Hurdles abound, but merchant marine can pay off as second career

It was a sunny Southern California day, and I had been invited to speak at the Newport Beach Yacht Club, one of a number of engagements scheduled during my two-week visit to the area. I gave a talk about my belief that celestial navigation is something every oceangoing mariner, professional or recreational, should know. A lively discussion followed, and then it was time for me to wrap things up and head down to San Diego, where I was scheduled to speak at the Propeller Club meeting the following day. As I was putting away my books and papers, a tall guy with salt-and-pepper hair and a pleasant smile approached me, introducing himself as Dave. He said, “I wanted to ask what you think about someone in his late 50s starting a second career in the merchant marine.”

Unprepared for the question, I stopped what I was doing and turned to look at him. He continued, “I’m a retired airline pilot and have been thinking a lot lately about finishing up my working life with five to 10 years as a merchant mariner, something I’ve always wanted to try.” We talked for a good half-hour about his goals and options, and after returning home the following week, I continued to counsel him by phone. Ultimately, he decided to attend Seattle Maritime Academy’s engineering program. A little over a year later, with a brand-new merchant mariner credential (MMC) endorsed with a Qualified Member of the Engine Department (QMED) and Rating Forming Part of an Engineering Watch (RFPEW) certification, Dave got a job on an oceanographic ship. He sailed deep sea for a couple of years, and then finished up doing about five years with Washington State Ferries. I lost track of him, but as fate would have it we ran into each other during an appointment to obtain our new Transportation Worker Identification Credential (TWIC) cards. He thanked me for my advice and said that his second career as a merchant mariner was working out better than he ever imagined it could.

I must admit that I have always admired my friends and shipmates who joined the merchant marine after working in another profession. Each of them, bar none, told me that while their journey was a worthwhile one, it was a difficult one, too — especially so, they said, while juggling all the life responsibilities that mature adults carry on their shoulders. My friend Dan, after he retired from the U.S. Navy, earned his 1,600-ton (oceans) master’s license. Then he got a job sailing on the Alaska run for a large West Coast company out of Seattle. I remember he once told me, “Don’t forget, Kelly, that I had already done over 20 in the Navy, bought a house and raised a family before deciding to jump through all the hoops to become a merchant mariner.”

Someone choosing the merchant marine as a second career will soon find out that it is going to take time, effort and money — and probably a whole lot of those — to make that dream of going to sea a reality. Luckily, there are a number of options available. Mike, a chief steward I know, had culinary training and experience ashore, so all he needed to do was take a weeklong basic safety training class and a one-day vessel security class at a school in Seattle, and then apply for his entry-level MMC. He’s now been cooking professionally on commercial vessels for over 10 years. William worked for a large manufacturing company until his job was eliminated in downsizing. The one-year community college program at Seattle Maritime Academy was a perfect fit for him, and he came out with a QMED/RFPEW endorsement. Today, 11 years later, he sails as an unlimited first engineer. Mark was a boatswain’s mate in the U.S. Coast Guard when he called and asked my advice on transitioning to the merchant marine. He decided on California Maritime Academy, and after four years graduated in 2013. He has been employed at sea ever since, and now holds a second mate (unlimited), 1,600-ton master, and master of towing license.

Local training schools offering individual classes and one- and two-year programs for ratings and limited licenses are excellent options for “second careerists” to enter the maritime industry, as are four-year state maritime academies graduating unlimited third mates and third engineers. Unfortunately, due to age restrictions, other opportunities may not be available. For example, the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy doesn’t admit men or women over the age of 25, and the Job Corps’ Seamanship Training program in Astoria, Ore., has an age limit of only 24. Anyone interested in the merchant marine as a second career also should be aware that unlike the U.S. military, which permits men and women entering the service to meet different physical standards depending on how old they are, all credentialed U.S. merchant mariners regardless of age have to comply with the rules established by U.S. Coast Guard Navigation and Vessel Inspection Circular (NVIC) 04-08. There are no age-related exemptions to the requirements. In other words, a 59-year-old obtaining his or her first MMC has to meet the same medical and physical fitness standards as the 18-year-old just entering the business.

In my opinion, it’s past time for this systemic discrimination to stop. Age restrictions for all maritime schools and training programs should be loosened, if not eliminated altogether. Medical and physical fitness standards should follow the military model, allowing for adjustments based on the age of the candidate. These modest changes would go a long way toward leveling the playing field for everyone interested in becoming a credentialed merchant mariner, regardless of age.

The importance of encouraging our profession as a second career should not be overlooked, especially at a time when the U.S. Maritime Administration and the International Maritime Organization have been sounding the alarm about the looming shortage of merchant mariners. With high-ranking government officials publicly announcing a need for “70,000 new people by 2022,” it’s essential that the authorities address these issues. In doing so, they should not exclude but encourage the gold mine of experienced talent that is primed and ready to join our ranks, and most importantly remember that ageism has no place in the modern merchant marine.

Till next time, I wish you all smooth sailin.’

Kelly Sweeney holds a license of master (oceans, any gross tons), and has held a master of towing vessels license (oceans) as well. He sails on a variety of commercial vessels and lives on an island near Seattle. You can contact him at

By Professional Mariner Staff