Thursday, October 9, 2008

God bless the Boston REC

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.

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