Shorter training programs at public colleges are viable alternative

Before entering the industry, I looked at different ways to begin my career. Back then working my way up from the bottom, “coming up the hawsepipe,” or attending a four-year academy were essentially the only two choices available to me. I decided on the academy route after visiting a couple of those four-year public institutions, SUNY Maritime College and California Maritime Academy, ultimately deciding on Cal Maritime since it was the only one on the West Coast and closest to my parents’ home in Spokane, Wash.

Today, I would have a third major route open to me — attending a U.S. Coast Guard-approved program. Mariners are legally allowed to earn certain deck and engine officer licenses, qualified member of the engine department (QMED) endorsements, and able seaman (AB) credentials by successfully completing a Coast Guard-approved program of instruction.

Different than a course or class that lasts a week or two, these programs usually involve at least one or two years of combined classroom time and practical onboard experience — but not the four years required at Cal Maritime or the other academies. These programs are offered throughout the country, and the National Maritime Center’s website has a listing of those that have been approved.

One such program helped an airline pilot I met at a book signing in Newport Beach, Calif., a few years ago. He was considering a second career as an engineer on a vessel. Exploring his options, from working his way up from a wiper to going to get his third engineer’s license, Dave wasn’t sure either choice was right for him. He told me, “I’m in my 50s and only plan on shipping out for five to 10 years. I don’t have the time to start at the bottom or spend four years at an academy.” I told him about programs at union schools, private schools and public colleges that allow graduates to enter the industry as a QMED. The next time I saw him, about 16 months later, Dave told me he had already gotten into and completed the public college program at Seattle Maritime Academy (SMA). After graduating from SMA he ended up sailing to South Africa and Australia as a QMED on oceanographic ships, and was then hired full-time with the Washington State Ferries — fulfilling his dream of working as a marine engineer.

A campus of the Seattle Central Community College, SMA is a one-year public college certificate program. The curriculum not only includes community college level general education classes such as math and composition, but maritime professional certification classes such as proficiency in survival craft as well. Practical onboard experience is gained on one of the academy’s training vessels, and during internships with other vessel operators. Upon successful completion of all program requirements, graduates earn a certificate for 77 college credits, and can sail as a QMED/rating forming part of an engineering watch (RFPEW), or able seaman (special)/rating forming part of a navigational watch (RFPNW) on inland, near-coastal and oceangoing vessels.

Another approved public program on the West Coast is given at Clatsop Community College in Astoria, Ore. Having only received USCG approval in May 2013, this two-year program combines general education classes with maritime training on the school’s vessel, Forerunner. Graduates earn an associate degree in Vessel Operations, as well as an able seaman (special) endorsement, good for ships and boats working on inland or near-coastal waters.

On the East Coast, there are two public college programs that enable graduates to start as licensed deck or engine officers. A mate I sailed with, who worked on the famous sailing ship Lady Washington, first told me about Maine Maritime Academy’s (MMA) Small Vessel Operations program. This program includes sea time gained on the academy’s 88-foot schooner Bowdoin, and on other vessels during a required internship. After four semesters/two years of college-level work in math, writing and other general education classes, along with professional courses such as navigation and meteorology, students successfully completing the program earn an associate degree and a 200-ton near-coastal mate’s license. Graduates can then sail as a licensed deck officer on many types of smaller coastwise vessels such as crew boats, lift boats and ferries.

While deciding on which maritime academy to attend, I visited SUNY Maritime College in New York on a nice fall day in November. Back then it was strictly a four-year college, graduating third mates and third engineers. Today, the school offers many different professional tracks, including two 30-month associate degree programs. College-level general education classes along with professional maritime courses are required, and students obtain sea time on the academy’s training ship as well as commercial vessels. After fully completing all the requirements, graduates earn a 500/1600-ton (oceans) mate license with STCW certification as an officer in charge of a navigational watch (OICNW), or an assistant engineer’s license and STCW endorsement as an officer in charge of an engineering watch (OICEW). This allows them to work on a variety of oceangoing vessels, including supply boats, oceanographic ships and passenger vessels.

Public school programs such as those above have many advantages for men and women entering the industry. They are accessible and open to everyone, cost only a fraction of what a full four-year state academy does, and can be paid for with the standard college financial aid loans and grants if needed. Best of all, graduates can enter the industry years earlier than had they attended a four-year school, and start their maritime careers earning 50 percent to 200 percent better pay than entry-level wages.

When STCW ’95 came into effect over 10 years ago, many were concerned that it marked the end of the hawsepipe route for upgrading, and that anyone not graduating from a four-year academy would essentially be penalized. Fortunately, that didn’t happen — in large part because of U.S. Coast Guard-approved programs. The Coast Guard deserves thanks for opening up even more avenues for entering the industry, and by doing so has helped continue the grand maritime tradition of egalitarian access for all who choose a career at sea.

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