Coast Guard wasn't always in charge of mariners' documents

Jan 16, 2008 12:00 AM

I know a number of old-timers who sailed in the merchant marine during World War II. Last year a group of them invited me to speak during a luncheon held on the SS Lane Victory, a historic museum ship berthed in Los Angeles Harbor. Merchant marine memorabilia fills the ship, and before my talk, I walked around checking it out.

Enclosed in a glass display case, I was surprised to see merchant mariner's documents that didn't have the words "United States Coast Guard" which my licenses and z-cards have always had. I asked one old salt about it. He told me, "I got my seaman's papers issued under the Bureau of Marine Inspection and Navigation (BMIN) when I was 17 years old. These weren't military types. They were civilian government employees — many were ex-merchant mariners. That all changed when the war broke and the Coast Guard stepped in."

For 90 years, until 1942, when the Coast Guard took over from the Bureau of Marine Inspection and Navigation, civilian government agencies had been in charge of merchant marine licensing and documentation. When the Coast Guard began handling merchant marine licenses and z-cards during World War II, it was supposed to be a temporary arrangement. Instead, in 1946 after the war had ended, the government made the change permanent — and the Coast Guard has been in charge of issuing mariner documents and licenses ever since.

From 1946 until the late 1970s, there were many local Coast Guard offices throughout the country where a merchant mariner could be issued a license or z-card. A large number of these were actually former BMIN offices. When the first consolidation of the offices by the Coast Guard occurred about 20 years ago, it established Regional Exam Centers in major cities only. Many mariners who used to be able to go to their local office now had long distances to travel just to take a test or get their documents issued in person. Fewer offices also meant fewer Coast Guard employees handling the paperwork. From the 1990s to today, new requirements for holding a document and license have slowed the application process down even further, to the point where some Coast Guard RECs began advising mariners to renew their papers a full year in advance.

After 9/11, the Coast Guard underwent even more changes. One important change took place in February 2003, when the Coast Guard was placed under the control of the Department of Homeland Security instead of the Department of Transportation. The organization now strongly focuses on maritime security — and rightly so. In addition to these new military responsibilities, however, the Coast Guard is still charged with issuing us our merchant mariner licenses and seaman's documents.

Recently, I wrote about the next big consolidation affecting how the Coast Guard handles merchant mariner licensing and documentation (PM #108, see story). When the changeover is complete, the thousands of yearly applications, as well as upgrades and renewals, will only be issued at the National Maritime Center in Martinsburg, W.Va. (This issue, see story) Many feel that this latest consolidation is a sign that the Coast Guard is saddled with too many responsibilities.

A number of industry experts have testified before the House of Representatives Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation (PM #110, see story). Among them was Capt. Tim Brown, the well-respected president of the Masters, Mates & Pilots union. He said, "Mariners would be better served by an organization that is dedicated to licensing and documentation." Long-time mariner advocate Capt. Richard Block of the Gulf Coast Mariners Association echoed this sentiment. The venerable Council of American Master Mariners officially came out in support of having a separate agency handle all merchant marine licensing as well. Even Rep. James Oberstar, chairman of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, suggested that a new agency he called the Marine Safety Administration could take over merchant mariner credentialing from the Coast Guard.

The Coast Guard has publicly acknowledged that there are many problems with the way it has handled the issuing of merchant mariner documents and hopes that the NMC consolidation will solve them. Unfortunately, more problems are already surfacing — and the changeover isn't even complete. The reorganization of some Regional Exam Centers is almost a year behind schedule and stories of mariners facing delays and problems at the National Maritime Center are circulating throughout the industry.

I've talked a lot about the Coast Guard in this article, but it's not about them. It's about what's best for us merchant mariners. A professional mariner cannot work without a current license or document, so a delayed issuing of a license or MMD can result in the loss of a job. I know of a number of cases where this has happened. Being out of work is not just some minor inconvenience. It could mean no money to feed the kids or pay the mortgage. That's why I think that it's time to go back to the system that worked for nine decades and have a civilian government agency in charge of merchant mariner licensing. I believe that this change would be better for us and would enable the Coast Guard to focus on what it does best — protecting our country and saving lives.

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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