The Merchant Mariner Oath: “I do solemnly swear or affirm that I will faithfully and honestly, according to my best skill and judgment, and without concealment and reservation, perform all the duties required of me by the laws of the United States. I will faithfully and honestly carry out the lawful orders of my superior officers aboard a vessel.”
Rereading the Merchant Mariner Oath recently took me back to the time when I first uttered those words. The warm California sun was shining brightly as we entered the seating area, dressed in our white uniforms. Graduation day had finally arrived. The testing was over, and I would soon have my diploma from the California Maritime Academy and newly printed third mate’s license in hand. Fidgeting while I half-listened to the commencement speech, the excitement built until we were finally told to stand and hold our right hands up — it was time to take the Merchant Mariner Oath prior to being issued our licenses.
In accordance with 46 CFR 10.225, before any person can hold a U.S. Merchant Mariner Credential (MMC), he or she must take the Merchant Mariner Oath. The oath is found on Coast Guard form CG-719B, the Merchant Mariner Credential application form, as it is printed here. For many years the oath had to be given by a U.S. Coast Guard official, which presented a hardship for mariners who lived long distances from a Regional Exam Center. To its credit, the Coast Guard changed the rule in 2009. Now a U.S. Coast Guard official, or a designated person legally allowed to administer oaths — such as a notary public — can witness it. Therefore, these days before a completed application for an original MMC can be sent to the National Maritime Center, the oath must be signed and dated by the mariner and either the Coast Guard or other designated functionary. It should be noted that any Merchant Mariner holding a MMC agrees to adhere to the tenets contained in the oath not just for the original credential, but every future upgrade and/or renewal.
Because I took the oath on graduation day, I’ve just considered that section of application CG-719B something I didn’t have to fill out for any of my subsequent upgrades or renewals. In fact, I hadn’t really given any thought to the oath in 30 years, until one day not long ago while I was going through my professional paperwork and came across a copy of my last MMC renewal application. Rereading the Merchant Mariner Oath near the middle of the third page, I was struck by the magnitude of what I had agreed to. I have no problem with the part that requires us to follow the legal orders of our superior officers on board. It’s the first sentence that really got me thinking. From what I have seen, the statement, “perform all the duties required of me by the laws of the United States,” is a catchall, potentially leaving mariners wide open to the severe scrutiny and judgment of investigators and/or the courts in the event of an accident.
Considering the hundreds, if not thousands of U.S. maritime, environmental, health and safety, labor, and other applicable laws that exist, it is mind-boggling that we have taken an oath and agreed to do “all the duties” required to meet each and every one of them. According to a colleague of mine who’s a maritime lawyer, some laws affecting shipping date back hundreds of years. The pilot on Cosco Busan served 10 months in prison after the 2007 accident, in large part for violating the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, an environmental law that has been on the books since 1918.
As a cadet on a containership berthed at Terminal 5 in Seattle, I saw an able seaman, who was coming back from an evening ashore, trip just as he was about to step onto the gangway. Even though the gangway was in place with safety net secured it failed to stop him, and he fell 25 feet down into Elliott Bay. Cargo loading ceased as the gantry crane was moved to provide more light, while ship crewmembers threw life rings and called 911. Soon after, paramedics and fire department crews arrived at the scene to pull him out of the water. Luckily he survived. The gangway and safety net were subject to applicable U.S. laws, as well as Coast Guard, Occupational Safety and Health Administration, Washington state and Port of Seattle regulations. As it turned out, the net was tied off on the dock a few inches too close to the gangway, and because of this small oversight the boatswain was fired. Afterward, I thought about what a harsh punishment it was to lose a job simply because of an inadvertent minor mistake.
Perhaps it’s the unrealistic expectations that it has imposed upon us that led to the Merchant Mariner Oath being repealed by our government between 1980 and 1983, through an amendment to section 4, Public Law 96-378 (94 Stat. 1516). For some reason, the U.S. Coast Guard continued administering it anyway, and so in 1983 the requirement was officially reinstated. Then, in 2007, another attempt to eliminate the oath was included in a bill titled the Merchant Mariner Credentials Improvement Act of 2007. Industry groups testified in favor, but the bill was never brought to a vote. Consequently, the Merchant Mariner Oath, with all its implications, remains intact today.
The men and women of the U.S. Merchant Marine have shown their willingness to follow U.S. laws and regulations, in peace, during wartime, while under attack from pirates, and even in the midst of nature’s mayhem. Yet, we are required to take an oath that challenges us to meet a nearly impossible standard of performance, one that leaves each mariner wide open to the possibility of criminal charges and job losses. I think that it is time to re-evaluate the wording of the Merchant Mariner Oath. After all, we work on the water — we don’t walk on it.
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.