditions, including dangerous or unpleasant situations – for example, in rough seas
  • visit a wide range of ports around the world.

What's the job really like?

Richard Hill

Richard Hill

Ship's Master

What's a typical day like for you on the Kaitaki Interislander ferry?

"As a master I work one week living on board and I do 12-hour shifts. There is a day master and a night master. At the moment I'm the day master so I start my shift in Picton. First thing I’ll do is speak with the night master and he’ll tell me of any problems going on, and any issues he has had sailing. One of my main jobs to start with is getting the ship ready for sea. The crew load the ship and when I hear the all-go from the officers and bosun we set sail to Wellington. Once we've crossed Cook Strait and reach port, I park the ship. Then it's very similar on the way back."

What are some challenges of the job?

"Dealing with the elements – you never know what the wind and sea are going to be like on the day. Another challenge is having responsibility for the ship at sea, the people on board, the cargo, and the environment. It can be a lot of pressure."

What makes a good ship's master?

"You need to be a team player who can get along with a lot of people – someone who can handle the responsibility, is organised, and has a natural aptitude for ship handling."

What's the best part of the job?

"Working with a variety of people.

"Also, the view – nothing is the same so it’s very varied. Coming into Picton today we had dolphins on the bow. That’s something you wouldn't see in an office."

Entry requirements

To become a ship's master and gain a certificate of competency you need to have relevant Maritime New Zealand approved experience and qualifications.

In general, you must:

  • have experience in a ship's officer position on a vessel that is above a defined size or weight
  • have approved qualifications in first aid, radar, firefighting and survival
  • pass seafarer medical tests
  • pass eyesight and colour vision tests
  • be able to prove you are a 'fit and proper person'
  • pass Maritime New Zealand qualifications relevant to the size and weight of the vessel.

Secondary education

There are no specific secondary education requirements to become a ship's master. However, English, maths, physics, chemistry and biology to at least NCEA level 2 are useful.

Personal requirements

Ship's masters need to be:

  • mature and responsible
  • organised and disciplined
  • adaptable
  • able to make good judgements
  • able to work well in a team.

To be a good master you need to be adaptable as you're dealing with the elements.

Photo: Richard Hill

Richard Hill

Ship's Master

Useful experience

Useful experience for ship's masters includes:

  • service in the Navy
  • work as a deckhand or other seafarer roles.

Physical requirements

Ship's masters need to:

  • be reasonably fit and healthy
  • have a good level of stamina
  • have good eyesight (with or without corrective lenses)
  • have normal colour vision.

Find out more about training

Maritime New Zealand
(04) 473 0111 - -
Check out related courses

What are the chances of getting a job?

Shortage of qualified and experienced ship’s masters

Demand for ship’s masters with the relevant certificates and experience to command vessels is growing due to:

  • an ageing workforce, which means more vacancies are arising as ship’s masters retire
  • the increasing volume of exports by sea, which means more ship's masters are needed to work on ships sailing from New Zealand.

According to the Census, 744 ship's masters worked in New Zealand in 2018.

Opportunities vary depending on type of ship's master qualification you have

Opportunities are best for ship’s masters who are qualified to work on large ships, tugboats and piloting ships, as these roles require experienced ship's masters with an advanced level of navigation skills.

Ship’s masters (skippers) with Skipper Restricted Limits for 500GT endorsement, or higher qualification, appears on Immigration New Zealand's  transport sector agreement. This means the Government is actively encouraging skilled ship's masters from overseas to work in New Zealand.

Demand for ship's masters qualified to work on smaller boats is lower. People in roles such as launchmaster and inshore launch operator may find it more difficult to find a job.

Types of employers varied

Ship's masters can work for:

  • international shipping companies
  • New Zealand based shipping companies
  • authorities (as tug masters or harbour pilots, though some are employed by New Zealand shipping companies)
  • ferry and charter companies.

Some ship's masters are self-employed.


  • Crawford, K, international shipping manager, Maritime New Zealand, Careers Directorate – Tertiary Education Commission interview, November 2017.
  • Immigration New Zealand, Transport Sector Agreement Finalised and Green List Changes Confirmed, 26 April 2023, (
  • Sinha, S, senior technical advisor, Maritime New Zealand, Careers Directorate – Tertiary Education Commission interview, November 2017.
  • Stats NZ, '2018 Census Data', 2019.
  • Taylor-Smith, G, senior technical advisor, Maritime New Zealand, Careers Directorate – Tertiary Education Commission interview, November 2017.

(This information is a guide only. Find out more about the sources of our job opportunities information)

Progression and specialisations

Ship's masters can progress to more land-based roles such as maritime tutor or lecturer.

They may also move into administrative or management roles in the maritime industry such as:

  • ship cargo surveyor
  • harbour master
  • marine manager
  • chief executive of a port company.

Ship's masters may specialise in operating a particular size or type of vessel such as:

  • tug boat
  • petrol tanker
  • container ship
  • fishing boat
  • cruise ship
  • superyacht
  • water taxi
  • passenger ferry
  • tourism vessel. 
Richard Hill on a two-way radio in the bridge of a vessel

Richard Hill operating the Kaitaki Interislander ferry

Last updated 20 November 2023