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Rules of the Road: ‘Paper license’ ploy does not satisfy manning requirements

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Rules of the Road: by Capt. Jake Desvergers

The use of licensed workers is required in many industries, from medicine and engineering to construction, teaching and even cosmetology. Having a license in any profession attests that the holder meets a minimum standard imposed by a particular regulatory agency. Within the maritime world, that standard is implemented through the Seafarer’s Training, Certification, and Watchkeeping (STCW) Code.

Those who have successfully passed the requirements to obtain an officer’s license may be annotated with certain restrictions, such as related to gross tonnage, area of operation, engine type, engine horsepower and vessel type. The license, in essence, identifies what the holder is allowed or not allowed to do.

In December, while conducting an at-sea inspection of a U.S.-flagged fishing vessel, a U.S. Coast Guard boarding team suspected that a foreign national was acting as the vessel’s captain. Docu­mentation presented showed that a U.S. citizen who was a U.S.-licensed mariner was sailing as the vessel’s official Master. But this second “captain,” while on paper covering the manning requirement, was not in true command. U.S. law mandates that the operation of a U.S.-flagged commercial fishing vessel be under the command of a Master who is a U.S. citizen licensed by the U.S. Coast Guard.

After an investigation, the boarding team’s suspicions were confirmed. There were two captains: one in command and one on paper. The fishing vessel was subsequently cited for the manning violation and the evidence was forwarded to the local hearing office for review and legal action. The penalty for this violation is typically cancellation of the mariner’s documentation and a civil fine of up to $15,000 per day.

This type of violation, commonly referred to as a “paper captain,” attempts to circumvent the manning regulations. The foreign-national captain was most likely a very qualified and experienced fisherman, but the use of another U.S.-licensed captain to satisfy the manning document is not permitted.

While this scenario was observed in the fishing industry, it is all too often sighted in the yachting world as well. Longtime readers who have suffered through years of this column will recall that one of my daily jobs is to serve as an inspector for various flag-state administrations. Years ago, when yachts started to reach an exceptional size, there was a small group of captains available who held a license sufficient for the higher gross tonnage. On these yachts, we typically found the yacht’s Master to be from the merchant fleet, while the owner’s “captain” from his previously smaller yacht was on board solely as an adviser. This type of setup was not ideal but acceptable, provided the “captain adviser” did not serve in any role related to navigation or safe operation of the yacht.

Today, the above scenario is not as commonly observed since the captains’ licensing has finally caught up to the demand. Unfortunately, it is still being sighted on the engineering side. There is such a shortage of licensed engineers, many yachts are using unlicensed or minimally trained personnel to fill a particular role. It is most prevalent on yachts where a person with an Approved Engine Course (AEC) is the manning requirement. The pre-2018 version of the AEC was a five-day introductory course to marine diesels. It had no prerequisites and could be completed by anyone registering for the course. On smaller yachts, we may see a captain performing the actual engineering work, but a member of the interior staff who happens to have an AEC on paper be rostered as the engineer. On larger yachts, where an assistant engineer is needed, we may see a very mechanically inclined person in the role, but without the necessary certification. Another member of the crew, who coincidentally possesses the AEC, is listed on the crew list in that role. Neither of these setups satisfy the manning requirements.

Also, in regard to bridge watchkeeping, anyone operating in the capacity of an officer must hold a license sufficient for the gross tonnage of the yacht. In other words, the unofficial bosun/third officer (that is not on the minimum manning) with only a Yachtmaster license cannot stand a watch by himself on an 80-meter yacht, even if the “paper” officer is only a phone call away.

Capt. Jake DesVergers is chief surveyor for International Yacht Bureau (www.yachtbureau.org). Comments are welcome below.

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