Renew, renew, renew: Mandates trap mariners in credential maze

I was at our local library on a quiet Sunday afternoon, getting ready to check out some DVDs. On duty that day was Ray, a librarian of long standing who was nearing retirement. After checking out my discs — the latest season of the British detective series Vera — he motioned me over to his desk. “Hey captain, if you have a minute I want to show you something.” Opening up the wallet he held in his hand, Ray took out a tattered Merchant Mariner’s Document (MMD) and handed it to me. Looking over his “old school” card, I saw there was a picture of Ray in 1970, his mariner identification number beginning with Z (why they were also called Z-cards) and qualifications as ordinary seaman, wiper and food handler. I was impressed and asked if he’d ever sailed on his card. Smiling, he replied, “Nope, never did use it. My uncle was a chief engineer on ships and suggested I get one. He said it was good for life, so I’ve kept it with me all these years just in case I ever needed a job.” Looking at his Z-card, I thought to myself, “It’s a good thing he never had to use that old relic.”

In anticipation of the 1995 amendments to the International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers (STCW) coming into effect, MMDs that were supposed to be “good for life” stopped being issued by the U.S. Coast Guard in the 1990s. From that time forward, every new MMD had an expiration date, with all existing MMDs having to be replaced in accordance with a schedule established by the Coast Guard. Concurrently, STCW certificates began being issued, and they also carried an expiration date. By 2002, when full STCW compliance came into effect, a valid MMD and STCW certificate were both needed to work on a commercial vessel. That, however, was just the beginning.

Next came the Transportation Worker Identification Credential (TWIC) card, a document with a five-year expiration that was mandated by the Maritime Transportation Security Act. In 2009, the Coast Guard did consolidate the MMD and STCW certificate into one Merchant Mariner Credential (MMC), which like its predecessors was good for five years. But then in 2014, the Coast Guard began issuing a new medical certificate that also had to be renewed. In accordance with Navigation and Vessel Inspection Circular (NVIC) 04-08, the certificate has both a two-year and a five-year expiration date, depending on where you sail. So there are now three separate cards needed to work on any U.S.-flag commercial vessel, and for the vast majority of mariners, including all those working on STCW-compliant ships, each card has a different expiration date. Today it’s all about renew, renew, renew.

With the overhaul of the actual documents completed, at least for the time being, in 2014 the Coast Guard then turned its sights to the renewal of specific endorsements. In the past four years, it has issued nearly 30 NVICs announcing wholesale changes to the requirements for renewing many different certifications. Changes to National endorsement renewals will come into effect for all mariners on March 24, 2019. Among others, the rules for Master of Towing Vessels, Deck and Engine Officers on Supply Vessels, Tankerman and High Speed Craft have been revised. The changes include new testing, sea time credit and/or professional assessments — all with expiration dates.

As for STCW endorsements, more changes to the regulations have been in place since 2017. Perhaps the most notable one is that for the first time in U.S. maritime history, “continuing education” classes are now mandated by the Coast Guard to renew certain STCW certifications. For example, in the past mariners never had to renew Advanced Fire Fighting and Proficiency in Survival Craft, but now they do. Either a refresher or revalidation course is mandated for both of these endorsements and for STCW Basic Training as well. For mariners with fewer than 360 days of sea time in the past five years, a refresher course is mandatory. Those who have more than a year of sea time are required to complete a revalidation class.

Considering that an expired endorsement or certification can mean no work or long delays in getting a new one issued, and with revalidation/refresher classes filling up months in advance, it’s no wonder that many mariners are concerned about being able to keep their documents current. In fact, I know a number of maritime professionals who have lost jobs due to an expired medical card, an endorsement that needed a class that wasn’t taken, or a TWIC card that didn’t get issued in time to catch the ship. That’s why it is imperative to be proactive in managing your credential renewals so you don’t fall through the cracks.

William, a good friend of mine who will soon test for his unlimited first engineer’s license, has devised a great system. First, he contacted a license consultant to make sure that he didn’t overlook anything and was up to date on what was required to renew all of his documents. Then he worked up a spreadsheet for all of his licenses, documents, certifications and endorsements — including when they expire and what classes, assessments and sea time requirements are needed to keep each one of them current. Now he gets a “ping” on his smartphone when it’s time to take a class or submit paperwork to renew a document or endorsement. Currently working in the North Pacific, he sent me an email last week saying that luckily he was able to snag one of the last open spots in Advanced Fire Fighting and Basic Training revalidations at a school in Seattle when he gets off in a few weeks. I believe that a system like William’s is essential for every professional mariner today.

Forty years after the International Maritime Organization enacted the STCW Code, there is no question that training and shipboard competence have improved. At the same time, it has never been more difficult to obtain and maintain credentials as professional mariners, with the seemingly endless list of additional requirements and staggered expiration dates leaving many seafarers confused and frustrated. From a mariner’s point of view, it definitely would be a step in the right direction if the Coast Guard worked to simplify the process of maintaining and renewing our credentials. Until that day comes, however, the reality is that we are all left with having to navigate that maze.

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