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Captain is the name most often given in English-speaking navies to the rank corresponding to command of the largest ships. The NATO rank code is OF-5, equivalent to an army full colonel.

The equivalent rank in many navies is Ship-of-the-Line Captain. Other equivalent ranks in other navies notably include Captain of Sea and War or Captain at Sea.


The command of a ship is most often given to the naval rank equivalent to a commissioned officer between commander (OF-4) and commodore or rear admiral (OF-6). The Polish Navy is, however, a notable exception naval captain in position of Lieutenant or Captain Lieutenant and OF-5 rank being a "commander" (komandor). The naval rank should not be confused with the army, air force or marine rank of captain, which has a NATO code of OF-3.


Any naval officer who commands a ship (titled Commanding Officer, or CO) is addressed as "captain" while aboard in command, by naval custom. Officers with the rank of captain travelling aboard a vessel they do not command should be addressed by their rank and name (e.g., "Captain Smith"), but they should not be referred to as "the captain" to avoid confusion with the vessel's captain.[1]

On large ships (e.g., carriers), the XO (Executive Officer) may be a captain in rank, in which case it would be proper to address the XO by rank. Often the XO prefers to be called XO to avoid confusion with the CO (Commanding Officer), who is also a captain in rank and the captain of the ship.[2] In some navies, captains by rank are addressed as Commodore to avoid confusion with the ship's commander.

Throughout the Middle Ages the navy was an ad-hoc group of ships contracted for the duration of a given conflict and disbanded thereafter. The ship's master, who would command the ship during peacetime, would also remain in control of all things nautical during wartime. The captain was merely the commander of the embarked infantry contingent upon the ship who, with the help of his lieutenants, would act as the agent of the king—and hence de facto commander—while the ship was contracted with the Navy. During Tudor times, the title of captain began to refer to the commander of a ship of the Royal Navy, once that organization became established and maintained a standing fleet.


Captains with sea commands generally command ships of cruiser size or larger, the more senior the officer, the larger the ship, but ship commanders do not normally hold a higher rank than captain. In the Royal Navy, a captain might command a destroyer flotilla with the appointment (not rank) of Captain (D) (or Captain (Destroyers)), while Naval Aviator and Naval Flight Officer Captains in the U.S. Navy command aircraft carriers, large-deck amphibious assault ships, carrier air wings, maritime patrol air wings and functional and specialized air wings and air groups. The more senior the officer, the larger the ship, but ship commanders do not normally hold a higher rank than captain.

Rear Admirals will normally embark on large capital ships such as aircraft carriers, which will function as the flagship for their strike group or battle group, but a captain will retain command of the actual ship. Even when a senior officer who is in the ship's captain's chain of command is present, all orders are given through the captain as a courtesy. Many captains hold shore commands and staff positions afloat and ashore.

Captains in national navies[]

The following articles deal with the rank of captain as it is used in various navies.

See also[]


  1. William P. Mack, Harry A. Seymour, Lesa A. McComas (1998). The naval officer's guide. U.S. Navy: Naval Institute Press. p. 91. ISBN 9781557506450. 
  2. J. D. Fontana, R. M. Hillyer (1990). General Guide to NOSC Civilians Boarding Navy Ships. San Diego: Naval Oceans System Center. p. 9. 
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