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Driving under the influence could impair your maritime career

Mar 28, 2012 12:00 AM

John, a third engineer I know, was recently hired to deliver a tug from Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada, to Corpus Christi, Texas, but never made the trip. When the company found out he had been convicted of driving under the influence (DUI) in California four years earlier, they rescinded the job offer. That's because a DUI is a felony crime in Canada, so a merchant mariner who has been convicted of driving under the influence anywhere can be denied entry into the country, in accordance with the Canadian Immigration Act. John's DUI cost him a job at a time when work was scarce and he really needed the money.

Not only does this law apply to mariners trying to join a ship in Canada, it also applies to mariners working on vessels going into Canadian ports. An old shipmate of mine was master on a passenger vessel last summer on a trip from Florida to Canada. He told me that Canadian border officers pulled two galley crewmembers off the vessel after the ship docked. They were then sent back to the United States because a background check revealed the two had previous DUIs.

Australia and China also require anyone trying to enter their country to list all their prior convictions, including DUIs — and make it clear that anyone with a criminal record may be lawfully denied entry.

A commercial mariner can lose a lot more than a job opportunity because of DUIs. It could mean having a merchant mariner credential (MMC) taken away for one to three years — or even permanently. When applying for an original, upgrade or a renewal of an MMC, applicants must submit form CG-719B. On the form, they must answer whether they've ever been convicted of driving under the influence and authorize the U.S. Coast Guard to do a driving record background check. A detailed, written explanation of the circumstances surrounding every DUI conviction must also be submitted along with the application. What happens next will largely depend upon how many DUIs there have been, and how long ago the most recent one was. In accordance with 46 CFR 10.213, a DUI conviction within the last three years can result in the denial of an issuance of the credential until the applicant can show that he or she has been "rehabilitated."

Jerry, an AB I sailed with on a car ship, got a DUI a few months before he had to renew his MMC and as a result had to explain the circumstances when he submitted his application. Because he got the DUI such a short time before, in accordance with the guidelines found in table 46 CFR 10.213(c), the Coast Guard denied his application for a full year from the date of his conviction. During that time he completed a treatment program, went to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings weekly, worked at a local restaurant to make some money and to show he could keep a job — and didn't get so much as a parking ticket. At the end of the year he submitted all this proof of his "rehabilitation," plus a list of character references attesting to his sobriety. After a Coast Guard background check verified that his driving record was clean, his alcohol abuse had not continued and that he'd acted responsibly during his "rehabilitation," his MMC renewal was finally approved, allowing him to sail again on his ticket.

Having his MMC pulled because of a DUI cost my old shipmate a lot more than he ever imagined the night he was pulled over — almost a year's wages at sea and a permanent record. Today the stakes are even higher, because of the implementation of the medical standards detailed in Navigation and Vessel Inspection Circular (NVIC) 04-08. NVIC 04-08 lists over 200 medical conditions that require further review prior to the issuance of an MMC, including a history of alcohol and substance abuse. It clearly states in the medical regulations that a history of alcohol abuse is considered a psychiatric disorder, one that can cause the Coast Guard to deem a person unfit to sail and deny issuance of his or her credential.

A mariner with a DUI conviction is medically considered to be an alcohol abuser, according to the American Psychiatric Association standard definition (DSM-IV) that the Coast Guard uses in NVIC 04-08. If the Coast Guard determines that an applicant for an MMC has a history of alcohol abuse in the last five years, as evidenced by multiple DUIs and/or other alcohol-related offenses, an evaluation from an addiction specialist such as a physician or other medical professional is required. If the evaluation shows that, in the opinion of the specialist, the mariner cannot be trusted to avoid alcohol problems while on board, he or she can be considered psychiatrically unfit to sail and denied an MMC — possibly for life.

Driving under the influence of alcohol is bad for many reasons: You can kill yourself or someone else, total your car and/or end up in jail. U.S. merchant mariners convicted of driving under the influence will face professional consequences unheard of at any other time in maritime history. The days of "what happens ashore stays ashore" are long gone, and the authorities have made it clear that alcohol abuse will not be tolerated either on or off the vessel. If you have a problem with alcohol, take responsibility and seek help through your company or union employee assistance program or through Alcoholics Anonymous — before you make a serious mistake.

Till next time I wish you all smooth sailin'.

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Kelly Sweeney holds the licenses of master (oceans, any gross tons) and master of towing vessels (oceans), and regularly sails on a wide variety of commercial vessels. He lives on an island near Seattle. You can contact him at captsweeney@professionalmariner.com.

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