Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Licenses and Certifications

In the days of the Roman Empire, the captain of a vessel was a minor nobleman (a tradition carried on by the Venetian republic until the modern era), and thus had the "letters patent" to prove it. Since the storied Age of Sail, officers on merchant ships have been required to carry master's papers, proving that they have passed examinations or otherwise proven they have the skills necessary to take on the responsibility for operating a vessel. Almost all maritime nations have a credentialling system of some kind today, and most are now conforming to the international standards set by the International Maritime Organization. In the United States, the US Coast Guard administers the credentialling of merchant mariners, and recent changes have led to increased centralization, modernization, and internationalization, a process leaving some mariners feeling lost in the shuffle.

Deck officers. An American deck officer today will hold a license that specifies three things: the highest position he or she can hold on a vessel (up to and including captain), the waters the license is valid on, and the maximum tonnage of vessel the license is valid on. Currently, the smallest license one can hold is the Operator of Uninspected Passenger Vessels (OUPV), the so-called "Six Pack" license which entitles the holder to carry up to six passengers for hire. This license is common among charter fishing boat captains and for skippers on crewed charter sailboats. The biggest license available is the so called "any vessel, any waters" license, also called the master unlimited. This is the type of license a large cargo ship or tanker captain will hold.

Licenses above 100 tons are broken down by either master or mate categories, licenses above 1600 tons are broken down even further into third mate, second mate, chief mate, and master. Exams for these licenses tend to be similar for each position in a given tonnage, the main difference in requirements being sea service time (see below).

Licenses are also defined by scope, or waters in which they are valid. A license valid anywhere is called unlimited, but licenses can also be limited to inland waters, near coastal (up to 200 miles offshore), oceans, Great Lakes, or Western Rivers (waters that empty into the Mississippi). Licenses can also be limited to a particular bay, lake, or similar area; this is most common for instructors or yacht club employees.

Deck personnel that don't have licenses are called ratings and work under the authority of their Merchant Marine Document (MMD), sometimes called a "z-card." Unskilled deck ratings are called ordinary seamen. Skilled ratings are called able seamen or ABs. MMDs for ABs are endorsed as special, limited, or unlimited, depending on the experience of the AB. Various maritime sectors also have specialized ABs, such as offshore supply vessels, sail, fishing, and towboats.

Engineers. Engineering officer licenses are defined by vessel tonnage and horsepower. A limited tonnage engineer is called a designated duty engineer. Unlimited licenses are broken down similar to the deck side, starting with third assistant engineer through second and first assistant engineers, up to chief engineer.

Engineering ratings are called qualified members of the engine department (QMED) or unlicensed junior engineers. The unskilled entry level QMED is called a wiper. The first step up is generally as an oiler, but QMEDs also take exams to qualify for various specialities: deck engineer, refrigeration engineer, electrician or, on tankers, pumpman.

Staff officers. Licenses for administrative and hotel staff are called Certificates of Registry. The entry level certificate is called junior assistant purser, then moves up to senior assistant purser, purser, and finally chief purser.

The entry-level rating on an MMD is called food handler, from there hotel/stewards department mariners can work their way up chief steward.

Medical department. Certificates of registry are also issued for medical personnel. There are four levels: hospital corpsman, marine physician assistant, professional nurse, and medical doctor. Unlike the other departments, medical personnel can't generally work their way up the ladder while shipboard as they require shoreside training and certification of some type to qualify.

Radio department. Most merchant ships do not carry a designated radio operator these days, but the Coast Guard still has a Radio Officer license on the books.

Qualifications. To be licensed, you have to be a US citizen, but anyone working legally in the US can qualify for an MMD. There are age restrictions on some higher-level licenses, but none beyond 21 years old.

Deck, engineering, and purser's department personnel must complete a required amount of sea service to qualify for various licenses and certifications. This can be as low as nothing for entry level ratings to 2160 days at sea for an unlimited master's license.

Deck and engineering staff must also successfully complete exams administered by the Coast Guard (although some lower-level licenses may be tested for at maritime schools). Purser license applicants need a letter from their employer saying they need the requested certificate. Medical and radio department personnel have to show the required certifications

STCW. So far we've just discussed the domestic US structure and requirements. The international requirements, the Standards of Training, Certification, and Watchkeeping (STCW), have a whole different structure, broken down by tonnage, type of vessel, department, etc. STCW also requires hand-on training in certain skills such as life saving, firefighting, and others specific to different departments and vessels. Up until now, STCW requirements are something mariners needed in addition to the domestic rules, but recent proposed changes will bring US mariners into line with the rest of the world by changing the license structure itself. More on that in future posts.

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