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Find yourself in a job pinch? Work ashore for sea-time credit

Jun 1, 2018 11:07 AM

Maybe it’s because we are used to laying out a course to get from one place to another, but there is no doubt that most of the mariners I’ve known have had very specific plans to achieve their goals — personally, financially and professionally. Unfortunately, to paraphrase the great Scottish bard Robert Burns, sometimes life just gets in the way of our plans. Like the second mate I sailed with on a tanker once. Phil was a graduate of an East Coast maritime academy and was hard-working and ambitious, already holding a chief mate’s license. He told me of his dream to obtain his unlimited master’s ticket by the time he was 30, in just two years, and he was already well on his way. Then his dad became seriously ill and Phil was asked by his mother to “take up the slack” at home. I am sure that he was heartbroken giving up his dream of earning an unlimited master’s license, returning instead to the family business — selling real estate — to make money.

In addition to family matters, nothing messes with personal plans more than losing a job. With many sectors of the industry in the hiring doldrums, a number of mariners I know have been unable to find work on the water. James, a friend of mine who’s an able seaman unlimited, was recently laid off from his job after many years with a big East Coast tug company. With no luck in his maritime job search, he was forced to find work ashore. Just to pay the bills he’s needed to work two jobs, 40 hours each per week — a wood stacker at a lumber mill during the day, and on the line at a chemical factory at night. A lot of U.S. merchant mariners are in a similar boat, especially with the slowdown in the Gulf of Mexico.

One major drawback of working ashore is that most shoreside jobs do not earn any creditable sea time for the renewal of a U.S. Coast Guard-issued merchant mariner credential (MMC). So, not only does working ashore interrupt a maritime career, it can also result in the loss of an MMC — something that happened to a neighbor of mine. Mike gave up his second mate’s license and never returned to sea after deciding to take a job ashore to be close to his ailing mother.

These days, mariners do not have to choose between working ashore and losing their credentials. To its credit, the Coast Guard has included a provision in its regulations allowing a mariner to earn sea-time credit while working certain shoreside jobs. It was on a recent road trip with one of my old roommates from the California Maritime Academy (CMA) that I was reminded of this regulatory “godsend” — one that many mariners don’t even know exists.

Jeff drove up just as I was walking off the ferry and we took off for Vancouver, British Columbia, to see former Supertramp frontman Roger Hodgson in concert. On the two-hour trip north we caught up on the latest family news and industry scuttlebutt, including the current tough job market. I mentioned how a lot of mariners are riding out the downturn in the Gulf by working ashore, and that many of them may never return to sea, having to give up their hard-earned licenses and endorsements due to a lack of sea time. Jeff told me about an unlimited master he knows who has been able to keep his license current because he works on the docks, supervising the loading and unloading of ships. That reminded me of the Coast Guard-approved way to obtain sea-time credit that I hadn’t thought about in years, an approach that doesn’t even require putting out to sea. It’s called “closely related service.”

In accordance with 46 CFR 10.232, a mariner who works in a “closely related” job ashore — one involving the “operation, construction or repair of vessels” — can earn sea-time credit. The regulation leaves much open to interpretation regarding what jobs are considered to be “closely related service.” Nevertheless, I have known people who’ve received Coast Guard approval for positions ranging from marine surveyor and cargo planner to naval architect and shipyard supervisor. For anyone who wants to take advantage of this option, I strongly recommend that they first check with the Coast Guard and the employer to make sure that the job they are trying for meets the definition of “closely related service.” 46 CFR 10.227 allows those working in a “closely related” job for three years out of the previous five to earn the equivalent of 360 days of actual sea time — enough to renew an MMC with no days at sea required.

Not only can an MMC be renewed with sea-time credit gained by working ashore, but mariners can use it to upgrade as well. 46 CFR 10.232 clearly stipulates that three days as a port captain, port engineer or shipyard superintendent is equal to one day of sea service toward an upgrade, up to a limit of six months. Maritime instructor time is credited at two days for one day of sea-time credit, also up to a maximum of six months. I remember Robert, an instructor I had when I was at CMA, who was a third mate when I was there. By the time I returned to the school to take a tankship dangerous liquids class some years later, he had used his instructor time to help advance his license to unlimited master.

The sudden illness of a loved one or the loss of a job can be a traumatic, life-changing event. At times like these, it’s easy to feel like the whole world is against you and that you’re slogging through a raging current day in and day out. That’s why the Coast Guard deserves kudos for establishing this mariner-centric regulation. So, if you are in that situation now, you don’t need to get discouraged and give up your credential. You can focus instead on getting a job that meets the definition of “closely related service,” with the confidence of knowing that your seagoing career can resume when things have improved.

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

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

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