Let us take a reasonably skilled (i.e. someone who knew their way around the boat as well as how to navigate) ship's captain from around the beginning of the Age of Sail (late 1400s to early 1500s), and teleport him into the modern world.

What skills would they need to learn in order to work on a modern-day merchant ship (let us assume we're dealing with a container ship or gearless bulk carrier here to avoid weird stability or cargo-handling troubles, or having to deal with passengers for that matter), and eventually become a captain once again?

We can handwave them picking up whatever lanugages they'd need to learn to work on the ship in question, as well as ethnic issues, as modern-day merchant crews are veritable tossed salads.

Don't worry about shoreside or cultural matters, either, as they're beyond the scope of this question.

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    $\begingroup$ Basically, he should understand that has no useful skills. After adapting to life in the modern world (computers, equality between sexes, rule of law), he should focus on reading, righting and rithmetic for a start. And English -- all mariners are required to speak English. Then he should go to highschool followed by a specialized higher academy; for example, in Romania, the Naval Academy "Mircea cel Batran". He will learn marine hydromechanics and engineering, navigation, hydrography, management, logistics, relevant regulations, he will practice living and working on a modern ship, and so on. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Jan 14, 2018 at 0:15
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    $\begingroup$ @AlexP, I chatted with Shalvenay. He's handwaving language and cultural issues. This Q is only focusing on how quickly the described person could grasp the working skills (operation of how, not understanding of why) of today. As an example, after overcoming the apparent magic of radio, it wouldn't be that hard to learn how to use one ("hold this down, now talk. When you want to listen, let it go. It's called a 'button'... yeah, like on your coat. Kinda looks like one, doesn't it?"). $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Jan 14, 2018 at 0:23
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    $\begingroup$ I assume he would be able to manage a modern sailing ship very soon. There may be differences in technical details and materials, but the important skills are the same. $\endgroup$
    – mviereck
    Jan 14, 2018 at 1:31
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    $\begingroup$ This depends on which sort of captain you picked up. The 1500s were when the Royal Navy introduced the position of sailing master, to compensate for the fact that many captains were members of the nobility with no actual sailing skills. $\endgroup$
    – Mark
    Jan 14, 2018 at 19:35
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    $\begingroup$ He may be better off captaining a historic sailing ship, once he adapts to modern culture his first hand knowledge would be very valuable to researchers. This could also be a stepping stone to a modern vessel as he can trade first hand knowledge for training. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Jan 14, 2018 at 21:05

6 Answers 6


My qualifications

I was a qualified Officer of the Deck in the US Navy. I have around 2000 hours watchstanding time and about 50 port and anchorage transits.

Navigation skills

A (competent) 1500s sea captain's navigational skills would be much higher than any modern day sailor's, just due to the lack of technology at the time. Modern navigation is, of course, done by computer. You will plot your navigational position by GPS and soundings (depth readings) by fathometer. Only in the last 5 to 10 years, these technologies have become advanced enough that you no longer need to rely on older methods.

That being said, while I'm certain the modern merchant fleets of Maersk and CMA CGM are using all-digital navigation, there are likely a lot of smaller local transports still using older methods. In particular, I know that the majority of non-oil tankers in West Africa are pretty backwards, and a surprising amount of the merchant traffic in the Mediterranean is smaller local merchants.

For ships without the newest technology, a lot of what the old sea captain knows would be very valuable. Taking fixes by compass upon entering port is unchanged from the 1500s. Where GPS is not available or broken, the sextant must be used to take fixes from the stars in open ocean. The sextant requires a lot of skill to use; the old mariner's skill with the astrolabe would translate directly with a little bit of training. I can attest that on a modern US Navy Warship in 2010, my captain launched a small boat to sound a harbor to verify depth before we tried to enter. A 1500s sea captain would have forgotten more about this technique than my entire ship's company ever knew. Finally, general knowledge of wind and waves and how the sea looks can be useful in a lot of small ways. I knew a lot more about currents just looking at the ocean's surface after 2000 hours than I did when I started. A 1500s sea captain would know far more still.

I imagine there are still a lot of local merchants that don't use electronic charts. In that case, while the old mariner would be amazed by modern chart's accuracy, using them is not fundamentally different from the portolans that he would have been familiar with.

In conclusion, for not state-of-the-art vessels, a 1500s ship captain would have a lot of usable skills that could be upgraded with minimal training. Remember, things have gotten easier in the last 500 years, not harder. This old mariner learned the hard way.

Not prone to sea sickness

It is somewhat amazing how many career US Navy sailors are still susceptible to seasickness after a decade or more in the Navy. Modern ships tend to be very large and stable, but then once in while you are in 20 foot seas and you just have to puke. But seasickness is something you get used to and get over. A 1500s sea captain would presumably be quite immune. Not a huge advantage, but useful.

Boatswain's knowledge

A modern US Navy Boatswain's Mate (pronounced Bosun's mate) has a knowledge base that is largely unchanged for the last 3000 years. How to tie knots in ropes, how to unwind the strands of a rope and remake it into an eye, how to tie things down so they don't fall overboard at sea; these skills remain.

Its actually an open question whether a 1500s sea captain would have these skills. For example, Horatio Nelson probably never knew of these things. He was an aristrocrat and learned navigation and the stars and how to maneuver a ship. There were career enlisted sailors (namely, the ship's bosun) that knew these things. Depending on what your 1500s captain did before he was a captain, he may know more or less about these things.


The skills and general acclimation with the sea would make the 1500s sea captain a very useful person to have around. He would need some training with modern equipment, with what GPS is, with modern techniques of marking transit of charts. He would also need to learn from scratch how to direct a ship under power, as opposed to under sail.

But given his skill set, it wouldn't be a stretch to hire such a person as a third mate on a 3rd world coast-hugging cargo tramp.

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    $\begingroup$ I like this answer for being well-reasoned, and reasonable; you're showing which skills will transfer, in which settings, and which won't and will need augmentation or retraining. But I do feel you're missing the white elephant in the room (on the deck?): communication. How will the rest of the crew communicate with this 1500s-era captain? Even if he knows the 1500s version of the local language, or 1500s English, it still seems like there will be a major language barrier to overcome before he'll be able to function efficiently as any member of a crew. $\endgroup$
    – user
    Jan 14, 2018 at 13:33
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    $\begingroup$ @MichaelKjörling -- he skipped it because that's outside the scope of the question -- the language barrier is a known known, if you will, and thus not interesting to what I'm trying to get at here. $\endgroup$
    – Shalvenay
    Jan 14, 2018 at 19:38
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    $\begingroup$ indeed, he'd be a very useful navigator or mate. He'd NOT be a very useful captain of a modern vessel, as he lacks the skills required to handle the modern technology involved (through no fault of his own except not keeping up his continuous education for the last 500 years). If he's smart enough he can probably acquire those skills, but that will take time. $\endgroup$
    – jwenting
    Jan 15, 2018 at 10:52
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    $\begingroup$ Ships captains of the 1500s, were among the most advanced-thinking, outward-looking, technology-related folks of the time. The question would be like asking "If we took from today, some astronauts or 'special forces' guys and put them in 2500 ...". A fool can learn to use a GPS in 2 minutes so that's nothing. The "concept and feeling" of using a map would be natural to our 1500s man. (Today: I often see folks using GPS - who are computer-expert - but in dreamland about really understand the map on the GPS!) The main difficulty I reckon would be quite simply learning a power boat! $\endgroup$
    – Fattie
    Jan 15, 2018 at 18:50
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    $\begingroup$ @kingledion Surely, but with the press an old sail ship was a bit like sailing a ship of prisonners... discipline had to be fierce. A modern crew is vastly more orderly. Still, I think we largely agree here that leadership skills are still critical for modern Captains, and minus some cultural acclimatisation these would be highly transferable skills. $\endgroup$
    – J...
    Jan 16, 2018 at 13:43

I'll capture a tangent issue. 1500's captain, assuming, he grew through the ranks, would have a much better understanding of wind and sail. After catching on 500 years of progress in the sail division (modern sails work as plane wings, and such), he'd probably be better off at yachting or something like America Cup than most of modern sailors, even those who do yachting.

A further issue would be basics of his time's shipbuilding (interesting for history professors and collectors) and his expertise in general seafaring of that time. Imagine, someone in Hollywood would like to make the most historically accurate pirate movie ever, the 1500's captain would be an ideal consultant.

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    $\begingroup$ I laughed a lot at Hollywood wanting to make an accurate pirate movie, but the captain being better off on a sailship is definitely true. $\endgroup$ Jan 15, 2018 at 1:16
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    $\begingroup$ Yep, that was intended to be ironic. But someone like greater old film directors might want to make a film about "real sail and guns", given the existing expertise. I would expect at least some media coverage of the time-travelling captain. $\endgroup$ Jan 15, 2018 at 10:00
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    $\begingroup$ Doesn't have to be hollywood! I'm sure lots of historians would love to learn everything he knows. $\endgroup$
    – Pyritie
    Jan 15, 2018 at 10:08
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    $\begingroup$ Indeed, Master and Commander was the most well researched sailing era movie ever made, so there is interest in such movies. $\endgroup$
    – vsz
    Jan 16, 2018 at 16:55

Modern fleets and nations require serious qualifications for all officers, including Captains.

Typically you're required to have academic qualifications of a specific nature at something equivalent to Bachelor's Degree level and have a lot of experience in the roles leading to Captain, as well as all the paper qualifications required for those roles. It would be the equivalent of several years work (that's voyage time, not employment time).

If you don't have these things no serious shipping operation would hire you and no government or insurance company would permit you on a ship in any capacity as a responsible officer. And don't underestimate the power of insurance companies in this - uninsured ships and cargo are not an viable option for anyone in business.

Wikipedia gives some guidance but it does vary somewhat. Some more info here.

Prior experience from the 1500's would probably be next to useless to gain these things. Your 1500's sea captain would probably have to start again from the most junior levels and qualify. It's possible if he had a natural talent for this it might help a little, but the formal systems in place mean the formal qualifications and working time requirements are basically not optional.

More to the point, your 16th century Captain would have enormous trouble adapting just to life in the 21st century. I suspect they'd be overwhelmed (just as we would if we had to live in the 16th century). Culture shock would kill them, as like as not.

  • $\begingroup$ I wouldn't be as overwhelmed in the 16th century as annoyed... no Netflix. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Jan 14, 2018 at 0:46
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    $\begingroup$ You seem to have missed the word "eventually" in my question -- they'd be working their way back up the ranks for sure. $\endgroup$
    – Shalvenay
    Jan 14, 2018 at 1:51
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    $\begingroup$ Keep in mind that "eventually" could be a long time for your 16th century captain. We take a high school education for granted - your captain would probably need even that and maybe primary too (and would in any case need it to learn the political and economic realities they would have to operate in). You could add on another decade for that and adapting to life here (Will you captain drive to the port from his home ? Even the Bicycle wasn't invented in the 16th century !). I really think he'd be nearing retiring age before he was fit to command in this century. $\endgroup$ Jan 14, 2018 at 2:08

He could become captain of several sail ships that are still in service. They are mostly recreational and/or training ships, but skills needed to sail them did not change in last few centuries almost at all.


What would he need to learn:

Power engineering. Wouldn't need to be a engineering watch capable, but the whole concept of engine and propulsion. It would be likely sufficient to help tear down and rebuild one of the raft of small engines on a ship. Would also need some introduction to how a propeller works. Possibly done with the aid of one of the small craft on board.

Electricity. He knows nothing about this coming from 1500, and would likely consider it magic, at least initially. Spending a few weeks as the gopher for the ships electrician would help.

Communications. The whole idea of radio would be more magic

Ships engine room telegraph.

Manoeuvring with screws.

The momentum of a large boat taking miles to come to a stop.

Necessity of both tugs and pilots in many ports.

The idea of dangerous goods -- various chemical hazards, holds that are deadly to enter.

Customs and borders.

Crew rights.

Mixed sex crews.

The non-necessity of sails, and the way that wind can push a large boat around.


Something everyone here seems to be forgetting:

Marine Law

Even if you were skilled enough to do so you can't just grab a ship and merrily head out for the open ocean...


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