Continuity Renewal can be a wise option for many MMC holders

Apr 25, 2011 12:00 AM

Being away at sea is hard on relationships, and takes its toll on family life. Sometimes the strain is enough to break up a marriage, which is then followed by questions like, “Who will raise the children?” A chief mate I took a class with was faced with just such a situation. After graduating from the United States Merchant Marine Academy at Kings Point and with over a decade at sea, she needed to come ashore and raise her young son as a single parent. As her son grew up she began to think more and more of the seafaring life she left behind. So, when he approached high school graduation, she made the decision to begin the process of reactivating her license. This was possible because she had wisely taken advantage of a Continuity Renewal for her Merchant Mariner Credential (MMC).

The U.S. Coast Guard, to its credit, thoughtfully included the provision for a Document of Continuity in the late 1980s, and has detailed the protocol for obtaining one in 46 CFR 10.227. Deck officers, engine officers and qualified ratings such as able seamen or qualified members of the engine department are eligible to obtain a Document of Continuity, which enables mariners who cannot, or choose not to meet the active renewal requirements to place their credentials in an inactive status. Although you can’t sail on your MMC if you choose a Continuity Renewal, it enables you to reactivate it later if you so desire. Plus, unlike an active credential that expires every five years, a Document of Continuity is good indefinitely. In the case of the chief mate, when she decided to reactivate her MMC, the Coast Guard gave her a list of classes and tests she would have to take. In the class I took with her, she talked about looking forward to getting back to sea and how having the option of a Continuity Renewal was going to make a big difference in her life. I have known mariners who chose a Continuity Renewal of their MMC for a variety of other reasons.

Have you ever thought about what you would do if some terrible injury or disease prevented you from working at sea? A chief engineer I know of is battling for his life and, because of the chemotherapy treatments, is too weak to sail. He chose a Continuity Renewal when his MMC expired, knowing that his illness would cause him to fail his physical exam. Taking this option has enabled him to concentrate on getting healthy. He plans to reactivate his MMC when he is cancer-free, and he is hopeful about getting back to sea.

Another benefit to a Continuity Renewal is that passing a background check and obtaining a Transportation Worker Identification Credential (TWIC) card is not necessary. I know a designated duty engineer who was opposed to obtaining a TWIC card because he saw the process as an invasion of privacy. When his license came due he chose a Continuity Renewal. Though he cannot sail on his ticket, he has been able to keep it in an inactive status, and now sails unlicensed on yachts and private vessels where a TWIC card is not required. He boasts of saving money, too, not having to pay the hundreds of dollars for his physical, drug screen, TWIC card and the U.S. Coast Guard-related fees required to keep his current MMC up to date.

With the ever-increasing specialization of MMCs, working in one sector of the industry can cause you to lose some of your endorsements — another thing a Continuity Renewal can help you avoid. I know an experienced mariner who holds both an unlimited master and a master of towing endorsement. He was in danger of losing his towing license because he didn’t have any sea time on tugs since his last renewal. So, he actively renewed his unlimited license and placed his towing license in continuity. Now he has the security of being able to reactivate his towing officer license in the future, if and when he decides to get back on tugs.

For those near the end of their career who don’t want to meet the sea-time or training requirements to fully renew their MMC, a Continuity Renewal is a good way to ensure that they do not have to give up the credential they spent a lifetime to obtain. Ted is an old friend who sailed deep-sea and on the Washington State Ferries, where he retired after years as master. Talking over coffee a while back we were discussing his latest license renewal. He said, “I’m retired now, Kelly, and just don’t want the hassle of driving into Seattle to take classes, get a TWIC card and go through another physical exam to renew my license. But, I don’t want to give up my documents after all these years, either.” It was an emotional moment watching my friend who’d made his career at sea now facing the end of it. As my wife poured him another cup and offered more coffee cake, he breathed a bittersweet sigh and quietly told us, “It was a great 50 years of sailing, but I’m glad that this time I’ve decided to go for a Continuity Renewal.”

In my opinion, there is no reason why a professional mariner who decides to stop sailing to raise her son or take care of an ailing parent, or wants to keep his options open in these uncertain economic times, should be forced to choose between personal obligations and giving up a career. There have been rumors that the Coast Guard has considered doing away with the Document of Continuity provision. I strongly believe that this would be a huge disservice not only to U.S. merchant seamen, but also to the industry as a whole. At a time when it is increasingly difficult to retain experienced mariners, it just makes sense to keep the option of a Continuity Renewal open and accessible.

Till next time I wish you all smooth sailin’.

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