In case you missed it, last month the Coast Guard published another Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) in the Federal Register. This one is titled Implementation of the 1995 Amendments to the International Convention on Standards for Training, Certification & Watchkeeping for Seafarers, 1978. At 90 pages it’s not light reading, but for anyone who sails beyond the boundary line you definitely want to pay close attention to this and be prepared to let the Coasties know what you think before it’s too late.
Many of us who work on towing vessels, for a variety of reasons, hold licenses beyond what is required for the purpose of meeting the basic manning requirements for towing vessels. Many of those currently working their way up the ladder are also working towards obtaining licenses beyond the Mate or Master of Towing Vessels. Why? Because for years now a significant and growing part of the towing industry, primarily along the coasts, has shown a distinct preference for the 500 or 1,600 GRT near coastal or oceans licenses/endorsements as the minimum for consideration for employment, even though they are seldom actually required by the tug’s tonnage and regardless of the fact that you still need a towing license/endorsement in any case. As a result, more and more tug mariners got them. But that was before the latest STCW requirements for those licenses were implemented in 2002, requiring very burdensome and expensive formal schooling requirements. The hawsepipe for licenses over 200 GRT was officially covered over with a thick steel plate and welded shut, and the hawsepiper went from the endangered species list to near-extinction. The towing licenses are the last true hawsepipe advancement route left but many of the bigger companies don’t want them because the bigger-means-better principle has become more dominant than ever when it comes to licenses. With just a few exceptions, we mariners have been largely left to our own devices to cope with the fallout. So just because most towing vessels are less than 200GRT doesn’t mean that this won’t affect you.
I can’t help but wonder if this current STCW rulemaking will result in the industry finally taking a collective step back from the 500/1,600 GRT ledge. Will the towing licenses, upgraded and revamped specifically for our industry over a period of years ending in 2003, finally be accepted as the industry-wide standard? If not, why? Are there genuine and substantial shortcomings that can be practically addressed? Do those regulations need further revision to make them more acceptable? Shouldn’t we be pushing hard to get the IMO to recognize towing as a distinct and officially recognized skill set within the STCW certification scheme? This debate needs to happen, and preferably much sooner rather than later.
Speaking of 500-ton licenses, their days may well be numbered as it is being proposed that the 500 GRT deck licenses be eliminated. There would be an unbroken tonnage span from over 200 GRT to not more than 1,600 GRT, all covered by the 1,600 GRT-or-less licenses, as well as the addition of a Chief Mate license to that tonnage category. The engineering license structure is in for some major revision, too. In general, after the first read, many of the changes seem to be for the better. I repeat, seem. Time and again these regulatory projects have spawned unforeseen or unintended consequences aplenty, so I’m assuming more of the same this time too.
The one part of it specific to towing vessels is the proposed addition of 46 CFR – Part 11.463 to clarify exactly where and when the STCW standards apply to us. There has been confusion about this amongst mariners ever since STCW ’95 came into effect. Having read the proposed addition I can find no fault with it. It is quite clear and should serve its intended purpose well. It reads as follows:
(d) Mariners who serve on the following seagoing vessels must comply with the requirements of §§11.412, 11.413 and 11.414 of this part for the appropriate STCW endorsement:
(1) A towing vessel on an oceans voyage operating beyond near-coastal waters;
(2) A towing vessel on an international voyage; and
(3) A towing vessel of 200 GRT/500 GT or more on a domestic, near-coastal voyage.
The exact definitions for boundary line, seagoing, seagoing vessels, domestic voyage, international voyage, gross register tons (GRT) and gross tons (GT) will all be added to 46 CFR – Part 10.107 for easy reference.
But the one area that stands out to me as potentially very negative, 46 CFR – Parts 11.404 & 11.412, is a big one. Once again, in what appears to be an alarming trend, sea time requirements would be reduced without a convincing explanation as to why. But first you have to understand the differences between STCW and our domestic system.
We have a 4-step 3rd Mate/2nd Mate/Chief Mate/Master system of advancement within the unlimited-tonnage license structure. There once was a time when you were required to have at least a year of sea service in each grade before you could apply for an upgrade to the next higher grade, but the STCW-influence has already managed to water this down. Today’s domestic regulations were altered to allow for a substitution of service that, in the past, would not have been allowed. For instance, you can go directly to Chief Mate from 3rd Mate without having actually worked a day as a 2nd Mate: you just have to serve as an Officer in Charge of a Navigation Watch (OICNW) for a year while “holding” a license as 2nd. That means you can do 2 years as a 3rd and then jump straight over 2nd to Chief. Why? Because STCW simply doesn’t differentiate between 3rd Mate and 2nd Mate. Similar “allowances” and substitutions are made for the other upgrades (see 46 CFR – Part 10.404-406 for the details). Now they want to go further down that road without properly justifying it first.
STCW uses a 3-step advancement system: Officer in Charge of a Navigation Watch (OICNV), which covers both the 3rd and 2nd Mate positions in our system, is considered to be an operational-level certification. Chief Mate and Master are both considered to be management-level certifications. What is now being proposed is to allow those holding the operational-level certification of OICNV to go straight to Master without getting any sea time at all at the management level as a Chief Mate first. In short, you would need either 2 years total, with 1 year as an OICNW and 1 year as Chief Mate, or 3 years total as just an OICNW. This is supposedly being done to allow those who can’t, for whatever reason, find a position as Chief Mate and get the required experience at that level to still be able to advance to Master.
Hello?! Maybe there’s a good reason that some people can’t get jobs as a chief mate. Maybe it’s because it’s been recognized that they aren’t capable of it and shouldn’t ever be a chief mate. Everyone isn’t suited to move up to the highest levels and no one is “owed” a license as Master, let alone the position, just for a good attendance record. If allowing this change to happen is “consistent” with STCW then maybe it is STCW itself that is flawed. It definitely looks to be in direct conflict with its own safety mandate on this point, and skipping steps is a poor principle to establish and practice.
The primary and immediate danger to our domestic system lies in the fact that this line of short-cut logic, which smells a lot like the 30-Day Wonder (the biggest, baddest regulatory turd laid in a long time), is likely to be applied throughout our entire licensing structure. Marine safety will be eroded further as more certifications fall into the wrong hands. This already happens, of course, because it’s a given that no system can be perfect. But professional experience and qualifications should not be sacrificed for the sake of having the most convenient job promotion system we can devise. The Coast Guard, not to mention the IMO, has some splainin’ to do on this one if they want it to pass the stink test…..and just saying “as provided in the STCW Convention” isn’t going to cut it. Formal classroom training and practical experience at sea are not necessarily always equivalent to one another, no matter what the people who stand to make even more money from these regulation changes (read: the training institutions) say to the contrary. The Coast Guard needs to explain, in crystal clear terms, how skipping right past chief mate is both safe and consistent with the principle of gaining practical experience at sea in each position before allowing incremental advancement of seafarers, and the burden of proof that this will do no harm rests with them. The NPRM doesn’t provide anything of the sort.
Having said all that I will nonetheless give full credit to the Coast Guard for providing a well-written NPRM. Although governmental regulatory-ese is often very difficult to read, let alone understand, they’ve done a good job here for what it is. Go to Section IV. Discussion of Proposed Rule on page 59356 (the 4th page) and you will find, over the following dozen-or-so pages, all of the proposed changes laid out in a clear and orderly fashion, complete with concise explanations. Going further into the document shows each change as it would actually appear in the Code of Federal Regulations.
Comments must be received no later than February 16, 2010. You can read and/or download the NPRM here, and go to Docket #USCG-2004-17914 to comment or to read the comments of others. Once there go down to the 7th item down from the top on the first page (which is a hyperlink to the new NPRM) and click the small balloon icon with “Comments Due 2/16/10 11:59 PM ET” beneath it. This will redirect you to the Submit a Comment page, where you can type in your comments directly in the box on the right or you can attach a previously completed file such as a Word document.