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You Bet I'm Going Back to Sea

Published Jan 21, 2011 2:51 PM by Joseph Keefe

As a general rule, I try not to stray very far from my core knowledge areas, especially where it comes to writing this editorial column on a weekly basis. It’s just not a good idea. And, if you are going to put opinions to paper (or onto the worldwide WEB, for that matter), you’d better have a reasonable shot at defending whatever it is you might want to advocate. As I begin a new set of tasks in conjunction with my work here at the magazine, I hold those tenets; near and dear.

If I had to pick out a single critical issue facing the maritime industry as a whole in 2008, then I’m inclined to say that the problem of securing competent mariners in sufficient numbers and then retaining those people is the number one task ahead of every blue water, brown water, offshore, towing, anchor handling, salvage, tug & barge and any other kind of marine company that you can think of. There are a lot of reasons why this is true and we write about all of them on a regular basis. One key reason for the mariner shortage is the degree to which the regulatory environment has been ramped up in response to any number of incidents, trends and seismic events occurring within the maritime industry.

A lot of people simply just don’t want to go to sea anymore. This might be because of the increased training requirements, the cost of those requirements, the chances of being snared in a criminal prosecution in response to an honest mistake, the new medical standards for mariners and a host of other impediments. I can’t really blame anyone for choosing any one of those reasons and using it as the basis for starting a different career, safely ashore. On the other hand, I am reminded constantly by others that it is one thing to write about these types of problems, and quite another to “live the process” on a daily basis.

It used to be that going to sea meant obtaining your Coast Guard license, a RADAR endorsement and a first class radio operator’s license. I am a pre-STCW mariner who came ashore before all of these new onerous requirements came into force. And while I’ve seen the requirements escalate precipitously, none of it really ever impacted me personally. That reality is going to change; and starting right now. This week, I am embarking on a course that (I hope) will eventually take me to a point where I have a license that is fully compliant with the STCW protocol.

If successful, I won’t be the first 49-1/2 year old, former mariner to re-qualify my credentials, but hopefully, the effort will shed significant light on what has always been a confusing and mysterious journey for many mariners - and their employers. You are invited to come along for the ride. I have no idea how long this will take, especially given that I will continue on with my duties here at MarEx concurrent with all of it. I only hope that I do not embarrass myself in the process.

What I do know is that it has been 22 years since I signed onto a merchant vessel. For some perspective, Loran C was still the mainstay electronic navigational aid used by most deep sea vessels. The most high-tech thing on the bridge of my tanker was the Raytheon RAYCAS collision avoidance system, on which, I sometimes amused myself by creating “nav” lines in between lighthouses while transiting the Florida Keys at 0230 hours. I was also in the habit of taking a daily azimuth to verify the accuracy of an ancient gyro and when I was really bored, I’d drag out my sextant and shoot some sun lines. In late 1985, that chemical tanker was still exchanging dirty ballast for clean and decanting tanks at sea.

Glen Paine, the Executive Director of the Maritime Institute of Technical and Graduate Studies (MITAGS) at Linthicum, MD, has agreed to make MITAGS available to be a primary facilitator of training during my STCW journey. On a “space-available” basis and allowing for my editorial calendar deadlines, it will be my goal to accomplish this task within 12 months. Looking at the enormity of the task ahead of me, it may be an overly ambitious goal.

Glen has also provided a welcome and steady guiding hand in formulating this idea and he has encouraged me (on many occasions) to go forward with the effort. As I get started, he also advised me to first get an expert assessment of my credentials and documentation so as to accurately quantify exactly what training and documents that I will need, going forward. To satisfy this initial requirement, I have turned to Andy Hammond of Maritime Consulting, LLC, who will examine my documents and let me know where I stand. I’m told that this first step is a critical one and I can think of no one better to start me on my way.

Andy’s expertise in the field of mariner qualification and documentation is deep. After graduating from the Massachusetts Maritime Academy, he served as an Officer in Charge of a Navigational Watch (OICNW) on several large merchant vessels in the in the North Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico. He then joined the Coast Guard as a civilian Marine Inspector in Boston Marine Safety Office; serving in that capacity for four years. Subsequently, he assumed the position of Chief, Regional Exam Center. In this position, Andy was responsible for the certification of all mariners in the New England region, from the entry level maritime employee to the seasoned Unlimited Master Mariner.

As Principal of Maritime Consulting, Andy assists mariners with issues or challenges that they may be faced with during the Coast Guard certification process, from document review, examination training, problem resolution and physical competency review. In this effort, he will certainly be a welcome font of knowledge to the new "MarEx STCW Express." This week, I will box up my two inch, three-ring binder full of documents and send them off to him. You will be privy to what he provides in response. Stay tuned.

In the meantime, Glen Paine has advised me that my first step on the journey will probably be the Basic Safety Training (BST) portion of the STCW laundry-list. There are many reasons for this, but he has told me in no uncertain terms that the training can be quite strenuous. He has also counseled me to start jogging again. Almost 24 years after and 32 pounds heavier than my last 26-mile marathon effort, I’m thinking he may just be right. The general school of thought here is that if I can’t hack this aspect of the training, then the question of whether I can get the rest of it done is moot. Heard and understood.

Along the way, I hope to talk to anyone who has undertaken a similar journey and convey their thoughts (with permission) to MarEx readers. In the end, we also hope to illuminate the difficulties, expense and time involved with the licensing process. But, that’s the least of my worries. I’m a pretty good writer. Whether or not I can re-qualify for service in a marine environment that bears little resemblance to that which I left 22 years ago - both in terms of regulatory oversight and advances in technology - concerns me a great deal more. - MarEx

Joseph Keefe is the Managing Editor ofThe Maritime Executive. He can be reached at [email protected] with questions or comments on this or any other article in this newsletter.