Randy Cole, a captain on articulated tug barges, renewed his 200 ton master near coastal and 200 ton master of towing licenses in 2011. He did not do it alone.
Cole, an employee of Bouchard Transportation Co., works one month on, one month off. While at sea, he could not send follow-up information to the Coast Guard’s National Maritime Center (NMC) and wouldn’t be aware if any requests had arrived in the mail at his Connecticut home.
Concerned that he’d miss crucial information while at sea, Cole hired a licensing consultant to assist him with his application and to monitor its progress.
“I don’t know for a month that it’s kicked back,” said Cole, 52. “All of a sudden, the clock is ticking and you realize: I don’t have a license.”
Mariners hire licensing consultants for a variety of reasons. The consultant can serve as eyes and ears while the applicant is away for long periods of time, easing fear that delays could jeopardize the license. Some mariners need help documenting sea service in a format that the NMC will accept. Others have medical conditions and need assistance with Coast Guard requests for diagnostic results.
In general, consultants help the mariner prepare and compile applications and send them to the NMC, located in Martinsburg, W.V. Consultants can verify legal documents, handle appeals of license denials, answer specific questions about the process and review the medical evaluation process and qualifying sea service. Consultants also assist with license upgrades and endorsement.
Licensing consultants understand what the NMC is looking for, because most of the consultant used to be Coast Guard employees themselves – in licensing. They can help mariners navigate the paperwork.
“The Coast Guard licensing forms and procedures for licensing have become extremely cumbersome, detailed (and) difficult to understand and complete properly,” said Paul McElroy of McElroy Maritime Consulting in Florida. “A single mistake can hold up the mariner’s application for weeks or months, especially if that mariner is out of the country.”
In 2008, the Coast Guard stopped issuing licenses from 17 Regional Exam Centers (REC). Now it processes all licenses and upgrades centrally at the NMC. Consultants say the switch has made the process more difficult and complex. Capt. Anthony S. Lloyd, commanding officer of the NMC, disagrees. “Our goal is to make it as simple and as straightforward as possible for the mariners,” Lloyd said.
A mariner with no medical, criminal or security issues might not need to hire a consultant. A mariner who is concerned that his or her application could include a complication that triggers delays should consider hiring a consultant, said Capt. Andy Hammond of Andy Hammond Consulting in Massachusetts.
“In today’s world of the way the Coast Guard operates, anybody who thinks there may be any issues with delays, or denials, or doesn’t want a lot of back and forth with the Coast Guard … that’s where a consultant comes in – to hopefully reduce that,” said Hammond.
Charles “Chuck” Kakuska, president of Sea K’s Maritime Licensing Service in Temperance, Mich., said he makes sure that a client’s sea service is correct for the license for which he or she is applying. However, mariners might not be aware of the additional licenses they can get with their sea time. “You really have an opportunity to look at their sea time and say: Did you know you can do this, this and this?” he said.
Kakuska was working with a mariner who is a deckhand on a Great Lakes tug who was seeking a renewal of his 100 ton mate license. Kakuska pointed out that this deckhand, using his current sea time, could also apply for a 200 ton mate license, a 200 ton apprentice mate (steersman) license and an Able Seaman card. Kakuska was the former chief of the RECs in Toledo, Ohio, and Portland, Ore.
License consultants also help with upgrades. During his 2011 renewal, the consultant Cole hired discovered a Coast Guard regulation that would allow Cole to move from a 200 ton master of towing license to a 500 ton master of towing with a limited exam. In addition, with the proper sea time, and no additional exams, Cole could also get a 1600 ton master of towing. The consultant told him, “OK, do you want to go down this path? This is what you have to do to get the training.” Cole embarked on a two-year process of taking courses and passing the Coast Guard exams. By June of this year he was scheduled to get his credentials for the 500 ton and 1600 ton licenses. This helped Cole take another step in a career that has included work as a captain on harbor tugs, on tugs working on dredging operations and on luxury charter yachts.
Mark Grossetti, of Grossetti License Consulting in Framingham, Mass., said he has helped mariners going from military service to civilian maritime work.
“Anybody with any kind of military sea service – Navy, Coast Guard – they get thrown in the mix like everyone else,” he said. “They invariably get put through the ringer.”
Grossetti said the problem is the evaluators at the NMC. “These people are not trained to know the difference and to figure out the similarities with civilian jobs,” he said. Grossetti was the chief of the REC in Boston from 1986 to 1990 and also worked at Coast Guard headquarters.
Lloyd defended his evaluators. “They have done thousands of evaluations,” he said. “I believe they are very experienced. We are always training and evaluating and holding ourselves to the highest standards we can, to ensure that we are doing the best job we can.”
A basic piece of advice to mariners: Don’t file at the last minute. “Don’t wait until your license is close to being expired before applying to be renewed,” said Hammond. He said a mariner should start the process about a year before expiration. That means there is plenty of time in case there are any snags in the process. If everything gets done ahead of time, the Coast Guard will delay issuing the license until a month before expiration. “It gives the mariner peace of mind,” he said. Hammond was chief of the REC in Boston from 1998 to 2006.
Many mariners seeking the help of a license consultant are concerned with the medical part of the renewal. When the rules creating the Medical Evaluation Division of the NMC went into place in 2008, this process has become more rigorous. “Many conditions and medications that were routinely approved five years ago are now grounds for denial,” McElroy said.
Consultants obviously cannot change a mariner’s medication condition or the Coast Guard regulations. But they can help a mariner present his information the correct way. And they can work with doctors about pitfalls caused by certain medications.
McElroy said any physicians are not aware of what medications can trigger a license refusal. The most common condition he sees is mariners taking medication for depression, anxiety or insomnia. “Doctors don’t recognize the effect that anti-anxiety and anti-depression medications can have on a guys’ life,” he said. When he takes on a client, McElroy gets a 12-month list of all medications that mariner is taking. He then talks to the doctor and points out the medications that will prevent his client from getting a license. He asks the doctor if an alternative treatment is available. McElroy then advises his client to take all unused medications to the doctor to be destroyed and to cancel the prescriptions for these specific medications.
It does no good to complain to the NMC that the system is now unfair because in the past the mariner’s license was approved with a physician’s signature, he said. “If a mariner has a medical issue, or is taking a prescribed medication, that was approved five, 10 or 20 years ago and is denied today, that tells me that the Coast Guard is doing a much better job today of screening out mariners who are potentially hazardous to maritime and public safety,” McElroy said. “And I support their efforts.”