In age of seagoing specialists, plan now — later may be too late

It was Saturday, graduation day at California Maritime Academy (CMA), and a warm spring haze was just burning off the Carquinez Strait as we assembled for the ceremony. I was dressed in a formal white uniform like the rest of the graduating class, and my mother and father were in the crowd watching as we filed in one by one to the seating area. Soon after the program started, the parade of speeches from various school officials, politicians and dignitaries began. It didn’t take long for my mind to drift to thoughts of the previous few years and all the time, hard work, money and sheer luck/divine intervention that it took for me to be sitting in that seat on that day. As our names were called, each of us went up to the podium to receive our diploma and new third mate or third engineer license. Then, after being administered the Merchant Mariner Oath, we threw our hats in the air and it was official — we were now licensed officers in the U.S. Merchant Marine.
During a celebratory lunch with my family and a few friends after the ceremony, I got my first close look at my new license. I thought that the Coast Guard had given it a time-honored look, with a ship motif and fancy lettering worthy of a professional mariner’s license — and the words “Third Mate, Oceans, Any Gross Tons” printed boldly on the front. Truth be told, my new third mate license was a doorway to many opportunities, and I was over the moon with excitement at the prospect of getting my first seagoing job. I planned to start the search on the Monday after graduation, license in hand, with visits to companies and unions in central and Southern California.

For decades before and after I graduated from CMA, an unlimited deck or engine officer license was all that was ever required to work as an officer on any commercial vessel in the U.S. fleet — inland, coastwise or deep-sea. My third mate license, for example, allowed me to work not only as a third mate on a big oceangoing ship, but also as one of the mates or the only mate on a vessel of smaller tonnage. Consequently, I applied for any job my license would cover, including a third mate slot on an oil tanker and a mate position on a dinner boat operating out of Berkeley, Calif.
Having my third mate ticket paid off for me. Just three weeks after graduation, I was working on tugs and crew boats for a large West Coast company out of its office in Long Beach, Calif. Holding a third mate license worked out well for my friends, too. One of my buddies from CMA got a job on a treasure-hunting ship in the Caribbean, and another snagged a deck officer slot on a ferry/freighter based on Kwajalein Island in the South Pacific. Despite sailing on very different commercial vessels in far-flung regions of the globe, we had one important thing in common: Our third mate license was the only maritime license we needed to get those jobs.

In the mid-1990s, the United States became a signatory to the International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers (STCW Code), an act that would forever change merchant mariner licensing. In February 2002, the code came into full effect for U.S. merchant mariners. The Coast Guard mandated that from then on, both an STCW certificate and a license were required to sail as an officer on a vessel over 200 tons operating outside the boundary lines between inland and offshore waters, as listed in 46 CFR Part 7. The days of just needing an officer license to work at sea were a memory.

Since 2002, the authorities have established even more licensing changes. Today, extensive training, special classes and Coast Guard approval of applicable endorsements are required to work on specific types of STCW-compliant vessels including oil tankers, high-speed craft and passenger ships. When the most recent set of amendments came into effect in 2017, additional classes and training were mandated for all mariners, including those seeking to sail as a master, chief engineer, or watch-standing deck or engine officer on STCW-compliant vessels — without exception.

In the same place I threw my hat in the air at the beginning of my seagoing career, a guy from Spokane, Wash., graduated along with 262 of his classmates on May 4 of this year. I had been mentoring Shaun since high school and was quite proud of him when he graduated with a very high grade-point average (somewhat higher than mine), and his unlimited third mate license with STCW certifications. Unlike when I graduated, however, every third mate or third engineer in Shaun’s class does not have the same license as everyone else. Depending on what ships they trained on, what classes they took and what tests they passed, each of these new graduates has their own individual set of STCW certifications and endorsements. As a result, many of them are not certified to work on vessels that were open to all third mates and engineers before STCW came into effect.
What that means for Shaun’s graduating class at CMA, and for the 2019 graduating classes of the other maritime academies, is that any newly licensed third mates and third engineers will have to be proactive in developing a career plan right from the start. They will have to be vigilant about getting enough sea time — and enough of the right type of sea time on certain vessels — within the five-year period after certification, or else risk having STCW endorsements removed from their merchant mariner credential and not being able to get a job on hundreds of U.S.-flag oceangoing vessels. A strong focus and careful planning are now essential to avoid being left out in the cold professionally.

STCW has compartmentalized mariner licensing to the point where it is now virtually impossible for anyone to obtain all the certifications needed to work on every type of commercial vessel. The days of the generalist merchant marine deck or engine officer with a “one size fits all” license are gone. We are now an industry of specialists. So whether you are an old salt or a newcomer to the industry, making a commitment as to what types of commercial vessels you want to work on — and keep working on — is an essential career decision that you cannot afford to ignore.

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