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Plan ahead for next year’s STCW gap-closing deadline

Jul 29, 2015 10:34 AM

It was the autumn of 1999, and I had been filling in for one of the permanent mates for a 45-day work tour on an oceanographic ship. We had some fog and one gale blew by, but our z-drive vessel spent most of the smooth trip deploying a remotely operated vehicle while in dynamic positioning mode 100 miles off the coast of Oregon. The night before I was due to get off in Seattle we were rounding Cape Flattery inbound when the skipper came up to the wheelhouse to shoot the breeze. He asked, “What are your plans for vacation, Kelly?” I replied, “I’m taking another STCW ’95 (International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers) class — this time it’s the one-week Basic Safety Training course.” Nodding, he replied, “Yeah, I’m taking that soon, too. I had to book it three months ahead because so many people are scrambling to get their STCW ’95 certification now.”

When the U.S. Coast Guard announced that every mariner beginning his or her career after Aug. 1, 1998, had to meet the new STCW ’95 requirements for obtaining and upgrading their endorsements, it changed merchant mariner credentialing forever. For example, STCW ’95 required a third mate/officer in charge of a navigational watch not only to pass the traditional four-day third mate exam, but to complete more than 70 graded onboard assessments and months of classes as well. But when the Coast Guard announced the new STCW ’95 rules, it did experienced mariners a favor. For those who began their sea service before Aug. 1, 1998, the Coast Guard established a “gap closing” period until Feb. 1, 2002, to allow them to obtain their certificates without having to meet the full scope of the new STCW ’95 regulations.

“Gap closing” is an official term, but from a practical point of view it meant that until Feb. 1, 2002, experienced mariners, deck or engine, licensed and unlicensed, did not have to meet all the new STCW ’95 rules to obtain their endorsements. For example, a second mate looking to upgrade to chief mate could just take the exam, avoiding the long list of 58 assessments mandated by STCW ’95 to obtain that endorsement. Experienced mariners still had to take some STCW classes, such as Bridge Resource Management and Basic Safety Training, to maintain eligibility. As the deadline approached and these class openings became increasingly tough to come by, the frenzy to obtain the necessary certifications drove many mariners to extremes. One 1,600-ton master with whom I took an Automatic Radar Plotting Aids (ARPA) class paid for a round-trip flight from Florida to Seattle and five nights in a hotel — twice as much as the class itself cost — because it was the only ARPA class with an opening he could find in time to meet the deadline. 

After Feb. 1, 2002, things began to settle down. Most mariners who needed STCW ’95 certification were in full compliance. The others couldn’t work deep-sea. For the next few years no major changes to the regulation came along, but then in 2010 the International Maritime Organization approved the “Manila Amendments” to the STCW Code. That created a whole new set of requirements for obtaining, renewing and upgrading many STCW endorsements — once again involving more classes and training — including every five years having to renew Basic Training, Proficiency in Survival Craft and Advanced Firefighting.  

March 24, 2014, was the date that the Coast Guard decided the new Manila Amendments policies would come into full effect for American mariners. Any mariner beginning his or her sea service on or after that date is subject to all the new rules. To its credit, once more the Coast Guard established a “gap closing” period for experienced mariners, so those who began their sea service before March 24, 2014, can upgrade and renew their documents without having to meet all the new STCW ’95 requirements — but only until Dec. 31, 2016. Whether you are a deck or engine officer, you will still need to take a management class or two before Dec. 31, 2016, but you will not have to meet the full scope of the requirements. William and Gordon, both engine officers I know who work up north in Alaska, each spent some of their vacation time recently taking an Engine Resource Management class — one of the “gap closing” classes needed to be certified on or before the deadline. All the information on meeting the new requirements can be found at the National Maritime Center website. 

I recently called a school in Seattle about a Leadership and Managerial Skills class for senior deck officers and was told that the dates I wanted were already taken, and that there was a waiting list for upcoming courses. In the words of the great Yogi Berra, “It’s déjà vu all over again.” Already classes are filling to capacity as mariners begin to scramble to meet the deadline. Being proactive is a good idea, because any mariner who doesn’t have the proper endorsements by Dec. 31, 2016, will be unable to sail on any STCW-compliant vessel. The Coast Guard is serious about this. I remember back when the rules first came into effect, an old friend of mine lost his STCW master’s endorsement when he didn’t get the needed classes in time. After a lifetime of sailing on containerships and as master of large ferries, Ted’s ticket was reduced to just a 200-ton inland license. 

The days when a merchant mariner document never needed to be renewed and required no additional classes to keep current are long gone. Today, there are essentially two groups of mariners working in the U.S. merchant marine: those who are STCW-compliant and want to sail deep-sea, and those who want to sail domestically on their national endorsement. It is a decision that every mariner must now make. So if you want to sail deep-sea, the appropriate STCW ’95 endorsements must be on your merchant mariner credential by Dec. 31, 2016, or you won’t be able to work. Now is the time to investigate and reserve space in any classes you may need to take.

Till next time, I wish you all smooth sailin.’

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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