Tom, a deck hand/cook I sailed with on a tug years ago, called me awhile back out of the blue. I had lost track of him and was surprised when he told me who it was. “Good to hear from you, Tom. Are you still sailing on that old 1940s tug?” He replied, “No, I’ve been working ashore, but have decided to go back to sea. I cleaned out my savings account taking STCW (International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers) classes, then found that I didn’t need to take them to work on a coastwise tug. Now tug jobs have dried up and I’m broke. I don’t know how I am going to pay my bills.”
Tom’s confusion over what classes he did or didn’t need to take is not unusual. Many mariners, myself included, have found it hard to keep up on all the changes in credentialing requirements enacted in recent years. When I first started going to sea in the 1980s, a merchant mariner document (MMD) was all that was needed to sail on any U.S.-flag ship or boat. A “user-friendly” document, the MMD had no expiration date and did not require any additional training or classes to keep it current.
In 2009, the U.S. Coast Guard officially replaced the MMD with the merchant mariner credential (MMC). For the first time in our modern maritime history, two sets of endorsements — each giving the mariner divergent options — were combined into one official document. One set of endorsements consists of the qualifications a mariner holds for working on STCW-compliant vessels, mainly oceangoing ships. The second set of endorsements are known as national endorsements, which is all that Tom needed to work on the coastwise tug.
National endorsements are issued pursuant to Title 46, Subtitle II, part E of the U.S. Code, and are only good for sailing on domestic U.S.-flag vessels. There are 43 national officer endorsements listed in 46 CFR 10.109 (a), including chief mate, master of towing vessels, second engineer, medical doctor and radar observer. The 29 national rating endorsements, such as able seaman (limited), wiper, apprentice mate and tankerman (assistant), are listed in 46 CFR 10.109 (b) and (c).
Thousands of mariners working on U.S.-flag vessels never have to worry about having anything other than the applicable national endorsements. Included in this group are those working on Great Lakes freighters and tugs, river towboats, local ferries and excursion vessels, harbor and domestic coastwise tugs and many offshore supply vessels. Will, an engineer I know, has a national rating endorsement as a qualified-member-of-the-engine-department (QMED) oiler. He recently got a job working as an engineer on a multipurpose boat locally off the coast of Louisiana with only a national rating endorsement on his MMC. No other certification was needed because it was considered a domestic vessel.
Although national endorsements do have the drawback of restricting mariners to working on domestic vessels, they offer advantages compared to the STCW certifications. For example, the whole battery of expensive time-consuming classes needed for mariners to be fully STCW-qualified is not required for comparable national endorsements. Deck and engine officers who do not have the required 360 days sea time in the last five years can still renew their national endorsement by passing an open book test instead. Mariners nearing retirement, or who have to take a break from shipping for personal reasons, have the option to place their national endorsements in “continuity status” if they so desire — something not possible under STCW. Even the new medical cards the Coast Guard began issuing in 2014 only have to be renewed every five years for domestic endorsements — not two years as for the others.
On March 24, 2014, new Coast Guard regulations for obtaining, upgrading and renewing certain national endorsements came into effect. These changes are detailed in Navigation and Vessel Inspection Circular (NVIC) 02-14. The new rules will benefit many mariners holding only national endorsements. For example, those working on articulated tug-barges (ATBs) will now have their sea time calculated based on the tonnage of the tug and barge combined — not just that of the tug, as in years past. The new rules permit up to 50 percent of the 360 days needed for unlimited tonnage officer upgrades to be earned on ATBs. Another change eliminates a longstanding policy by allowing sea-time credit toward unlimited tonnage endorsements to be earned on any vessel over 100 gross tons. Some of the other revisions in the regulations include a consolidation of chief (limited) endorsements, new upgrade requirements for offshore vessel (OSV) officer endorsements and alternate paths for advancement to master of towing vessels. Any mariner starting his or her career after March 24, 2014, must follow the new rules, although experienced mariners who were credentialed before that date can take advantage of a five-year “grandfathering” period that allows them to meet the old rules for renewal and upgrade until March 24, 2019.
As my old shipmate Tom found out after paying thousands of dollars unnecessarily, you can spend a lot of time and money taking classes you may not need. Figuring out what vessels you want to work on and where you want to work, then investigating whether a national endorsement alone will qualify you for that position, is an important career consideration. Whether just entering the industry or an experienced mariner, I think that it is essential to stay focused on your professional goals by researching how the new rules affect you. Mariners can check the facts on the National Maritime Center website, where the complete text of NVIC 02-14 is posted. More information, including news stories on the latest developments, can be found on the Professional Mariner magazine website’s Licensing and Training Hub.
Till next time, I wish you all smooth sailin’.
Kelly Sweeney holds the licenses of master (oceans, any gross tons) and master of towing vessels (oceans), and regularly sails on a wide variety of commercial vessels. He lives on an island near Seattle. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.