Steamboat pilots have much better working conditions in the 21st century than steam boating's heyday from 1820 to 1860. Back then, the average lifespan of a steamboat was 18 months. The main problem was fire. The hulls were wooden and the boilers were coal-fired and sat on the floor of the hull. Actually, steamboats are virtually obsolete. They are only used for river cruises and as gambling casinos. Fortunately, most are diesel fueled and have metal hulls, making them much safer than their 19th century counterparts. Here's how to become a steamboat pilot.
The federal agency regulating steamboat pilots is the U.S. Coast Guard. The license needed for steamboats is called a Riverboat pilot's license. A 36 month apprenticeship aboard the same size and type of riverboat is required. The applicant must make 12 to 20 trips, with at least 1 trip in the 6 months preceding the application date. 18 months of the apprenticeship must be served on the deck department as a quartermaster, wheelman or apprentice pilot. 12 months must be served on the same type of riverboat and in the same waterways the applicant wants to pilot. So, the first and most important step in getting a riverboat pilot license is the decision of what type and size vessel the license should cover, as well as where the applicant wants to work. Without these specific goals established beforehand, the applicant may waste part of his/her apprenticeship on the wrong vessels or routes. This could extend the length of the apprenticeship by several more months. Another reason to know where an applicant wants to be a pilot is different states and regions have their own licensing requirements. For example, Louisiana has 3 different licenses depending on what part of the Mississippi River is being navigated. A good source of information on these regulations is "Minding the Helm: Marine Navigation and Piloting" (1994).
Of course, it would not be a government issued license without a written test. The test covers piloting (of course), compass usage, weather, seamanship, celestial navigation, communications, shipboard training and management. The candidate must also make a chart sketch of a route with depth indications, placement of navigation aids, landmarks, river or channel bottom conditions, best routes to follow as well as distances for the overall route and between landmarks and cities.
After the license is issued the only requirement for renewal is a re-familiarization route every 5 years. The experience gained with each trip is a continuing education process in itself.