Editorial Note: Being actively sailing mariners, the editorial team at gCaptain is concerned by recent changes to US Coast Guard policy on the licensing of mariners. We feel this is a topic of importance to mariners worldwide but questioned our ability to write on this issue objectively so we sent a note to someone we trust; Joe Keefe of The Maritime Executive. This article is reprinted with his permission.
Charlotte, NC: When you are trying to re-qualify your marine license as your 50th birthday looms large in the Radar hood, it doesn’t hurt to improve your cardiovascular footprint in preparation for the impending physical examination. Accordingly, I was going to go for a quick run this afternoon at my favorite Municipal Park, but all of our service stations are out of Gasoline today. Note: If anyone can help the Colonial Pipeline get primed up with some much needed RNL for the mid-southeastern corridor, everyone in Western North Carolina will really appreciate it. In any event, and in the absence of wheels to get me to a softer running medium, I said, “What the heck: I’ll just get rolling on this week’s column.” And, so I did.
On Monday, the Coast Guard’s National Maritime Center’s (NMC) July 2008 one-page TWIC Alert arrived in the mail. Immediately following that, NAVIGATION and VESSEL INSPECTION NAVIC NO. 04-08 hit the WEB. The contents of both documents gave my ongoing effort to qualify as a true-blue STCW mariner new urgency, as well as a little bit of dread. After all, I had no idea that the TWIC thing would kick in until I actually had gotten my license into compliance. Beyond this, the Coast Guard NAVIC contains no less than seven documents and countless pages of supporting information. So, and at the risk of offending the greener side of our readers, I downloaded and printed every single one of the latter documents. To my defense, I didn’t realize that the section entitled “MEDICAL CONDITIONS SUBJECT TO FURTHER REVIEW” was 32 pages long. The entire printout has – and I am not making this up – decimated an entire hardwood forest in the Pisgah National Wildlife Area.
This is a good time, in the interests of full disclosure, for me to come clean about my medical history. In 1984, I was discharged (READ: removed) early from a chemical tanker in Beaumont, Texas, after a particularly painful two day run from Tampa. This involved a two day stay at MidJeff County Memorial Hospital in Beaumont, where they decided (after a thorough kidney scan and determining that the seaman patient was NOT afflicted with a social disease) that I had a kidney stone. Not knowing what else to do (apparently), they bought me (and I am absolutely not making this up) a twelve-pack of LITE beer and gave me a cup with a screen with which I was to produce evidence of the calcification. Eventually, my roommates arrived and whisked me back to Houston. A happy ending.
The TWIC thing is a little more troubling; certainly it is more immediate. I also confess to not having actually formally applied for my STCW ticket yet. With a full time job, I fit the courses in as I can, but I am making progress. It is my intention to do the Bridge Resource Management (BRM) and the Vessel Security Officer (VSO) refresher course in November; back-to-back. This will augment my new BST and Crowd Management endorsements and, with a little luck, I’ll fit it all in before the Azaleas bloom at Augusta. I had better, since the TWIC requirement has thankfully been extended to April 15th. The good news is that I am still in “continuity” status, hence it does not become an issue, apparently, until I have all of my STCW certifications.” Remember, failure to get the TWIC card, with or without the STCW endorsement will – and I quote here, “Result in the suspension or revocation of your mariner credentials.” Not much more to say about that.
In all, the new medical rules contain 65+ pages that detail the myriad of ways that any mariner can be disqualified from sea service. The document is staggering in its complexity, confusing in its terminology, and likely to further exacerbate the chronic shortage of mariners in the domestic, Jones Act markets. What it does not do, however, is also regulate the worldwide mariner population which dwarfs the U.S. workforce that it hopes to police. And, while no one doubts the importance of this type of effort – especially in the wake of the COSCO BUSAN debacle – the implications of the latest Coast Guard NAVIC threaten to eclipse the advent of STCW as a driving force in the elimination of American mariners from the global seagoing workforce.
On page 2 of the main document, the NAVIC (04-08) states (4d.) that “The Coast Guard recognizes the need for qualified mariners and the potential shortage of mariners in the U.S. and worldwide. The NAVIC should not result in higher rates of disqualification for service, or in increased processing time for credential applications with physical and/or medical issues.” I’m not so sure about that, quite frankly. In an age where the criminalization of mariners seems to be the rule, rather than the exception, I find myself poring through the labyrinth of medical requirements and rules in search of a place where I might drop the ball. Will someone level charges against me if I do? And, what if I do so honestly, but without malice?
I have, then, gone through all 201 “Medical conditions subject to further review.” There’s good news and bad news: In the “EYES, GENERAL” section, I didn’t find anything particularly troubling. However, this mariner who used to be able to read road signs before other people could even see them now has to wear drugstore glasses in order to digest 8 point pica text. Section 107 (GENITAL, URINARY SYSTEM): tune out here if you are at all squeamish. Yes, I endured a cystoscopy at 34. Beyond that, you’ll have to torture me for more information. Section 115: Nope, no history of gender reassignment (I’m not really sure what means, though). Section 186: I had one glass of wine; my wife drank the rest of it. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it. OKAY: I’ve read the entire “Medical Conditions” section twice, start-to-finish; I think that’s it.
My drive towards STCW compliance continues and I have absolutely no doubt that I will succeed. And, when it is all said and done, I will then pursue a seagoing berth, preferably on one of those car carriers with the squash courts. Don’t get me wrong; I loved my three-plus years on the chemical carrier, but you gotta keep active, especially with NAVIC 04-08 lurking about.
This week’s flurry of heightened awareness in terms of what it’s going to take to qualify has given me real pause. But, that’s not the half of it. More than one mariner over the age of 50 who has already done exactly what I am trying to accomplish has told me that their biggest challenge had nothing to do with getting qualified. Instead, the effort to get shipping companies to hire the older mariner was far more difficult. In a world where qualified mariners are supposedly at a premium, that’s just wrong. And, it is a waste of experience and talent.
We live in a world where maritime academies are producing fewer and fewer mariners. This, exacerbated by the new medical standards and the rush to obtain a TWIC Card from a less-than-reliable source (whose deadline seems to be a moving target), is also ensuring that the problem of recruiting and retaining qualified mariners is only going to get worse in the short term. All of which reminds me: my NC driver’s license also expires in about two weeks. And, I think there’s some sort of test involved. * Sigh * – MarEx.
Joseph Keefe is the Managing Editor of THE MARITIME EXECUTIVE. He can be reached with comments or questions on this article or any other aspect of this e-newsletter at email@example.com. This article was originally published via The Maritime Executive Newsletter. Free subscriptions to the newsletter can be found here.