Denise, and others:
I shall stay away from the lifestyle-type issues (regarding which all the best), but since many seem interested, here's the text of the Coast Guard reg. which allows passengers to contibute voluntarily to voyage expenses without becoming "passengers for hire":
the key language, which tells you what is NOT "compensation", is:
"...not including a voluntary sharing of the actual expenses of the voyage, by monetary contribution or donation of fuel, food, beverage, or other supplies." Additionally, employees or business clients that have not contributed for their carriage, and are carried for morale or entertainment purposes, are not considered as an exchange of consideration."
and, here's a simple explanation of what it takes to apply for, and obtain, a 6-passenger license as Operator of Uninspected Passenger Vessels:
I hope these take some of the mystery and wonder out of the process.
Years ago I bought a prep book for around 40 bucks, filled in my own application, got a physical, and went to a Coast Guard office and took the exam (mine was 100-ton master, so I would think the 6 pack would be simpler). Nowadays the equivalent is an online course, like this:
Mariner Advancement Ab License
for 80 bucks. the only barrier to doing this might be the scarcity of Coast Guard offices who give the test. I, living in New Orleans, am lucky in that regard. Are you lucky? This list of exam centers will tell you:
NMC Regional Examination Centers Page
If you're not "lucky", then the schools are well worth the money, since you can take the test without travelling. If however you are in a "Regional Exam Center city", then I don't see why you'd spend the bucks--if you can navigate an auxiliary sailboat, you can navigate the Coast Guard bureaucracy, which has become more user-friendly, especially for on-line applicants, and you can schedule and take your exam in person. The Only truly burdensome thing is the lengthy medical exam form (they got burned publically by the Staten Island ferry and Bay Bridge accidents where overmedicated mariners made their medical screening for licenses look frail, so they have *really* tightened up on this) you and your doc will have to navigate, but the online instructions are clear and comprehensive. Just figure on two doc appointments--one for the physical itself, and one to have Doc fill out and sign the form. But I think you'll have to do that yourself anyway, even if you go to a school.
I have run on here. But don't be scared of the process for getting licensed--if you have the sea time, and can pass the physical, then you can do it.