Years ago I was a cadet assigned to the containership SeaLand Galveston. Joining the ship in Seattle, the skipper, Virgil Robinson, told me, “We’re scheduled to sail in two days. So you’re free to go into town tomorrow and have some fun.” I couldn’t believe my good luck. The next morning I took a cab to Pike Place Market, a famous tourist destination. Walking along the market, I was surprised to run into a friend of mine. It was his day off, so I told Larry, “I’ll buy lunch if you’ll give me a ride back to the ship.” He readily agreed. We shot the breeze well into the afternoon, until he looked at his watch and said, “My fiancée is getting home from work soon, Kelly. Why don’t you settle up, and then I’ll get you back to the ship.” Reaching into my pocket to pay, I was hit by a wave of shock and dread — my wallet had been stolen.
I freaked out, not only because of the money lost but because the wallet had my Z-card (merchant mariner document). Without that, I couldn’t sail on the vessel. I’d lose my cadet’s billet on the ship, perhaps scuttling my graduation in four months. Larry kindly paid for lunch and gave me a ride back to the ship, where I immediately went up to Capt. Robinson’s office and told him what had happened. Looking at his watch, he said, “The Coast Guard office is closed now, so first thing tomorrow you have to go down there and get a duplicate Z-card.” Giving me a cash draw out of the ship’s safe for cab fare, he told me, “Remember cadet, we sail tomorrow at 1700. If you’re not back here by then, I’m leaving you on the beach.”
The following morning I was waiting at the Coast Guard Regional Exam Center’s door before it opened. I told the lady at the counter my predicament. She said, “Don’t worry; you’ll have a duplicate by lunch.”
I filled out the application and got two passport photos at a nearby photography studio. The new Z-card was in my hand as the office closed for lunch at 1130, and I made it back to the ship in plenty of time before sailing.
I’ll always remember with gratitude the men and women working at the Puget Sound Regional Exam Center (REC) that day. Since then, I’ve dealt with many of the same people, as I upgraded or renewed my license. (Those of you who have my book From The Bridge can see a picture of me holding my just-issued master’s license with two of the women who work at the Puget Sound REC.) Recently I sailed on a chemical tanker and was surprised when Mike, one of the mates, asked me, “Have you heard that the Coast Guard’s closing all the RECs, Kelly?” I was incredulous. “You’ve got to be kidding,” I replied. He answered, “That’s what I heard. You should check into it. It’d be a great article.”
When I got ashore, I did check into it and was pleased to find that the top-notch people at the Puget Sound REC will not be out of a job. That doesn’t mean, however, that it’s “business-as-usual.” A full-scale reorganization of the way the Coast Guard issues merchant mariners our licenses, documents and STCW ’95 certificates is underway. For those of us who go to sea for a living, things will never be the same.
In the past, like all U.S. merchant mariners, I submitted my paperwork to a local REC (in my case, Seattle). Someone at that office would check my sea-time discharges, documents verifying my professional experience, any course certifications, and make sure my physical exam and drug-screen results were in order. Then, after my application had been evaluated to see if I met all the requirements, a postcard sent from the Puget Sound REC would arrive saying that I was to schedule an appointment for tests.
In March 2005 the Coast Guard began the process of shifting the role of the Regional Exam Centers. When the plan is complete (scheduled for the summer of 2008), the RECs will no longer determine whether you meet the requirements for a license, seaman’s document or STCW certificate. All of the evaluation of paperwork, approval or disapproval, and the issuing of licenses and documents will be done only at the National Maritime Center (NMC) in Martinsburg, W.Va. Essentially, the local RECs will be nothing more than places to ask questions, turn in your paperwork and take any tests required.
When the new system is fully implemented, the thousands of applications that have been handled every year by the 17 RECs will be sent to one place — the National Maritime Center. One concern I have is that this could result in an overload and a backlog, which could actually increase the time it takes to get our seaman’s papers. A paperwork delay means you can’t sail on your license or document, and could have far-reaching consequences for mariners in terms of lost work and for companies in terms of crewing.
When the new system is fully implemented, I’m going to miss the old days, when I could drive down to my local REC and actually answer any questions in person for the man or woman who was in charge of evaluating and approving my upgrades and renewals. I’m concerned that under the new system, any requests, problems or miscommunications could take weeks, not hours, to work out. Thinking back to the day my wallet was stolen as a cadet, I doubt I’d have made the sailing had my duplicate Z-card been issued out of West Virginia.
The Regional Exam Centers at Anchorage, Juneau, New Orleans and Baltimore have already changed over to the new system, and this month mariners using these RECs were supposed to have had their paperwork taken care of at the National Maritime Center. If you are one of those mariners, how did things go? Was the process faster or slower? Please share your experiences by sending an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
One final note: The implementation of the new licensing and documentation system is ongoing — by no stretch complete. Two e-mail accounts for mariner feedback have been set up, and I encourage you to take advantage of them. You can send any concerns, questions and opinions you have regarding the new system to: MERPACfeedback@gmail.com or to email@example.com.
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.