Monday, May 31, 2010

Monday Morning Mariner: Medical Requirements

On October 13, 2003, the Staten Island Ferry Andrew J. Barberi crashed into a concrete maintenance pier near its dock, killing eleven people and injuring 71 others. Pilot Richard Smith had fallen asleep at the conn as a result of taking prescription medications and, as he was alone in the wheelhouse, the vessel was out of control. In the months and years that followed, the Barberi crash would have many consequences. Smith himself attempted suicide twice and eventually plead guilty to manslaughter. Prosecutors successfully went after ferry management as well. And in April of 2008, the US Coast Guard issued a Navigation and Inspection Vessel Circular (NVIC) called "Medical and Physical Evaluation Guidelines for Merchant Mariner Credentials" that said the Coast Guard was going to get serious about enforcing, among other things, laws governing mariners use of prescription and over-the-counter drugs.

American mariners already have to have a physical every five years when they renew their licenses or MMDs. Like most Americans, mariners are aging as a group, prone to obesity, and more likely to be taking one or even several medications. The NVIC 04-08 guidelines were published to help mariners and the medical professionals who examine them understand what the requirements are according to the Code of Federal Regulations and the STCW '78 convention.

Medications. Mariners must report all prescription medications filled, refilled, or taken with 30 days of the medical exam. Any over-the-counter medications used for more than 30 days within the 90 days leading up to the exam must also be reported. The Coast Guard is especially on the lookout for side effects that "could impact your ability to safely work on your vessel" according to a Coast Guard guide to the guidelines.

Physical Ability. Mariners must, in the opinion of the medical examiner, be able to lift 40 pound, climb a ladder, etc.

Body Mass Index. You may have to provide additional proof of you ability to perform certain tasks (proof obtained at your expense) if your Body Mass Index exceeds 40. For an American man of average height (5' 9.4"), that means a weight of 274 pounds or more. For a woman of average height (5' 4.6"), that means a weight of more than 237 pounds or more. In addition to lifting and other mobility tests, you may be required to be tested for sleep apnea and other conditions related to obesity.

Denial of credentials. The Coast Guard claims that only one in thousand applications are denied for medical reasons. The top five medical reasons for denial are: 1) pacemakers, 2) use of narcotics, amphetamines, or benzodiazepines, 3) uncontrolled diabetes, 4) mental disorders like uncontrolled bipolar disorder, and 5) uncontrolled sleep disorders.

Problems with the requirements. The Coast Guard insists that "this NVIC puts current Coast Guard practices into writing making the policies transparent for all to see..." but there have been several complaints about the application of the guidelines including: 1) the increased wait time that medical reviews are adding to the application process, 2) unfamiliarity with the regulations and government "bureaucrat-ese" on the part of medical professionals, and 3) whether BMI is an accurate measure of obesity since it doesn't measure body fat, but only a ratio between height and weight.

To download a copy of NVIC 04-08 from the National Maritime Center website, click here.

The Coast Guard uses the formula for BMI used by the Centers for Disease Control. For more, including a BMI calculator, click here.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Misunderstood Mariners: Mark Twain

In the spring 1857, Missouri native Samuel Langhorne Clemens was still seeking his fortune. While growing up, his father had failed spectacularly in several speculative business ventures and Sam was continuing the family tradition. While earning some money writing for various newspapers, he and his brother Orion bet the farm on several ventures of their own. Their latest failure ended with Sam in Keokuk, Iowa, but he was determined to strike out again to make it rich, this time in South America. Clemens never made it. A chance meeting led to a change of plans -- and career -- for Clemens, and proved to be an important turning point in American literature.

While traveling down the Mississippi River to New Orleans, the first stop on his South American adventure, Clemens met steamboat captain Jerome Bixby. Clemens was struck by the romance of Bixby's occupation, and convinced the old captain to take him on in training as a pilot. For the next two years Clemens served as Bixby's apprentice, learning the twists and turns of more than 2,000 miles of the Mississippi River. In 1859, Clemens earned his own pilots license. He loved being a riverboat pilot more than any other of the many jobs he held over the years. As he wrote in an 1866 letter to his boyhood friend Will Bowen

All men -- kings and serfs alike -- are slaves to other men and to circumstance -- save alone, the pilot -- who comes at no man's back and call, obeys no man's orders and scorns all men's suggestions. The king would do this thing, and would do that: but a cramped treasury overmasters him in the one case and a seditious people in the other. The Senator must hob-nob with canaille whom he despises, and banker, priest and statesman trim their actions by the breeze of the world's will and the world's opinion. It is a strange study, -- a singular phenomenon, if you please, that the only real, independent and genuine gentlemen in the world go quietly up and down the Mississippi river, asking no homage of any one, seeking no popularity, no notoriety, and not caring a damn whether school keeps or not.

During his four years on the Mississippi Clemens continued to write, including a satire of an account by riverboat captain Isaiah Sellers, who wrote under the name "Mark Twain." Clemens eventually adopted the pen name as his own, some sources say in regret over the embarrassment he caused Sellers. "Mark Twain" is a term a leadsman calls out to indicate he's reading two fathoms, or twelve feet, on a leadline, a weighted rope used to measure water depth. Being a riverboat pilot was lucrative -- Clemens earned more than $70,000 a year in today's dollars -- so he convinced his brother Henry to join him. Both worked on various steamboats including the Pennsylvania, which Clemens writes about in Life On The Mississippi. A boiler explosion in June 1858 killed 64 people, including Henry Clemens. Guilt over his brothers death would ever-after plague Clemens.

With the outbreak of war between North and South in 1861, the riverboat trade dried up as commerce came to a standstill and the river became a highway for hostile armies. Clemens headed west to Nevada. He would return to the river in his 1876 novel, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, the non-fiction work Life On The Mississippi, published in 1883, and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in 1884.

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.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Monday Morning Mariner In Review: The New Hawespipe

Hawespipe -- Opening in eyes or forward part of a ship where shank of patent anchor is stowed.
--American Merchant Seaman's Manual

These instructions apply to license applicants who are NOT participating in a formal training program of instruction such as presented at a maritime academy. These instructions apply to mariners who are "coming through the hawespipe."
--National Maritime Policy Letter [01-02], Applicability Section
It's astonishing how much has changed since Leonard Lambert's The New Hawespipe: A Comprehensive Guide to Merchant Marine Licensing and Documentation was first published in 2007. In three short years the rules for licensing and documentation of US mariners have undergone -- and continue to undergo -- what can generously be called "modernization" as the Coast Guard moves with unprecedented speed to bring the US in line with the rest of the world. Despite this, Lambert's book remains what may be the best ever written on "how to get your license" or Merchant Mariners Document.

What sets The New Hawespipe apart is its focus on the process of getting your credentials. Other works focus on the Coast Guard test itself, with the application requirements and process often no more than a few introductory pages transcribed verbatim from the Coast Guard application packet. Lambert breaks down the licensing system into easy-to-understand chunks, then goes on to cover topics like practical assessments, STCW requirements, classes and schools, and special procedures for military folks moving to the civilian merchant marine. He gives hints on dealing with the Coast Guard (although it will always be tough to top the late Budd Gonder's advice to "whatever you do, keep smiling") and ends with a chapter on "Being An Officer, Being A Leader" that addresses the "pay it forward" responsibilities of all merchant officers, whether hawespipers or maritime academy graduates.

When it comes to actually taking the test, Lambert approaches it strategically, offering tips on how he studied for the exams, while realizing that not everyone learns the same way. There are no sample test questions here, but Lambert does recommend "the Murphy books" for such things or, if you're feeling brave and focused, downloading the questions from the Coast Guard web site. It's in this chapter that Lambert tells one of his many "it happened to me" anecdotes, one that will be familiar to a lot of mariners:
You are ready to test. The USCG takes your application, certificates, and documents, making copies of the necessary documents (make sure you retain the originals of all documents). You pay your application fee and wait for something to happen. After a period in which they have ignored you, you ask if you need to do anything else, and their answer is that the evaluation process is underway and can take anywhere from four to six weeks. The feeling of getting close to your license slowly fades away and you wonder what you will do for the two months the USCG is evaluating your application. Should you go back to work as an AB? Should you get a part-time job to regain the money spent for school? Should you yell at the Coast Guard because their evaluation process sucks?
For a book this size (it runs less than 200 pages) The New Hawespipe covers a lot of ground. While it can be read in a day, most mariners will be able to skip over the parts not applicable to their own situation. Considering how many American mariners work in the towing or small passenger industries, it's surprising Lambert gives little attention to the Towing Officer Assessment Record ("make sure and read the policy letter to understand what is needed" he writes) or how the Coast Guard evaluates sea service on older, "rule-beater" passenger vessels operating under the gross registered tonnage rules. The publication of The New Hawespipe also pre-dates the issuing of the Medical and Physical Evaluation Guidelines in NVIC 04-08 and the Proposed Rulemaking to fully incorporate the STCW code into US law. The blog on Lambert's website was doing an excellent job following up on changes to licensing and documentation requirements, but hasn't been added to since August.

The New Hawespipe is available from Cornell Maritime Press (the same company that publishes the American Merchant Seaman's Manual and other reference titles for the professional mariner). Any mariner feeling a little over his or her head when it comes to license or MMD requirements will breathe a little easier after reading this book.

For more firsthand stories of mariners working their way up the hawespipe, check out my fellow blogger "Paul, dammit!" at Hawespiper: The Longest Climb.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Ship Names

Captain Rainbow asked: "What's the procedure for changing a boat's name?" When I replied "You have to file forms CG-1258 and CG-4593 with the Coast Guard's National Vessel Documentation Center" he responded "No, I mean what's the ceremony? Don't you have to unstep the mast or something?"

Tradition has it that changing a boat's name is unlucky. Of course, tradition has a whole list of things that you can do on or to a vessel that are considered unlucky, including carrying bananas, beginning a voyage on a Friday, or having a woman aboard. Still, a boat or ship is considered a person in some ways (even today a vessel the same legal status as a person in certain circumstances) and changing the name was considered unlucky.

There are no hard and fast rules for naming a ship, but there tend to be trends:

Naval vessels. In the US Navy, there used to be fairly hard and fast rules for naming ships: battleships were named after states, submarines were named after fish, etc. Those rules have gone out the window in recent years, especially as the traditional size and mission of vessels of a given class has changed. In general, any ship of a given class will follow the naming convention of the first ship in that class (i.e. the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer John S. McCain, both named for American naval heroes), which is determined by Congress. British naval vessel names vary by class as well. Battleship names were inspirational (Resolution, Dreadnaught), "B"-class destroyers have names that start with a "B" (Beagle, Bulldog), and so on. Other countries have their own conventions and traditions.

Cargo vessels. Large cargo ships often have combination names, which may list the company and port serviced (the tanker Exxon Valdez, the chemical tanker Chembulk Shanghai), a country serviced and a "traditional" name (the container ship Arabian Express, the refrigerated cargo ship Costa Rican Star), or plays on the name of the company (Evergreen Lines Ever Diamond, Ever Eagle, etc.).

Cruise ships. If the giant company logo on the stack doesn't give it away, you could probably tell a cruise ship's line from its name. Holland America Lines ships are named after cities and towns in The Netherlands (Zaandam, Statendam). HAL even sells souvenir clothing with the slogan "dam boats" printed on it. Royal Caribbean operates the huge Oasis of the Seas, as well as Freedom of the Seas, Mariner of the Seas, etc. And Princess, of course, names all its vessels "Something Princess" (Pacific Princess, Sapphire Princess). The small cruise ships I work on follow similar schemes. Cruise West vessels are named for the "spirit of" historic vessels (Spirit of Discovery, Spirit of Endeavour), their areas of operation (Spirit of Oceanus, Spirit of Alaska) or historic events (of Spirit of '98, named for the 1898 Yukon gold rush). American Cruise Lines' vessels invoke historic or patriotic themes (American Star, Independence).

Work boats. Many tug companies started out, and many remain, family-run businesses and the tradition is to name the vessels after members of the family. Thus, McAllister Towing and Transportation runs the Barbara McAllister, Rowan M. McAllister, and dozens more. Foss Maritime operates the Lindsey Foss, Garth Foss, and Barbara Foss. Operators of offshore supply vessels have similar schemes. Edison Chouest Offshore, for instance, names its larger anchor-handling, tug, and supply (AHTS) vessels after members of the Chouest family (Laney Chouest, Gary Chouest), its smaller offshore supply vessels with the letter "C" followed by nautical or active nouns (C-Commodore, C-Rambler), and its small, quick crew boats with "fast" names like Fast Cajun and Fast Spirit.

Fishing vessels. American fishing vessel names vary a lot. Large, company-owned ships might have large names like Alaskan Enterprise. Smaller, family- or individually owned vessels are frequently named after family members, often wives or daughters. A friend of mine's father owned a fishing vessel named after her and a second vessel named Defiant which, one of her friends claimed, was also named after her.

Recreational boats. Almost anything goes. Recreational vessels often have a more light-hearted approach in their names than commercial vessels, sometimes with a play on words that's nautical (Seas The Day), fishing themed (Reel Fun), vacation oriented (Anger Management), or a combination (E Sea Livin').

Changing vessel names. As mentioned above, most commercial operators will just fill out the paperwork, pay the fees, and paint on the new name. Tradition says the vessels must actually be submerged before re-naming, although nautical writer John Vigor has a more practical (and fun) procedure here.

Pictured above: The Arthur Foss moves the US Coast Guard Cutter Comanche, now decommissioned. For more on the Comanche, see the Comanche 202 Foundation's web page here.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Home Is The Sailor, Home From The Sea

I've had this blog in "layup" for a few weeks since I returned from my last hitch at sea, but it's time to get things going again. Thanks to all the readers who continued to provide feedback, both in the Comments section and via email.

A lot has happened in the maritime world since I last wrote. The Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has made headlines both in the US and elsewhere. The massive Haiti relief effort I wrote about a few months ago has come up to speed with a major effort by merchant mariners. The commercial fishing community has seen the death of "Deadliest Catch" captain Phil Harris and the sinking of the Northern Belle in the Gulf of Alaska. Meanwhile, some are saying the Deepwater Horizon spill means commercial fishing in the Gulf of Mexico is "dead."

Upon my return from Mexico a few weeks ago, I began taking a number of classes to keep my credentials current and in anticipation of major regulatory changes that will apply to "limited" license American mariners like myself. Although this blog isn't really aimed at professional mariners, I know a number of them read it, so I'm starting an occasional "Monday Morning Mariner" post to help sort out some of the changes in the industry. My hope is to help simplify some things for mariners while giving my non-mariner readers a little more in-depth look at the American maritime industry.

To accommodate the Monday posts, I'm changing the schedule up a bit. There will still be a Saturday post, but the Tuesday post will move to Wednesday. Look for a more current events-driven topic in the weekday post, with more general "misunderstood" nautical topics on the weekend, unless for some reason it makes more sense to switch around two posts with similar themes.

The title of this blog is from the poem "Home Is The Sailor" by the English poet A.E. Housman.

Home is the sailor, home from sea:

Her far-borne canvas furled

The ship pours shining on the quay

The plunder of the world.

Home is the hunter from the hill:

Fast in the boundless snare

All flesh lies taken at his will

And every fowl of air.

'Tis evening on the moorland free,

The starlit wave is still:

Home is the sailor from the sea,

The hunter from the hill.

The Academy of American poets site has more on Housman here. Housman is frequently quoted by, among others, Robert Louis Stevenson in his poem Requiem, and by Patrick O'Brian in the Aubrey/Maturin novel The Thirteen-Gun Salute.

The statue pictured above is Stanley Bleifeld's "The Homecoming" at the United States Navy Memorial in Washington DC. Bleifeld also created the Memorial's famous "The Lone Sailor" statue.

The CBS News program "60 Minutes" had an excellent look at the Deepwater Horizon explosion and spill last Sunday; see it here. For all things Deepwater Horizon, something called the Deepwater Horizon Unified Command has a comprehensive site. The websites of BP and Transocean also have pages devoted to the response. In the interest of full disclosure: while I have never worked directly worked for either BP or Transocean, I did at one time work for an oil field service company that did (and probably still does) extensive business with both.

Professional Mariner reporter Rich Miller filed a special report on the Haiti relief effort by mariners in the May issue of the magazine here.

The death of Capt. Phil Harris was covered by the Associated Press in the Juneau Empire here.

The Northern Belle sinking was covered by the Juneau Empire here.