Earlier this week I had the pleasure of attending an informational meeting held by my employer not too far from home. After reminiscing with some long lost colleagues and hitting the pretzel and cookie table we launched into an uninterrupted four hour lecture on the state of our organization.
Amongst the financial news and shipping report we were given some dour news of the retirement funds taking a huge loss recently and how job's at sea were getting tighter. We were then provided some displeasing information of more schooling on the way for professional mariners in the not so distant future.
As the wheels of the International Maritime Organization have been turning over the past few years a new regimen has been proposed to modify the existing and far reaching international convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watch keeping. As any one working on a marine license knows, this international legislation, codified by the USCG with the help of congress, has had a huge impact on American mariners. In a simplified sense the STCW has standardized the training and certification requirements for mariners from each of the 168 signatory nations.
The latest manifestations from the IMO have been the medical requirements NVIC issued by the Coast Guard and talk of a Merchant Marine Credential. Both follow suit with international standards for medical and credentialing norms.
Now it looks like there is more coming from this watery arm of the United Nations in the way of increased training standards for both deck and engineering officers. Keep in mind that the following is just hearsay until passed by the IMO and adopted by the United States but it did come from a reputable source, a current member of the Merchant Marine Personnel Advisory Committee or MERPAC.
In the not so distant future engineers will be looking at a new course, engine room resource management or ERM to mirror the deck department equivalent, bridge resource management. Additionally both departments will be required to attend a management leadership course.
The Basic Safety Training we've all taken will require renewal every five years. Something you may be use to if you work for Military Sealift Command or some tanker operators which all ready require a BST renewal. In addition to personal survival, basic fire fighting, elementary first aid, and personal safety/social responsibility there will most likely be a fatigue management component. This last addition to the BST skills can be attributed to the Coast Guard's Crew Endurance Management System and their lobbying in the IMO.
This new focus on fatigue is amusingly ironic. Addressing the fatigue caused by increased responsibilities and workloads on today's mariner with another classroom course is laughable. It seems the Coast Guard is trying to bail out a sinking boat with a colander by trying to reduce fatigue related accidents with a class and consequently more paperwork for the officers. Why can't the very regulators who mandate safe manning levels for vessel operators increase the amount of crew to share the workload on board? I know that when my crew is dog tired from a week of arrivals, departures, and cargo operations what we need is a fresh man on the mooring winch or forklift, not another course telling us to avoid caffeine and the sun before going to bed! I digress.
What else? How about a new "Cargo Transfer Fire Fighting" course for DL PIC personnel on tankers. This course I can't be critical about. If there are two things I deem vital to working aboard a safe ship it is increased medical and fire fighting skills. My official fire training consisted of one course spread over several semester weekends my freshman year of college. We had one live burn and it lasted all of thirty seconds. Pretty pitiful. Another plus of this course will be that it will also be required for the shore side person in charge since they are half of the equation if the transfer ever goes awry.
Don't quote me on this next one in case it's as unlikely as it is ridiculous. Visual signaling for deckies may be reduced to recognition of a single Morse code signal. Yes, one dit-da and that would be it! Why not just abolish it all together?
Lastly, the required celestial navigation competencies for license upgrades, you know the one's we mates diligently worked out at sea with the Captain as a certified assessor right there by our side the whole time, would only require positions to be reduced from observations of the sun and stars only. No more high latitude back sights of Mars or the Moon at meridian transit. There will be a new component of celestial training as well. "Astro Navigation" or the use of satellites for position fixing will be included.
Might this change the celestial licensing exam? I think the better question is: will anyone from the U.S. actually be going to sea after these new STCW requirements are enacted sometime around 2010? Probably, but I don't think the prospects of a career at sea will include the old selling line of "Good money and lots of time off."
Something I've been noticing more and more over the course of this vacation has been how many of the new acquaintances I make feel compelled to sympathize with my situation as a merchant mariner. Yes, I know I'm gone for long periods of time, sometimes weeks but usually months, and I know it makes things difficult.
If you're single then you'll never have that Australian Shepard you've always wanted, much less a goldfish for a pet. If you're married you miss out on many of the small joys of family life and a few of the big celebrations. Believe me I know, my mother raised four boys in the woods while my dad was off at sea. There were many Christmas's and Birthday's when the best we got was a Single Side Band ship to shore call from Goonhilly, UK.
What I'm trying to say is that myself and anyone who knows me understands the hardship of being at sea for months at a time (Or away for weeks and weeks of training courses while on vacation). The last thing I need is for a stranger to remind me of this unfortunate aspect of my chosen occupation.
How did I get onto this rant? I was at the doctors office having the tartar noisily scraped off of my teeth when the dental hygienist began the usual latex gloves in your mouth chit chat.
D.H. "So, what do you do?" Patient "I'm a Merchant Mariner." D.H. "Like in the Marines?" Patient "No, I work on ships." D.H. "Like in the Navy?" Patient "No, I work on commercial cargo ships carrying cargoes from ports all over the world." D.H. "Oh, so how long does that take?" Patient "I'm usually gone for two or three months." D.H. "Oh my! That is a long time...it must be hard?" Patient"Yes it can be but I like my job." D.H. "Are you married?" Patient "Suction please...spit...no I'm not." D.H. "It must be hard to date." Patient "Yep."
To make matters worse, when the doctor had a look at my mouth he ran me through the same questioning. He then felt compelled to relate a story about a patient of his who also was a merchant mariner. This poor fellow was married, had several children and was left by his wife of 23 years when she finally gave up waiting for him to come home.
Doctor "He was quite devastated." Patient "Can I have the bill now?"
To add to my distemper, once outside of the office I recognized an ex-girlfriend of a friend who also ships out. We stopped to talk and she was glad to hear that her ex had moved to West Africa, an obvious symptom of his sailing disease, where he now has a family. She also informed me that she was married (Something she did shortly after their breakup ensuing his first trip to sea) and left me with some uplifting advice:
"Get a shore job and get married. It's a lot more fun."
So it goes in the life of a merchant mariner. You've always had that twinge of doubt since the first days at the Maritime Academy when you would talk to your old high school buddies who went to colleges with a 4 to 1 student ratio in their favor or to party schools where class was a break in between keg stands. Now you're all educated and deployed in the work force and still you wonder what it would be like if you had a day job and if weekends only lasted 48 hours.
One thing I'm sure of, I wouldn't be sitting in the sun on my porch writing about it. No, I'd surely be in a cubicle somewhere at least an hour from wherever I lived.
I've lived in four states so far in my life and this is the first time in my memory a Vice Presidential candidate has visited the high school right down the street! I for one could not be any happier that Governor Palin likes the wonderful White Mountain state of New Hampshire! Despite all the liberty loving libertarians and constitution touting Ron Paul wannabes it tain't a bad place to reside.
Alas, I actually didn't make it to see Sarah Palin speak at Dover High School, home of the mighty Green Waves, but had I gone to see her stump speech yesterday on why we should vote for her and not the Democratic ticket it would have looked a little something like this...
Now I know Merchant Mariners are a conservative bunch. We don't like big government spending on welfare programs when it can be put to better use building up the Ready Reserve Fleet. And we certainly don't like the idea of paying any more federal and state tax than we have to for programs and services we utilize half as much as other citizens of this fine nation but this year I have found myself advocating the Democratic ticket to fellow sailors for one simple reason.
The track record of John McCain and the American Merchant Marine is not a friendly one. This small industry which depends on government subsidies and cargo preference laws survives in large part because of what congress decides to budget for these programs every fiscal year. If we want to keep the American Flag flying behind our ships, whether they are needed for national defense or not, than the following quotes epitomize the importance of not electing a "maverick" friendly to shipping interests whom are more than happy to flag out a fleet and hire on foreign officers.
From Maritime Executive Magazine: Presidential Candidates
September 8, 2008
Democratic Party presidential nominee Senator Barack Obama has given a clear and unambiguous commitment to the Jones Act, the Maritime Security Program and U.S. Cargo Preference laws.
It comes in the form of a letter to Michael Sacco, President of the Seafarers International Union which has endorsed Senator Obama for President.
In his letter, Senator Obama says "America needs a strong and vibrant U.S.-Flag Merchant Marine. That is why you and your members can continue to count on me to support the Jones Act (which also includes the Passenger Vessel Services Act) and the continued exclusion of maritime services in international trade agreements ..."
"To make sure our Armed Forces have the equipment and ammunition they need at the time the materiel are required, my Administration will solidly support the continuation of the Maritime Security Program ..."
"A strong U.S.-Flag commercial fleet needs our nation's Cargo Preference laws. Whether it is carrying needed goods to those overseas in distress or moving government-generated cargo, American Mariners aboard American ships make sure the job is done."
Read on to see what the candidates have to say on some of the issues near and dear to the maritime industry:
SENATOR BARACK OBAMA
"The Jones Act is a vital part of our national defense and supports American workers. As President, I would fully enforce it. The Jones Act should be waived only under rare circumstances. I spoke out when the Bush Administration ignored the Passenger Vessel Services Act, which applies Jones Act requirements to cruise, ferry and excursion vessels, and contracted Carnival Cruise Lines, a foreign owned company, to house evacuees from hurricane Katrina. Not only did they earn a higher-than-normal profit, but they violated Federal law in doing so. As is required by law, I will only waive the Jones Act when necessitated by national security.
"Furthermore, maintaining the American merchant marine fleet is vital to our economy and national security. I would oppose any move to undermine this Act." (2008)
SENATOR JOHN McCAIN
"I would like to see the Jones Act repealed, but I don't think that's likely. I don't think I would get twenty votes if I were to bring it to the floor." (1997)
"While [we] could argue about the magnitude of the cost [of the Jones Act], there is no doubt that the Jones Act adds costs to U.S. shippers, especially in areas where water transportation is the only economical shipping option, such as Hawaii, Guam and Puerto Rico." (1998)
"It appears that the Jones Act has a negative economic impact on American consumers, but more information is needed to accurately assess the magnitude of this impact, the national security value of the Jones Act, and the effects of various reform proposals." (1998)
MARITIME SECURITY PROGRAM
SENATOR BARACK OBAMA
"The Maritime Security Program helps ensure US-flag vessels are ready to meet our needs during times of war or national emergency and I support fully funding it. I support funding the Maritime Security Program so that it serves our nation's national security needs. If the GAO [General Accountability Office] or another independent body finds that the MSP program needs to be expanded, I will support expanding it to the size necessary." (2008)
SENATOR JOHN McCAIN
"I appreciate the need for a U.S. merchant marine that we can rely on in time of national emergency. However, we have an obligation to make sure that taxpayers are not required to pay more than is necessary to meet that goal. . . . I believe we should institute a competitive procedure to determine which vessels should be included in the MSP program." (1996)
CARGO PREFERENCE/FOOD FOR PEACE
SENATOR BARACK OBAMA
"Our cargo preference laws are an important way for us to regulate and support the maritime industry. Supporting the maritime industry allows us to ensure that we have the resources we need during times of ward and national emergency and maintains standards in the industry. I will continue to support cargo preference laws where they uphold our goals in shipping." (2008)
SENATOR JOHN McCAIN
•In 1989, Senator McCain supported an effort by Senator Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) to exempt food aid to Poland from the cargo preference laws.
•In 1990, Senator McCain supported an attempt by Senator Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) to waive cargo preference if the U.S.-flag rate were more than 110 percent higher than the lowest foreign flag rate.
•In 1990, Senator McCain supported an attempt by Senator Steve Symms (R-Idaho) to allow the Secretary of Agriculture to waive cargo preference whenever the Secretary of Agriculture determines that cargo preference will result in a lost sale of agricultural commodities.
•In 1991, Senator McCain opposed legislation that would apply cargo preference to certain cash aid transactions.
•In 1993, Senator McCain supported a sense of the Senate resolution linking cargo preference and price gouging by U.S.-flag vessel operators.
•In 1993, Senator McCain supported an effort by Senator Hank Brown (R-Colorado) to place a cap on the rates charged under the cargo preference program.
•In 1996, Senator McCain supported an attempt by Senator Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) to link the rates charged by U.S.-flag vessels under cargo preference to foreign flag rates.
This past weekend I initiated, with the help of a friend, my own fall foliage tour of New England. I've never considered myself to be a leaf peeper but having spent the last five days in between Boston Massachusetts and Millinocket Maine I've gained an appreciation for the variety of the sights and smells of a proper fall.
Included in our itinerary was igniting a huge pile of brush wood into an all night conflagration consuming micro brews until there were only coals left, journeying to the great north woods to be told by a park ranger that all the summit trails to the top of Mount Katahdin had been closed due to weather, and spending a perfectly placid blue day on the waters of Damariscotta lake content to do little else than gawk at the foliage and take one last dip in the cold but very clear water.
Baxter State Park, about 250 miles from home, was the best part of the tour. Despite being refused our ascent of the highest point in Maine we made due and roasted corn, potatoes, and onions on the fire. T-Bone steaks and a flask of red breast led to the best out door sleep I've had all year. The next morning we set off on the 20 miles of dirt road to arrive at the other side of the park to hike Coe, South Brother, and North Brother peaks. The trails were in poor shape in spots but a hand full of hikers had made it up despite the increasing clouds. I was amazed to find the peaks of Katahdin shrouded in snow, the reason for the trails being closed. Our own ascent up North Brother, a mere four thousand footer was met with freezing temperatures, ice and snow, portents of the months to come.
While I was in Boston last week the evaluator pointed out a few things on my STCW that I had never actually taken the time to understand.
First, at the top of the certificate where it says, for example, the "Government of the United States of America certifies No. 1234567 & 123456 have been issued to ...enter name..., who has been found duly qualified in accordance with the provisions of regulation(s) II/4, II/1, V/1, VI/2, VI/4, IV/2 & II/3 of the above convention" means that your license (First number) and your Z-Card or MMD (Second number) are endorsed specifically to those chapters of the STCW code. And since I don't particularly enjoy reading the Sanskrit of the STCW code the Coast Guard has conveniently interpreted it for me under the capacity and limitations fields.
I also learned that the license and MMD numbers on the STCW certificate must match the identification numbers on your current license and MMD. This is what port state control first checks if they are vetting the crew's credentials. Therefore it is imperative that when, for example, your license is up for renewal you have the MMD renewed at the same time. Even if your STCW is less than five years old having either an expired Z-Card or license negates the validity of your STCW. According to Boston REC this has put many a sailor out of work.
The Boston REC told me that in the past they would renew both at the same time even if the other document wasn't within a year of expiring. Not doing so would mean having to make another trip to the REC to submit another application . If instead both documents were renewed simultaneously than the STCW would be valid for the full five years. No headaches.
What if you have an endorsement added onto the STCW? Even though the issue date at the bottom of the certificate, just above your mug shot, says it was issued more recently than your MMD or license it still expires when either the MMD or license expire, whichever is first. Now that the REC's have been centralized you can actually mail the application for endorsements to the REC which will then be forwarded to the National Maritime Center, processed, and mailed home. Boston said that right now they expected my endorsement for VSO to take about ten days.
Where is all of this going? For starters I was told that the TWIC, once implemented will replace the need for redundant fingerprinting (Fingerprints aren't required for endorsements). Also the MMD, License, and STCW are supposed to be replaced by the Merchant Mariner's Credential but this will not replace the TWIC. Also, the MMC is supposed to be created in the theme of what international mariner's carry with them to work, a small book with a page for your license, a page for STCW and pages for endorsements which will be applied with stickers to the pages. A big change from the pieces of 81/2" X 11" paper we carry in three ring binders.
Of course this is all just hearsay, if you need real help from one of the forerunners in reforming RECs check out Andy Hammond's site or on the West Coast check out Maritime Licensing.
Merchant Mariners always approach any interaction with the United States Coast Guard with some trepidation. The heavy hand of the Federal Government is often felt in the policies and regulations that emanate from the fifth branch of the armed forces. Even dealing with a proxy of the USCG, like a Regional Exam Center, causes heartache amongst mariners.
So it was with apprehension when I paid a visit to the Boston REC last week to seek out an endorsement on my STCW certificate for Vessel Security Officer. You never know how long the line is going to be nor are proof positive that you brought the right combination of driver's license, passport, birth certificate or family bible with inscribed birth records for identification purposes. There are so many unknowns when dealing with the USCG, an arm of the government that is charged with more missions than is realistic but include regulating the documentation of American seafarers.
Fortunately over the years Boston REC has invoked a few innovative approaches to handling our licensing cases such as closing on Fridays to devote the staff to processing paperwork earning the reputation for the fastest turn around in the country. They also endeared us New Englanders by not taking appointments and instead procession customer's as they arrive decreasing wait time and how much we have to pay for parking in Bean Town.
For these reasons and the level of expertise in the evaluators I've felt lucky to know the men and women working the Boston branch are on my side. How many times have we heard stories where mariners were given the run around by an REC, or had paperwork delayed for months while some decision on a special case was being made. The slow processing of merchant mariners documents can put someone out of a job. Interpretations can differ from REC to REC or even evaluator to evaluator within the same office. But at Boston the answers I've sought are always determined quickly and are concise.
I was eternally indebted by their service when I was deprived of all my professional documents when they were smashed and grabbed out of my car. I was parked in South Florida, still getting used to having solid ground under my feet, naively standing out of sight and 100 feet away from the fragile car windows. Along with my sea bag was every document attesting to my professional abilities as a mariner but in no more than thirty days I had obtained a new birth certificate, new passport, and then had all my paper reprocessed by Boston and mailed to me at home. They handled my case as if it was their own problem and I didn't miss a day of work because of it.
Those days are coming to a close though. In September the Boston REC began forwarding files to the centralized National Maritime Center in West Virginia. The office is still staffed as it was but come December I was informed that half the crew will be cut. No longer will issues be worked out locally at the REC but instead as a "Storefront" the REC will relegate all decision making to the NMC. This concerns a lot of us in the business. One consequence will be the loss of local expertise in the documenting the many Captains that make their summertime livelihoods plying the waters of Penobscot Bay on the windjammer fleet. For years they have trusted the Boston office to understand their peculiar needs to be licensed on motor less auxiliary sail vessels with small crews and uncommon tonnages in coastal waters carrying passengers during the short summer season in Maine.
Hopefully the NMC will have the resources and dedicated personal needed to navigate the maze of policy in a constantly changing world of international and domestic regulation. As for my endorsement, I'll just tell you that if your file was in Boston go before December 08, they're doing whatever they can to take care of us before everything is centralized.
I know there's been a lot in the news lately, the mortgage meltdown, the credit crisis, the elections, Sarah Palin getting skewered by Katie Couric (And the comic genius of Tina Fey). But like the global recession there has been another news story looming on the horizon.
I was so pleased to finally hear a report this week on National Public Radio (My preferred source for news) concerning piracy and the hijacking of the MV Faina. It brought to light the growing boldness the pirates are showing in attacking defenseless ships. This topic has been ignored for some time by the American media because what happens to a Monrovia flagged tanker crewed by Filipinos has little effect on the United States.
Now that a ship carrying munitions has fallen into the hands of Somali pirates in close proximity to the Islamic fueled rebellion there is greater concern from Russia and the U.S.. Unfortunately shipping companies are still paying out millions of dollars in ransom for hijacked ships enabling the pirates like drunks at a wine tasting.
I'm sure that neither the U.S. or Russia will allow the 33 T-72M1 and T72-M1K battle tanks, six anti-aircraft defense systems, 150 RPG-7 launchers, six missile launchers and 14,000 rounds of 125 mm ammunition to fall into the hands of Muslim extremists but what about the crew lying at anchor close to the Somali coast.? What about the Captain who has just died, his conditions surely exacerbated by the stress of seeing his multi-ethnic crew of 21 being confined at gunpoint?
Isn't their kidnapping by a thousand man strong criminal organisation enough justification? The French didn't put up with it when Le Ponant was hijacked. Their Marine Commandos intervened, liberated the crew and apprehended the pirates who are now standing trial.
Instead we are in negotiations with a the pirate spokesman giving more legitimacy to their crimes. It took ten years for the United States to authorize six frigates to combat the Barbary Pirates and cease paying tribute. How long will it take us now? Maybe were just waiting for the Russians to show up and take care of their own mess. But what of the other 14 or so ships currently being ransomed? I suppose it will require the hijacking of an American ship to pull some SEALs out of the dessert and away from the real "War on Terror".
Having transited the Gulf of Aden numerous times I pay close attention to these events mainly because I'm the one who plots the course line through these attacks. Information about recent locations or attacks, the methods employed and the deterrents used by the ships is very useful to mariners. Seeing the increase in media coverage and discussions of piracy online is a positive change. Hopefully the coalition navy will sooner than later institute an anti piracy policy that goes beyond surveillance and five minute VHF interrogations.
Still beyond people who directly deal with piracy and it's effects there remains a lack of awareness about the threats to innocent passage of commercial vessels around Africa. A month ago during my VSO course an FBI Agent working in maritime security informed the class that the real piracy hot spot was still the Strait of Malacca. Perhaps he should check out this satellite imagery from UNOSAT. (Click on Somalia)