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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.