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On Course: USCG licensing process adapts to modern maritime industry

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On Course: by Lisa Hoogerwerf Overing

Opening the mysterious tube, postmarked “1943” and mailed from U.S. Coast Guard headquarters, was like opening a time capsule of my family’s mariner roots. Addressed to my grandfather, Lt. Cmdr. John W. Hoogerwerf, the tube’s steel end caps were immovable 75 years later.

My friend cut the old steel tube using his pocketknife with laparoscopic precision, protecting the documents inside. I held my breath and removed the contents: my grandfather’s highest mariner credentials.

Mariner credentials of the author’s grandfather, Lt. Cmdr. John W. Hoogerwerf, from 1943.

We marveled at Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s certificate appointing my grandfather as lieutenant commander in the USCG Reserve. A second certificate recorded his 1939 appointment as lieutenant commander in the U.S. Naval Reserve.

While climbing the hawsepipe, my grandfather witnessed the conversion from clipper sail to steam to diesel. He sailed in two world wars and commanded the USS Millicoma. She received eight battle stars for World War II service, refueling scores of destroyers, aircraft carriers and minesweepers in the Pacific before he died in 1949 following an onboard accident near Singapore.

As the daughter of a sailor who is the son of a sailor, I appreciate the value of a seaman’s credentials. Licenses certify expert nautical competency on board ship, in a corporate culture of structure and pecking order.
James Cavo, who administers the USCG’s mariner credentialing program, said credentialing was easier in my grandfather’s time.

“There was no required training, no drug testing, no TWIC (Transportation Worker Identification Credential), and most applications could be handled in person in a single day,” he said.

Back in the day, a shipping examiner – some old-salt, retired captain – quizzed the mariner for several hours. After the USCG implemented standard multiple-choice tests in 1975, the number of licenses issued by the Coast Guard increased “exponentially,” Cavo said.

“There are more exams, more dates and more testing locations than ever before,” he said. “We can test for any endorsement on demand. This was not possible in the past, when exams were given only once a month for certain licenses.”

The test is no cakewalk, one engineer said on his fourth USCG license renewal in 35 years.

“It’s a big test,” he said. “It’s no small matter. Every raise in grade, every test is really difficult. USCG tests are changing all the time to fit a more modern maritime industry. We don’t have a split license; USCG covers everything.”

Capt. Paul Gillingham said his USCG master license enables him to work commercially when not in yachting.

“You cannot run the water taxi with an MCA certificate,” he noted.

Years ago, Capt. Scott Schwaner’s first license required 365 days at sea. “Now, it’s 720 days for 100-ton or more. You can’t just sit down and read a book and become a sailor,” he said. Extensive sea time is required. “It’s what we call experience.”

Capt. Schwaner said the importance of certification has increased with maritime growth. “There is more shipping today than 100 years ago. Everything is bigger and we need regulation, it’s where your license comes in.”

What’s next in the evolving process of U.S. mariner certification? According to the USCG’s National Maritime Center, one day mariners should be able to upgrade or renew their credentials on demand from any cyber location in the world – something sailors in my grandfather’s day almost certainly would never have seen coming.

Lisa Hoogerwerf Overing is a freelance writer based in Aventura, Florida. (lisaovering.com) Comments are welcome below.

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