Wednesday, September 3, 2008


One thing a mariner has to get used to in this modern age of endorsements, international competencies, and over regulation is the unending onslaught of certificates you must earn. These emblazoned pieces of paper, kept in the briefcase or back pack you wouldn't dare check with the rest of your luggage on the plane, are carried around the world with you. Without them you would never be able to prove that you are legitimately licensed to perform your job at sea.

Since I finished my four years of maritime academy college I've earned 17 different certificates, 10 of which were required for my upgrade from second to chief mate. Being a member of a union the training was provided at no cost but I have never been financially compensated for the travel to and from the schools nor the four collective months I've spent away from home attending these courses.

With that in mind I'm now attending one of the few remaining courses necessary to carry on my duties at work. Ironically the certificate I'm earning is for a Vessel Security Officer, a post I've all ready held at work for the last three years. Initially when I was designated in writing by the Company Security Officer as the VSO, I had never received any actual classroom training.

Over the course of that first voyage though I read through every scrap of security relevant policy on board and realized that my primary job as a VSO was to keep the paperwork in order proving that we were complying with our ship security plan. Actually carrying some of the security requirements such as roving patrols and pre-departure contraband/stowaway searches were things of pure fantasy given the limited number of crew and STCW work hour restrictions.

As with all overburdening regulatory requirements we face at sea I did the best I could with my security duties emphasizing the importance of being vigilant and prepared to the various crews I worked with. Operating in hostile waters, such as the Gulf of Aden, without arms, escorts, or any other tangible way of repelling boarders convinced me that even with the best security plan or lectured crew, we would stand little chance if ever faced with an armed and motivated security threat.

Of course this was all just on the job self training, a.k.a. experience, and had nothing to do with my actual legal ability to perform the duties of a VSO. So thanks to the coast guards implementation of mandatory VSO training I again find myself spending a few more days of my vacation taking more courses to do a job with added responsibility for the same pay. Added on to the hassle is the task of going to my local Regional Examination Center to apply to have the certificate "endorsed" on my STCW certificate via the National Maritime Center in landlocked West Virginia.

Of course it's not all bad. The class, the shortest I've had, is only two days, and getting a group of officers together for a week allows you to collaboratively learn how different organisations approach the same security policies and problems. It also high lights the differences out here between government funded or contracted ships and commercial ships, especially in the resources available to mariners who are responsible for making their vessel a "Hard Target".

Among the highlights of the course was having an F.B.I. agent guest lecture. I was surprised to learn how much jurisdiction the F.B.I. has on ships world wide. As long as the F.B.I. can prove that a single American is on the ship, operates the ship, or owns a single share in the shipping companies stock, the F.B.I. can investigate and prosecute crimes on board.

With over 12,000 agents worldwide the F.B.I. is the lead agency in dealing with terrorism attacks involving American flagged ships, even overseas. The F.B.I. is also actively vetting not only the names of every mariner, citizen or foreigner entering domestic waters, but also works with foreign crewing agencies to counter terrorism and human trafficking on ships.

All good stuff to know if you're responsible for discouraging terrorist attacks on your ship.

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