To avoid problems in renewing your mariner credentials, plan ahead

You open up the envelope from the National Maritime Center (NMC) expectantly, and see your new passport-style Merchant Mariner Credential (MMC) inside. Now it’s time for a bit of celebrating. While you’re enjoying some pizza and few cold ones with family and friends, you can relax and begin to put the long process of obtaining your credential behind you. The next morning however, over your breakfast of fresh coffee and a couple of leftover pieces of the supreme combo from the night before, don’t forget to remind yourself to start planning for your next MMC renewal — five years down the road.

When I first entered the industry in the early 1980s, renewing a license was essentially just a matter of taking a one-day radar observer refresher class, getting a basic merchant marine physical exam and turning in your sea-time for credit. Even better, a z-card, or merchant mariner document, was issued for life and did not expire. While longstanding requirements like the one-day radar refresher class remain, there are now so many additional hurdles to clear when renewing your MMC, you had better plan ahead.

A good place to start is determining how the ships or boats you plan to work on will affect you professionally during your next renewal. With the ever-increasing specialization of seagoing jobs, working in one area of the industry may affect your ability to work in another. For example, if you have a towing officer license but are sailing on oceangoing ships, not having towing-vessel time in the five years before your next renewal will cause you to lose your active towing license. If you want to keep it, you’ll have to plan on giving up some vacation time to work on tugs.

For certain other professional certifications, taking a class can mitigate not having sea time. For instance, you can renew your Tankerman Person-In-Charge (TPIC) endorsement, even with no tanker time in the previous five years, by taking one of the U.S. Coast Guard approved Tank Ship Dangerous Liquids courses. Depending upon what certifications you hold and what vessels you have been sailing on, you may or may not need to take a class to renew your specific endorsements. You can find out more on the National Maritime Center’s website (, which has a complete list of approved classes. Bear in mind that class location, availability, and cost can vary greatly — so once again planning ahead is essential.

A year before you renew, I recommend that you take a close look at your physical condition. While entry-level wipers, food handlers and ordinary seamen do not need a complete physical exam to renew their MMC, for the rest of us, a U.S. Coast Guard-approved physical (form CG-719K) within a year of renewal is mandated in accordance with Navigation and Vessel Inspection Circular (NVIC) 04-08.

Over 70 pages long, the NVIC lists more than 200 illnesses, injuries, and disorders which can prevent you from obtaining your ticket — or at least cause a lengthy delay while medical evaluators at the National Maritime Center review your situation. I suggest that you read NVIC 04-08 closely, and begin dealing with any medical issues you may have early.

After reading that a body mass index over 40 could cause me problems, I started losing weight months before my renewal. Also, if you don’t have a letter stating that you have been under a random testing program, you’ll need to get a drug screen. Make sure the clinic knows that a six-panel drug screen is now required — it replaced the old five-panel test in the fall of 2010.

Finally, you’ll need to have a valid Transportation Worker Identification Credential (TWIC). TWIC cards are good for no more than five years, and if you are like me, yours expires at a different time than your credential. If you need to obtain a new TWIC card, make sure that you give yourself plenty of time before your MMC renewal — the process can take several months.

Having paid hundreds or thousands of dollars for your classes, physical exam, drug screen and Coast Guard fees, it’s then time to fill out your renewal application. One of the main reasons the Coast Guard rejects renewal applications from merchant mariners is because they’re completed incorrectly — which for up to 15 pages of paperwork is an easy thing to do. Not having all the proverbial I’s dotted and T’s crossed can result in bureaucratic delays and hassles. To avoid that, during my recent renewal I contracted with a well-known maritime licensing service that did an excellent job handling my paperwork.

Once your application is sent in, which can be done up to a year before or after your current MMC expires, you can then track its progress on the NMC website. During my recent MMC renewal, I also chose to receive e-mail updates as my application moved through the system. A week before I received the actual MMC at my local post office, I knew from the NMC website that my credential had been approved, printed and was on its way.

It’s time to realize that the days of personal service from the Coast Guard in handling Merchant Mariner Credential renewals are gone; and whether you like it or not, the National Maritime Center is going to continue issuing our documents out of West Virginia. We are now just a number to those evaluating our paperwork, which is why I believe that proactive planning is essential. If we fulfill the criteria and provide the NMC with everything it requires, then I think we can — and should — expect the process to run smoothly.

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