So You Want to Become a Mariner?

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July 12, 2012

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Reality Is Nothing Like The Dream

By Forum,

So you got it somewhere in your head that a life at sea is for you. The constant adventure, interesting port calls, the mesmerizing sunrises and sunsets on the water, the never-ending sea stories to tell those back home are all you can think about.

You’ve watched too many movies.

Those days, if they ever really existed, are long dead. The United States no longer has a robust blue water shipping fleet. Military Sealift Command and NOAA are the closest one gets to blue water shipping and the disadvantages far outweigh the advantages for most of us mariners. The majority of jobs are now on tugs and oil field vessels. While these jobs offer their own challenges and rewards, it’s not what you have seen on TV. This is a serious business and we have no time for guys to come out here with romantic visions of shared hardships and gallant struggles. We bust our asses? to make it home to our families and the hope for a better life for them and ourselves through our paychecks. At the end of the day, that’s all that counts to many of us.

If you really want to know what life is like on a work boat, visit the link below for a real run down of what life is like for a deckhand. While it’s geared more for the navy, 95% of it holds true for the commercial side.

Are You Sure You Want To Do This?

Still not scared off? Then sit down and ask yourself the following questions and see if you are really ready to commit and make the sacrifices needed to start working in this industry.

1- Can you go weeks, if not months, without talking to anybody at home? I mean this- NOBODY- not your parents, not your friends, not your wife, not your kids. If you are married, can your family live without you for the length of your hitch? Do you have small kids and can your wife handle being essentially a single parent for 6 to 9 months out of the year? Your world while at work can consist of a very small boat for weeks at a time, with as few as 3 other guys onboard that you will more than likely have nothing in common with, and the only time you step on land is to take the garbage to the dumpster while at the dock.

There are no quick runs to the store, no nights on the town, just the boat.

2- I don’t care how old you are, what your background is, or how educated you think you are. You know nothing the first year at sea. You are now working in a heavy industrial environment with the added fun of inclement weather and confined spaces. I don’t expect you to know everything, but I do expect you to ask questions and listen. A good rule of thumb is if you don’t know what something is or what it does, then ask about it. But until then, do not touch. This means you are going to have to put your ego in check and expect that you are going to be chewed out over something eventually, multiple times actually. You are going to be expected to do the tough dirty jobs that have to get done. Your days will consist of long hours of boredom separated by tons of cleaning, painting, and working on deck.

3- You need at a minimum the Transportation Worker Identification Card (TWIC).

This costs $150 plus the time to it takes to go to whatever office is closest to you twice… once to apply, then again to pick it up. If you want a better chance of securing a good job, a Merchant Mariner Document (MMD) with your Basic Safety Training (BST) as laid out by STCW can help. The MMD, along with a medical physical and drug screenings, will be around $300. The BST is another $500 to $1000. This plus the cost needed to go find a job can add up, so it’s best to have some money saved up.

4- Chances are, if you found gCaptain then you have some aspirations of being an officer.

That’s fine, but realize that it will take years of sea time and weeks of classes to even get your Able Seaman (AB) or 100 ton master license. If you want 500/1600 ton mate or masters then even more years of sea time and months of classes. All of these requirements are outlined by the Coast Guard, but they change the rules all the time. You are never really done; every five years, when you come up for your license renewal, you will have to take some refresher courses. Sadly, none of this may be completed while you are at work, but rather while you are on your off time. It is expensive to take these classes and while sometimes your company will pay for the classes, room, and board, don’t count on it.

Also these classes are only held in certain parts of the country, so unless you are extremely lucky to live close to one of these schools, count on more time away from your family.

5- This industry is EXTREMELY cyclical. We go from boom to bust literally overnight. If steadfast job security is important to you, look somewhere else.

Look Mom I’m An Ordinary Seaman!

So you’ve taken some time and thought about it and are still interested in starting a career at sea, but don’t know quite how to start.  Let’s see if I can help.


Start here. Find your nearest enrollment center, make an appointment and go get it. Takes about 6 weeks for it to come in. You cannot apply for your MMD until you have applied for your TWIC.

2- Get a Physical using Coast Guard Form CG-719ke. Print it out and hand it to your doctor, make sure they sign it when they are through filling it out.

3- Don’t forget your drug screen. Here is a list of USCG approved places to go, along with the form that needs to be filled out when submitting everything to the CG.

4- Find an affordable BST class close to you. Go to the pull-down menu and select Basic Safety Training and the approved courses throughout the country will display. If you see a course being offered somewhere, but do not see them on this list ask to see their certificate from the Coast Guard. It will have the name of the course on it with an expiration date. Make sure it’s for the class you want and that it hasn’t expired.…ses_course.asp

5- Ok, now that you have everything together, it’s time to fill out the application for your MMD, get all your copies of forms and certificates and submit everything to the nearest CG office and hopefully in 2-4 weeks you will get a packet from Martinsville ,WV with your MMD in it. Make sure you retain a copy of all the records you send in.

Stay tuned or head to gCaptain’s Maritime Employment Section for Part 2 about how to find a job.

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