COVID Academy


Published Sep 29, 2020 10:07 PM by Lisa Overing

(Article originally published in July/Aug 2020 edition.)

Going to school to maintain seafarer credentials for licensing requirements has changed.

Used to be that sailors actually returned to port after their hitch was up and attended school while on vacation or rotation. In school, they sat in a classroom with other shipmates and had a smoke and a beer after school (something planned at the lunch table). That much was universally true whether a sailor worked on a cruise ship, oil tanker, container vessel, barge, tug, megayacht or merchant ship. 

And while some sanitized campuses have documented actual in-person sightings of a few salty sailors social distancing – the masked marauders traveling in groups of 10 or less – professional mariners today must navigate a whole new odyssey of licensing requirements. Maritime training in 2020 increasingly relies on video for remote and blended learning in today’s COVID-19 environment.

The New Reality

Today’s crew are too often stranded with ships denied port entry or stuck in quarantine. In an already stressful profession, the ante was just raised. There’s no certainty of when one ships out, of actually completing a hitch as scheduled, or of going to school to maintain credentials and licensing certifications. On top of all that, the bars are closed! No one can even bum a cigarette anymore. What’s a schooling sailor to do? 

Well, he can’t borrow a pen in class. Ever. Perish the thought of that break-the-ice question to the person at the desk next to yours. Their desk is not even near yours. It’s at least six feet away, requiring bridge binoculars to actually spy on your neighbor’s paper. 

“You borrow a pen, it’s yours for life,” quips Commander Chauncey Naylor, Director of Training at Resolve Marine Group.

There’s no sharing of pens or materials with rigorous requirements in place to maintain a biologically safe environment for students. With the most limited in-person attendance ever, accommodating fewer masked students per the new guidelines effectively decreased demand for training. 

Margins for training academies are stressed and squeezed like never before, providing more blended learning, online curriculum and a lot of expense for what may be a total of 10 people in the classroom, including the instructor.

Campus Closures

Maritime Professional Training (MPT) in Fort Lauderdale closed to on-campus instruction in March but maintained its online classes. When it reopened, class sizes were reduced by 50 percent to ensure social distancing.

“Courses for the cruise and oil industries have seen significant reductions in enrollments as they were very hard-hit by the effects of the shutdown,” says Captain Ted Morley, Chief Operations Officer & Academic Principal. 
With limited classes and lower enrollment for the foreseeable future, the size of some training centers and the amount of space needed is debatable. “Brick and mortar classrooms will always be needed,” Morley notes. “Practical skills can only be mastered in a practical setting. The advantage the larger schools have is being able to move students around and employ social-distancing guidelines within their facilities. I don’t know how some of the smaller schools with limited classroom size will be able to conduct safe, in-person education.”

The nearby STAR (Simulation, Training, Assessment & Research) Center shut down for eight weeks in mid-March with staff working from home. Reopening with a limited capacity, Captain Jerry Pannell, Director of Member Training, plans a phased approach, validating the protocols and opening the valve incrementally as guidelines and safety provisions allow, hoping for full capacity by year-end.

We have to be “correct every day to stay open,” Pannell says. He took a good, hard look at what his academy was doing to ensure the men and women of American Maritime Officers (AMO), the largest labor organization for licensed merchant mariners in the U.S., have the training they need to maintain their credentials and employment. 

“We made a conscious decision with a phased approach, only offering courses our membership needs to maintain their current jobs.”

The New Math

In the new math for training schools, MPT’s Morley explains that reducing the human population by 50 percent, from 24 students to 12, for instance, requires two classes, two instructors and greatly reduced margins: “That’s a serious economic problem for us. Small classes hold 12, not three or four.”

The USCG sets minimum square feet per student – 36 square feet for training being a long-standing requirement with 24 to 36 people. “Now social distancing will see some small schools going by the wayside,” Morley says, “and larger schools looking to streamline. We still must have highly trained mariners who are STCW-compliant to work. We normally have 100 students a week in a facility. Now it’s a maximum of 10. It’s not something we can sustain long-term.”

Morley is concerned for every school: “The smaller schools are saying, ‘We can’t do this anymore. We’ll do something else.’ We need those mariners to graduate. The union schools funded by companies, if huge companies are suffering, union schools feel the same heat. It’s the same financial implications for all schools including state-funded schools. STCW is a tremendous expense. So are engine and machine shops and simulators.” 

STAR Center’s Pannell puts it this way: “From a resources standpoint, it takes twice as many resources to do half as many people.”

Perhaps the biggest challenge is safely. “We’re significantly good at protocols,” Pannell says. “If we can’t sustain at 10, what do we do, go back to 25? No, we scale the system, refine and get better at it over time until we get to a comfortable point.”

At the San Jacinto College Maritime Center in Texas, Captain John Stauffer, Associate Vice Chancellor, concurs, “With three to five students in some classes before that are now one-at-a-time, the cost remains the same. A five-day course for 50 tankermen is narrowed to 10. Do you spread out the class? Maybe the tankerman class that is 30 days becomes 40 hours online and then attend class on site.”

Eating In

Campus life as it was once known and enjoyed has changed. STAR Center completely revamped its campus and every procedure – not just how instructors teach and students learn but how students enter the building and check in, how rooms are assigned, how everyone is fed, and how the student enters the classroom and even the bathroom. Masks are worn at all times on campus except in the fire field or pool or when using a self-contained apparatus. No family are allowed in the dorms. 

“We’re strict in our protocols,” Pannell says. “There’s a screening questionnaire and testing.”

Food is served without contact with students picking up a bag to eat alone in their rooms. “There are fewer than 10 in the classroom including the instructor per CDC as well as Florida and Broward County guidelines,” adds Pannell, who restricted students traveling from four states by initially isolating students from New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Louisiana until the travel bans lifted.

"No one is forced to accept the level of risk,” he notes. “USCG extended credentials out until end of year and provided a provision allowing people not to attend school.” 

Sink or Swim

Most regulatory courses require practical skill assessment on real equipment. While it’s possible to test online for knowledge and basic practices, there really isn’t a way to properly demonstrate proficiency in the majority of STCW requirements other than in-person testing. Online simulation helps but cannot fully replace real-world equipment in a real setting.

About half of STAR Center’s students work on Military Sealift Command vessels and require additional security and small-arms training. Firefighting and safety have a competency requirement demanding a hands-on skill set. “Can I put on a survival suit and enter the water safely?,” Pannell asks, adding that swimming – given an aging mariner population – is another deteriorating skill that must always be demonstrated in person.

MPT’s Morley reinforces the point: “You can’t become a firefighter without firefighter training. You have to feel the heat and how physical stress affects you and what emotional stresses are triggered.”

That said, online learning may be good for fundamentals. While not as easy for barge crews working 21 days on and off with no time to sleep, much less study, other vessel crews could take classes to occupy their off-hours. Maybe 40 hours, not 14 days of school in person. 

San Jacinto’s students, for instance, are more oriented toward the inland domestic waterways. “Inland didn’t have distance learning before with shift work 21 days on and off,” Stauffer explains. “Until COVID, nothing was online and everything was face-to-face. The National Maritime Center allowed online format delivery for students and how a training provider can submit a class online.” 

Seafarer Attrition

In the past, mariners worried if their ship was seaworthy. Now they worry if it’s biosafe.

Morley’s onboard training audits have slowed with oil and cruise industry furloughs, creating a negative impact on both the school and mariners’ regulatory requirements for training: “At some point, those mariners need training and this will reduce the amount of trained mariners and we’ll see a shortage. You see people getting overwhelmed, stuck offshore for months. There’s a human impact.”
The able seaman level is particularly vulnerable.

"The attrition that’s happening and will come about because of COVID-19 won’t be from changes in training,” notes STAR Center’s Pannell, “it’ll be from the increased hardships mariners worldwide are facing as a result of impacts and delays in crew changes and the resulting stress, fatigue and quality-of-life issues brought on by the pandemic.” 

The jury is still out on whether those sailors who missed attending school or got stuck onboard ships will continue as professional mariners. “Will we ever get back to where we were?” Pannell asks. “I don’t believe so. There will be a smaller footprint for some schools.”

Lisa Overing is Creative Director at Megayacht Media in Miami.

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.