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Direct Supervision: It Means Exactly What It Says.

A question I’ve been asked many times over the last five years has been “What do they mean by ‘direct supervision’? Does that mean I can’t even make a head call or get a snack?”. This is in reference to the relationship between an apprentice mate/steersman and a master, mate or pilot of towing vessels, and how they may be used in a watch-standing role. The fact is that an apprentice mate/steersman has no legal standing at all within any watch schedule. They’re qualified to do nothing but be a trainee and the “license” they are granted is really only a learner’s permit. I’ll pull a quote from the Coast Guard’s final rule for Licensing and Manning for Officers of Towing Vessels, published in the Federal Register on June 17, 2003. This one comes from the Apprentice Mate (Steersman) section at the bottom of column 3 on page 1: “One comment asked whether we consider an apprentice mate (steersman) to be an officer of a towing vessel. As we stated in previous preambles, we do not.” So no, you can’t legally leave them alone on watch, not even for a minute. No head calls, no sandwich breaks. Nada.

If you’ve been following the saga of the unlucky apprentice mate from the T/V Mel Oliver, now in serious hot water for his role in the collision and oil spill on the Mississippi River this past July, in our News section then you know how bad things can get. I want to make clear that I’m simply stating it the way that it is, not the way I think it should be. If you’re a master, mate or pilot on a towing vessel and are training an apprentice mate/steersman then you are required to keep them under your direct supervision at all times when underway, period. Direct supervision is defined by the Coast Guard as the licensed officer of the watch being physically present with the trainee. Is that clear enough?

For the record, I’ll quote from the Assessment section in the first column of page 2: “One comment asked whether direct supervision by a licensed master or mate (pilot) required that officer to be physically present. Yes, it means physically present and more directly supervising the apprentice mate (steersman).” That should pretty well clear up any doubt as to the Coast Guard’s position on this issue, and as far as I know nothing has changed on that point since the final rule was published.

Does this regulation reflect the reality of human physiology, manning standards, the two-watch system, and the living and working conditions aboard the typical towing vessel? Not at all. It’s as far removed from our practical reality as it can be. But, ridiculous or not, it’s the applicable regulation nonetheless. Deal with it as you will.

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