As I write this there are 64 commercial mariners facing the same hell that Capt. Richard Phillips survived during the Maersk Alabama incident in 2009 — being held hostage by Somali pirates. In the past year there have been nearly 250 incidents of piracy and armed robbery against commercial vessels reported worldwide. Every day merchant mariners face dangers at sea, both natural and man-made — but few today threaten the security of the ship and the lives of the crew more than maritime piracy and terrorism.
After 9/11, the realization that thousands of ships and boats were at risk helped prompt passage of the Maritime Transportation Security Act of 2002. One of the first changes mandated for mariners was a requirement that one crewmember on applicable U.S.-flag vessels be in charge of security duties on board, and officially designated as the Vessel Security Officer (VSO).
During the next few years, formal requirements for obtaining a VSO endorsement were finalized, and in 2008 the U.S. Coast Guard began issuing the certification to those who had at least 12 months of sea time and successfully completed an approved class. VSO is the highest STCW (International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers) security endorsement the USCG issues, and today still qualifies the mariner to assume any security-related duties on board applicable vessels. I took my security officer class at Pacific Maritime Institute in Seattle, where we covered topics such as developing security plans and supervising drills on board. After successfully completing the course, I applied for and obtained the VSO endorsement on my Merchant Mariner Credential (MMC).
In response to continued pirate attacks, along with the threat of maritime terrorism, new STCW security endorsements have been created. Just over a year ago, in accordance with Policy Letter 12-06, the U.S. Coast Guard began issuing Security Awareness (SA) and Vessel Personnel with Designated Security Duties (VPDSD) certifications to American merchant mariners. Since Jan. 1, 2014, all crewmembers on U.S.-flag STCW-compliant vessels over 500 gross tons, without exception, are required to hold one of the three security endorsements. Those with VSO automatically meet the requirements for both SA and VPDSD.
I was working on a chemical tanker running between Canada, Hawaii, and the mainland, filling in for a young mate so he could be home with his family for the holidays. On a cold December day, 1,000 miles from Barbers Point, Hawaii, the chief mate was conducting a security drill, going over the procedures for a piracy watch in high-risk areas. All the officers and some unlicensed crewmembers had specific station bill duties — in my case to keep a lookout on the stern with one of the able seamen. The remaining crewmembers, not assigned specific tasks on the station bill, were to “assist as directed.” As of Jan. 1, crewmembers without specific security-related duties, those called upon to “assist as directed,” need to hold at least an SA certification.
SA is the lowest level of STCW security endorsement, and can be obtained by taking an approved class conducted at one of many schools throughout the country, or online. A list of approved security awareness training classes can be found at the U.S. Coast Guard National Maritime Center website: www.uscg.mil/nmc. The scope of this basic class includes topics such as types of behavior to be on the lookout for, and what to do if an attack occurs. After successful completion of the course, mariners must then apply to the Coast Guard to have the certification placed on the STCW portion of their MMC.
Though security awareness training is relatively easy to obtain online, the SA endorsement has some significant limitations. It only allows a mariner to sail on an STCW-compliant vessel in a position that does not have any designated security-related duties. Mariners who have specific security-related duties on board must instead obtain a VPDSD endorsement.
A VPDSD certification is the middle level of STCW security-related training, above SA but below VSO. Mariners who started sailing prior to Jan. 1, 2012, can obtain a VPDSD endorsement by documenting six months of onboard security-related duties in the previous three years, attested to by the captain or a company official. Also, certain shoreside security experience equivalent to six months at sea may be substituted. Those with no previous security-related experience can take a USCG-approved course instead. Usually a full eight hours of training, VPDSD classes delve more deeply into maritime security at sea — including topics such as calibrating equipment, personnel screening procedures and crowd control techniques in the event of a security threat. After meeting the requirements, mariners must apply to the USCG to obtain a VPDSD endorsement on their MMC.
Recently I was having an e-mail conversation about the new security rules with William, an engineer officer and friend of mine. Currently sailing as a second engineer on a ship, if he doesn’t take a VSO or VPDSD class so he can get his STCW security endorsement before he goes back out to sea, he’ll lose his job. In fact, any mariner sailing on an STCW-compliant vessel who doesn’t have an appropriate security certification after Jan. 1, 2014, risks being taken off the ship and losing his or her job. So, if you don’t already have an appropriate endorsement, I highly recommend completing the requirements and obtaining a VSO, VPDSD, or SA certification on your MMC as soon as possible.
In October 2013, while the piracy movie Captain Phillips played to packed theaters nationwide, an American chief engineer and captain working on Edison Chouest’s C-Retriever were kidnapped by pirates off Nigeria and held hostage. As their fate hung in the balance on the whim of a pirate’s trigger finger, the incident reminded many in the maritime industry that the life of every crewmember is on the line every day. Obtaining these new STCW security endorsements is more than just another class we have to take; it is a recognition that each person on board may be called upon to play an active role in helping keep the crew safe, and the ship secure during an attack.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.