It was a few minutes before they opened the doors of the U.S. Coast Guard Regional Exam Center (REC) at Seattle’s Pier 36, and I waited anxiously. I was a cadet on Sea Land Galveston, a containership running between various Alaskan ports and Seattle’s Terminal Five, scheduled to depart for sea at 1700 that afternoon. That meant there were only a few short hours for me to get a replacement merchant mariner’s document, my original having been lost the day before when my wallet was stolen. If unsuccessful, I would not be allowed to make the voyage — resulting in a failing grade on my sea project and jeopardizing my impending graduation from the California Maritime Academy in a few months. The pressure was on.
The doors opened and I pushed my way to the front of the line, getting signed in first. When my name was called, I told the story of my lost z-card. Listening intently, the lady behind the counter handed me a form and said, “Fill out this application now, then go down on 1st Avenue and get two passport photos at one of the photographers, then come back with them and we’ll get you your replacement — and, with any luck, have you out of here by lunchtime.” I did what she asked, running all the way over and back to a passport photo shop a few blocks south of Pike Place Market. Racing in with the photos, I handed them over and then waited nervously on one of the big wooden benches for my name to be called once more. A few minutes before the Coast Guard office closed for lunch, my new duplicate z-card was ready. After thanking the people who helped me, I went outside to catch a cab. On the ride back to Terminal Five I breathed a huge sigh of relief, knowing that my sea project — and upcoming graduation — were safe.
For close to 25 years, the Coast Guard’s 17 RECs were the mainstays of the merchant mariner documentation system. Located in major port areas and easily accessed by mariners, the RECs had the personal touch, allowing mariners to meet face to face with their evaluators and get direct in-person answers regarding their document upgrade or renewal. Then, from 2005 until 2009, the Coast Guard shifted away from the REC system, instead consolidating the evaluation, review and issuance of merchant mariner documents at the new National Maritime Center (NMC) located in Martinsburg, W.Va. Once the NMC began issuing credentials, the fast turnarounds that used to be possible at the RECs were a thing of the past.
After the NMC took over nearly all the responsibilities for merchant mariner credentialing, I began to hear stories. Many mariners were exasperated by trying to deal with an evaluator located thousands of miles away who they couldn’t speak with face to face. Dale, a 1,600-ton master, told me how his first Merchant Mariner Credential (MMC) renewal after the NMC took over dragged on for over eight months. The process was plagued by a lack of communication and misunderstandings that cost him jobs and drained his bank account.
As my MMC renewal approached in 2010, I became concerned about getting caught up in the maelstrom of the new NMC-centric credentialing process. Telling my concerns to William, an engine officer and friend of mine, he replied, “Kelly, you need to do what I did — hire a license consultant.” He continued, “The one I used for my recent upgrade is a retired Coast Guard REC evaluator. She made sure that I got all the endorsements and certifications I was entitled to, and the whole process took just a few weeks, much faster than I expected — and her fee was only 200 bucks.”
The Coast Guard recognizes the value of using a license consultant. The latest version of CG-719B even has a section on page 5 where you can formally designate a “third party” of your choice to look out for your interests, someone you authorize to contact/be contacted on your behalf by the evaluators at the NMC. There are a number of license consultants located throughout the United States. Professional training schools and/or your local Coast Guard REC should be able to give you the names of the ones in your area. Based on my engineer friend William’s recommendation, the next day I called the license consultant whom he had used.
After I filled out the CG-719B application for my MMC renewal, including all relevant documentation, I sent the whole package of about 20 pages to the license consultant, along with a check covering all USCG credential charges plus her fee. She reviewed my paperwork to make sure that it was properly filled out, verified my supporting documentation and personally submitted it to the Puget Sound Regional Exam Center, where they pre-screened the paperwork and then sent it on. As my MMC renewal made its way through the review process at the NMC, the consultant monitored its progress and kept in contact with the evaluator in West Virginia. A few weeks later I got my new credential back, done correctly and with all the endorsements for which I applied. The license consultant I retained for my MMC renewal in 2010 retired, so I used another top-notch professional who lives in Michigan for my latest MMC renewal a few months ago. He did a great job, too.
For decades, merchant mariners enjoyed being able to obtain/upgrade/renew their documents in person at one of the local Coast Guard offices. When the USCG made the decision to use the NMC for issuing credentials and not the examination centers, to a large extent it shut mariners out of the process. The total lack of personal, face-to-face contact when dealing with the NMC is why, in my opinion, it’s more important than ever to have a license consultant in your corner. Considering the potential for lost jobs or even a lost career resulting from a mistake or omission at the NMC, and especially with all the new requirements, hiring a maritime license consultant is the only way to go.
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 email@example.com.