Upgrading your license? Check the CFR to get what you’ve earned

I had been working as an ordinary seaman with a large West Coast towing company out of Long Beach, Calif., my first job after graduating from the California Maritime Academy. Our old twin-screw tug rode easily en route to San Diego as I was on watch with the captain, a hawsepiper who had been to sea for nearly 40 years. We were heading down light, so I was at the wheel as he relaxed in his chair. After a few minutes he said, “There’s an AB (able seaman) position that’s come up on another boat, and I’m going to recommend you for it.”

Surprised, I thanked him for his recommendation but then asked, “Have I done something wrong?” He smiled and said, “Don’t worry, I’m not running you off. It’s just that the sooner you start sailing AB, the sooner you’ll make more money, get closer to working as mate, and earn sea time to upgrade your license.” That last bit caught me off guard, and I replied, “What do you mean about the sea time, skipper? I’ve been getting plenty of sea time being part of this crew.” Looking at me just like my dad did when I was oblivious of something, he said, “You do know that sea time as an ordinary seaman doesn’t count toward your second mate’s license?” From my expression, I am sure that it was obvious I didn’t.

As merchant mariners, our professional lives — and to an extent, our personal lives — revolve around questions such as, “Is the sea time I’m earning on this vessel good for an upgrade of my license? Do I get sea-time credit when my vessel is in the shipyard? How many sea-time days do I need to qualify for my next endorsement?” The answers to these career-impacting questions are far too important to just rely on a shipmate’s word, or even the opinion of some customer service representative at the National Maritime Center. The good news is that you can find the answers in writing and verify them for yourself, and the best way I’ve found for doing that is by using Title 46, Volume 1 of the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR).

The official compilation of general and permanent U.S. federal laws, the CFR is currently divided into 50 titles, each with a set of regulations governing a different area of jurisdiction. For example, Title 12 deals with banks, Title 30 with mining, and Title 46 with shipping. To look up the regulations governing merchant mariner credentials, Volume 1 (Parts 1-40) of Title 46 is all that’s needed. In particular, Title 46, Volume 1, Part 10 contains the general requirements for obtaining a merchant mariner credential; Title 46, Volume 1, Part 11 is where the regulations governing officer licenses are compiled; and Title 46, Volume 1, Part 12 details the requirements for unlicensed mariners. These days this information can be found online, but the government still prints hard copies of Title 46, Volume 1, which can be purchased through any nautical bookstore or from Internet booksellers.

It is not hard to learn to navigate the CFR. In fact, as a cadet I had to look up a number of regulations while taking the safety module of my third mate exam. Whenever an application is submitted to the Coast Guard for an upgrade or to add a new endorsement, it is a good policy for the mariner making the application to reference the specific regulation that bolsters his or her case — something I found out firsthand a number of years ago.

Having recently returned home from my job as a second mate on a car carrier, I spent a quiet afternoon checking the expiration dates of my professional documents, tallying up my sea time and reviewing 46 CFR, Volume 1, Part 11. That’s when I noticed something I had missed before: A regulation stating that any mariner who had obtained 180 days of sea time on oceangoing ships while holding an unlimited second or chief mate license could get a 5,000-ton uninspected fishing industry vessel master license with no additional testing required. “That applies to me,” I happily mused, thinking of all the additional jobs I would be eligible for if I held that license. So, after rereading Title 46, Volume 1 of the CFR and double-checking my sea time, the following week I headed down to the Coast Guard’s Puget Sound Regional Exam Center at Pier 39.

Armed with my documented sea time, current license and copy of Title 46, Volume 1, I went up to the counter when the head evaluator called my name. Explaining the reason for my visit, I showed him the regulation and presented my current second mate license with all of my discharge notes and sea-time letters, which amounted to much more than the 180 days required. He looked everything over and said, “I’ll give you mate 5,000-ton uninspected.” I replied, “Did you say mate?” He answered yes, with a hint of irritation. I looked him in the eye and said, “According to the regulations I’ve earned master, not mate.” He stared at me in silence, then suddenly grabbed all of my paperwork and my copy of Title 46, Volume 1 and disappeared. Thirty minutes later I was driving home with my new license — master of 5,000-ton uninspected fishing industry vessels — glad to have brought my own copy of Title 46, Volume 1, since being able to point directly to the regulation was obviously the only reason that I convinced the evaluator.

If navigating the CFR isn’t your thing, don’t worry. You can still make sure that you get the credit and credentials you deserve by hiring a license consultant. They know where the relevant regulations are in the CFR and can advise you accordingly. A friend of mine is currently working with one right now to appeal the rejection of his upgrade to unlimited master.

Nobody likes filling out paperwork or taking the time necessary to look up laws in the CFR, but when it comes to the issuance of your merchant mariner credential, knowing where you stand in accordance with the regulations and having the proof to back up your claims is essential. Far away in West Virginia, an evaluator who you will never meet in person — and who may well have no maritime experience — will determine your professional fate. So check and make sure that you get everything you have worked so hard to earn.

Till next time, I wish you all smooth sailin.’

Kelly Sweeney holds a license of master (oceans, any gross tons), and has held a master of towing vessels license (oceans) as well. He sails on a variety of commercial vessels and lives on an island near Seattle. You can contact him at captsweeney@profressionstg.wpengine.com.

By Professional Mariner Staff