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Monday, June 04, 2007

Getting Your Z-Card

Not long ago some friends and I decided we needed to get Merchant Mariner Cards (Z-Cards) in addition to our USCG Captain’s Licenses. We needed the cards in order to work on US-Flagged vessels of more than 200 gross tons. What we decided to do was take a one-week AB course at a certified academy, whereby we could get a course Certificate of Completion. We were told that as long as our applications were in order and we had the sea time behind us the USCG Marine Safety Office in Boston would accept the Certificate of Completion as a rubber stamp for our Z-cards.

We were told wrong.

In a period of about two weeks, everything about getting a Z-Card changed. Some guys who went down with their Certificates got the cards and others didn’t. Coast Guard examiners were adding requirements the academy instructors didn’t know about. Suddenly, our Certificates weren’t worth anything, and the money we spent on the course ($600) was money spent in vain. When I called and spoke to an examiner, he said I would not be given my Z-Card unless I came into the office with proof that I had completed Basic Safety Training. In other words, before I could get my MMD I needed to launch an inflatable life raft, put out a fire in a garbage can, and float around in a survival suit in a swimming pool. To do this I had to shell out another $1,000 and sit through yet another week of classroom study that repeated the same course material I’d just gone through for the AB; which, incidentally, was a repeat of everything I needed to know for my Captains License, which I’ve held for some 25 or 30 years.

As if that wasn’t enough, it soon became clear that spending $1,000 on the Basic Safety Training Course would not be money well spent. Basic Safety Training is part of STCW, and STCW is the more valuable certification.

Let me put it another way:

If you’ve tried of late to figure out the requirements for a given Merchant Mariners Document you’re probably doing a lot of head scratching. From what I can gather, in and of itself, the Able Body Seaman rating, which used to get you into the wheelhouse of an inspected vessel of 200 or more gross tons, is completely worthless. In fact, according to some people, you can’t even get an AB unless you first satisfy the Basic Safety Training (BST) portion of STCW. The latter, otherwise known as the Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping, is the qualifying standard for professional mariners established by the International Maritime Organization.

The smarter move is to skip BST and go straight for STCW. BST will get you your AB, but it won’t get you on a vessel working beyond the boundary line. For that you need the STCW Certificate. Of course, you can’t get your AB endorsement on your STCW Certificate unless you also have RFPNW or RFPEW, a.k.a. Rating Forming Part of a Navigation (or Engineering) Watch.

While you’re at it, you might as well get Lifeboatman and Advanced Fire Fighting. Chances are you’ll need them, too.

Confused? Join the club. There are a lot of Instructors and more than a few Coast Guard Examiners equally confused. Near as I can figure, it’s easier to get a license to practice medicine. You only need a MD to stick an arthroscope into a man’s knee, but you need an AB, STCW, and an RFPNW to needle-gun a patch of rust on the deck of 250-ton ocean-going tug.

I admit I’m exaggerating. Indeed, you can get on deck with an entry level Ordinary Seaman rating. But if you want the better pay, and you think you can get your AB by walking into a Coast Guard Safety Office with a dog-eared logbook and a nice letter from your boss, think again. Among other things, you’ll need to have launched a lifeboat, put out an oil fire, deployed an inflatable raft, and proven you’ve had your sensitivity training.

The STCW, Advanced Fire fighting, and Lifeboat education doesn’t come cheap. Add Evaluation and Issuance fees, transportation costs, and room and board, and you’re looking at expenses of $4,000 to $5,000, maybe more. It’s also three to four weeks’ worth of training.

Can you still come up through the hawse pipe? Sure. But don’t forget your check book.



andrew said...

thanks for the info, even though you already explained it im still confused as to what i need to get to become a deckhand. i need some advice, and at the moment i dont really have a tremendous amount of funds. my email is im just looking for more information about how to get a job on a ship.

seabgb said...

If you don't have any sea time or experience or any previous license the best way to get on a ship is to sign on with an O.S. (Ordinary Seaman/Wiper/Steward). This is an entry level position and requires no maritime training. Go to USCG National Maritime Center Home Page and download the Application for Merchant Mariner Document. (Here:
You'll need a valid U.S. Passport and/or your original birth certificate. You'll need a drug test. You'll need a complete physical exam (they provide the forms) and you'll need a TWIC card. That's a Transportation Worker Identification Card. This latter proves you have passed the necessary security screening, which you actually have to go through twice, once for your TWIC and again for your MMD. Here's where you can apply for a TWIC:
Once you have your application form filled out and you have all the required components. (TWIC, Physical Exam, Passport, Drug Test Results), you'll mail the thing to the nearest USCG Regional Center. They'll start to process your application. It may take as long as three months. If you're missing anything, they'll send it back to you for corrections. The TWIC costs about $130. The MMD-OS will cost about $100. The physical (if you go to a OSHA doc or a PA) will cost about $100. The drug test will cost about $70. Get your TWIC right off.

After you have your MMD, I would go somewhere where there is a lot of work and try to get on a boat. Right now there's a lot of work in the Gulf. Get on a boat and start to gain some experience and sea time. An employer hiring an OS may or may not require STCW Basic Safety Training. That's more expensive but if they like you and you're a hard worker they will pay for you to have this training. As an OS you are not required to have STCW BST but many employers want all their personnel to have it. This part of it is on a case by case basis. That's about all I can think of. Hope this helps. Good Luck. ~Bob

Anonymous said...

You don't really have a clue, do you?

Basic Safety Training is the FIRST STEP in the STCW-95 training scheme.

A person can get AB (there are FOUR levels) without RFPNW but they can't sail outside US waters.

RFPNW means you can stand watch or act as a helmsman, if your job duties mean as an AB all you do is needle gun rust, that's your prob, buddy. But you HAVE to be qualified to stand watch.

As for knocking BST, sounds like you took a course at some crappy private dump of a school such as SeaSchool.

I took REAL BST from the US Navy MSC and let me tell you, it was more than worth it. REAL training from REAL instructors with REAL firefighting and water survival courses.

Again, you are wrong on ALMOST EVERYTHING you wrote.

seabgb said...

You better check your facts again, smartass! You Navy swabs are all the same. You think you know so much but when it comes to dealing with the USCG and life in the real world of corporations and private enterprise you are clueless. Nobody is hiring ABs without the minimum STCW-BST. And you ain't getting any RFPNW without your proficiency check list filled out, which you can't get unless you're actually in a freakin' wheelhouse with someone who will authorize the check list. So, catch-22. My advice to anyone is to pay the money and get what you need at a certified US MMA, like I did. get advanced firefighting, rescue craft, and lifeboat eqpd ratings. Then get a job and start upping your license through an apprentice steersman program, mate program and/or the rfpnw. If all you want to do is chip paint and grease winches your AB and STCW are fine. Cheers...

Anonymous said...

How old do you have to be to join I'm 34