It’s time to reconsider the value of radar observer renewal

The red glow from the radar simulator console illuminated the darkness ethereally as I put down the grease pencil and clear plastic ruler at the end of the test for my original unlimited radar observer certificate. I was a cadet at the California Maritime Academy (CMA) and had just finished the practical exam. That test, per U.S. Coast Guard requirements, measured our competence in rapid radar plotting (RRP). RRP was a plotting technique we had learned that enabled us to manually determine if a target was on a collision course, what its true course and speed were and what new course we would need to steer to safely avoid a collision if we were the give-way vessel according to the Rules of the Road. The instructor looked over the grease pencil markings on my radar simulator screen and said, “Your plots look good and your answers are within the tolerances. Congratulations, you passed the test, and are now a radar observer unlimited.”

In accordance with 46 CFR 11.480, all deck officers holding a license over 200 gross tons must hold a valid radar observer certificate. Successful completion of an approved class is necessary to obtain an original radar certificate, with 46 CFR 10.305 listing all the subjects the U.S. Coast Guard mandates mariners be tested on to demonstrate competency. Depending upon the scope of the individual’s license, either a radar observer (rivers), radar observer (inland waters other than Great Lakes, including the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway) or a radar observer (unlimited) is required, each one valid for a period of five years per current Coast Guard regulations. Thereafter, an approved refresher course must be completed every five years to keep the certificate up to date.

On a dark winter morning in January 2016 my alarm clock came on at 0400, rousing me from a peaceful sleep. Four hours later, after taking a bus, a ferry and a train, I found myself at the Edmonds, Wash., Amtrak station a block from my destination. Walking in through the glass doors at the front of Compass Courses for the sixth time since graduating from the California Maritime Academy, I was ready to renew my unlimited radar observer certificate. In the class with me were Robert, a longtime captain, and Matthew, a second mate — both fellow CMA graduates. Rounding out the group was a fisherman who was upgrading his license, and two deck officers who work for a large oil spill response vessel operator, who came from Port Angeles that day to take the class. The instructor was the well-known and respected Capt. Gary Haugland, a retired Washington State Ferries master I’ve had for several different classes over the years.

The days when deck officers renewing their radar observer certificate did grease pencil plots on one of the old Sperry radar simulators are long gone. During this refresher class we sat at computer terminals for our classroom review, and then used a pre-printed paper “maneuvering board” for our RRP practical exercises and examination. A maneuvering board, which is a compass rose of polar coordinates set about a center point, is used to graphically represent a radar screen in order to solve relative motion problems. My final exam involved dealing with three targets at once and maneuvering safely out of the way of one contact on a collision course that had a decreasing range and constant bearing. By the end of the day, everyone had passed their final exam and left class with their radar observer renewal certificate in hand — good for the next five years. 

On the train ride home, while watching an exquisite sunset over Puget Sound, I thought about the time and money I’ve spent over the years just to renew my unlimited radar certificate. Including travel to and from, overnight stays for the longer trips and the cost of attending the classes, I figured that I had invested about 10 days and over $2,000 to keep my certificate current. A significant chunk of time and money, I mused, considering how little I have actually used RRP on a vessel at sea. In my experience, manual plotting was only good on ocean routes, where there was plenty of time and few targets to track. I found it inconvenient while coasting, and with its time-consuming manual plots and complex crisscross of lines and markings, disturbingly unsuitable for high traffic areas close to major ports. In fact, even before I earned my third mate’s license, I was shown firsthand about the limitations of RRP at sea. 

As a cadet on a containership running the busy sea route between Kaohsiung, Taiwan, and Hong Kong, it was a fine February morning when the second mate sent me to the port bridge radar to manually plot all the vessel targets on the screen. At the same time he went over to the starboard bridge radar, one that had automatic radar plotting aid (ARPA) capability. While I was furiously working my grease pencil and plastic ruler, he was clicking on all 10 targets on the screen. Instantly the computer began to acquire each contact individually and begin a plot, and within a minute was able to give the true course/speed and the closest point of approach for a dangerous contact on our starboard side — something that took me a full 12 minutes to do manually. Plus, it did it more accurately. That day it became clear to me that manual radar plotting was good to know, but it could never equal the speed and accuracy of an ARPA. 

A radar observer certificate is now not the only endorsement that must be renewed regularly. With the implementation of the Manila Amendments to the International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers (STCW) Code on Jan. 1, 2017, tens of thousands of U.S. merchant mariners will have to spend months in class and thousands of dollars to keep various certifications current during their careers. These new renewal requirements continue a trend that has been going on now for close to 20 years: the ever-increasing burden professional mariners have had to deal with to maintain eligibility. In light of this I think that it’s time the authorities conducted a thoughtful, realistic review to determine which certifications, after completing the original course, really don’t need to be renewed — including the radar observer certificate.

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

By Professional Mariner Staff