Time for mariners to make their New Year’s resolutions

Almost every mariner I talk with has an opinion about the recent U.S. Coast Guard Navigation and Vessel Inspection Circular (NVIC) 04-08, which established physical and medical standards not seen in our industry before. The NVIC details over 201 conditions that require a medical waiver from the Coast Guard — along with the time-consuming review process it involves. This long list includes everything from mundane conditions like wearing glasses, to more serious problems such as bipolar disorder.

Many mariners have been unhappy about the implementation of the new medical standards, not only because of the onerous requirements but because the medical evaluation branch at the National Maritime Center has been so understaffed that thousands of applications have been delayed for weeks or months, forcing many merchant mariners into unemployment while awaiting medical approval for their credentials.

Recently I was talking with my wife over morning coffee about this situation and my upcoming license renewal. Munching on my third homemade orange/pistachio biscotti while sipping my double-tall latte, I commented how NVIC 04-08 had established a number of different and more stringent medical standards, including one requiring agility tests and/or additional evaluation for a body mass index (BMI) of 40 or higher.

She raised an eyebrow. “BMI of 40, huh? Well then, no more biscotti for you this morning, Captain.”

I protested. “I bet my weight is well below the cutoff.”

I could make that claim, since I knew that our old bathroom scale showed a different weight depending on where you stood on it — I figured that I could easily “fudge” my weight by 15 pounds. I was worried when the next day my wife went shopping at the local pharmacy and came back with a new digital scale. “Uh-oh,” I thought, “There goes my fudge factor.”

After verifying that the scale was indeed correct and properly set, I had to admit that the morning pastries had taken their toll on my waistline — I was above the BMI of 40. So I made a New Year’s resolution to lose a goodly amount of weight before my renewal physical, joined a gym, and even started doing yoga for flexibility. Now I have a low-fat bran muffin with my skim milk latte, and while I miss doughnuts (especially apple fritters!) — I don’t miss the pounds I’ve lost… so far.

In the fast-paced, post Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping (STCW) ’95 world of the modern merchant marine, staying informed of all the changes continually being heaped upon us is difficult. A missed deadline for submitting paperwork or not taking a class could mean the loss of a job, or even the end of a career. Thinking about this while contemplating my upcoming license renewal led me to add a second resolution to my list — to check up on current licensing and documentation changes. This resolution is easier than going to the gym three times a week, because there are some excellent sources of information available — if you know where to look.

For starters, when down at Fremont Maritime Services in Seattle recently I got a copy of Capt. Leonard Lambert’s book, The New Hawsepipe. The book gives a good overview of deck officer licensing requirements, including a detailed discussion of all the different practical assessments needed for upgrade to able seaman (AB) and officer in charge of a navigational watch (OICNW). While reading chapter four, which talks about schools and classes, I saw that a number of the vessel security officer (VSO) courses were not “officially approved” by the U.S. Coast Guard when mariners took them — and as a result many applications for a VSO endorsement were being denied. This denial meant they had to take an “approved” refresher class costing several hundred additional dollars. I decided that I’d better find out if I was going to get stuck, too. So I went online to www.uscg.mil/nmc to check the list of approved classes. It looked like good news — the vessel security course I attended in Seattle at Pacific Maritime Institute was approved.

Still, I worried that I was possibly missing something else or misreading the list, and didn’t want to take a chance. So I called Norleen Schumer to confirm it. Norleen was a longtime Coast Guard evaluator, and now has her own consulting business advising mariners. Using her service has helped me avoid mistakes in interpreting the new rules and requirements in the past, and when she gave me the word that my class was indeed on the approved list, I knew it was a certainty. Turning to trusted sources for updated information regarding licensing gave me peace of mind — and can do the same for you.

My final maritime-related resolution is to volunteer more for one of our local seamen’s centers here in Seattle. Seamen’s centers offer a safe place where merchant mariners of all nationalities can contact loved ones, send mail, get a fair exchange on foreign currency, pick up a few gifts, and even receive spiritual counseling. Volunteering at our local center will give me the chance to “pay forward” the kindness and generosity I have been shown over the years at seamen’s centers from Yokohama, Japan, to Port Everglades, Fla.

New Year’s resolutions are all about being proactive, doing something to better your life or circumstances. During these financially challenging times, it’s easy to be anxious and insecure when you hear news of companies facing bankruptcy, or laying up boats. Instead of worrying, I urge you to add checking to see how you stand with your credentials, making sure all your documents are current, and planning to upgrade if possible to your list of mariner’s New Year’s resolutions. There have been a number of booms and busts since I began in the maritime industry nearly 30 years ago, and I can say unequivocally that the effort you spend making sure that your career is secure could make all the difference in how you’ll ride out this economic downturn.

May 2010 be a safe, healthy, and successful one for all.

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 captsweeney@profressionstg.wpengine.com.

By Professional Mariner Staff