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Rules of the Road: STCW sets baseline in training

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Rules of the Road: by Capt. Jake DesVergers

It is a term that we constantly hear and read: STCW. Everyone from the greenest deckie to the saltiest captain is affected by this maritime regulation, but what exactly is this acronym and why is it so important?

The International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification, and Watchkeeping for Seafarers (STCW), 1978, as amended, sets certification standards for masters, officers and watch personnel on seagoing merchant ships. It was the first attempt to establish basic requirements of training, certification and watchkeeping for seafarers on an international level. Previously, these standards and procedures were established by individual governments and varied widely, even though shipping is the most international of all industries. 

It is important to emphasize that the code is a minimum standard that countries are obliged to meet or exceed for certification – not qualification. It does not provide a guarantee of quality or the highest of standards. Also, the convention does not deal with manning levels. 

In 1993, the IMO embarked on a comprehensive revision of STCW to establish the highest practicable standards of competence to address the problem of human error as the major cause of maritime casualties.  

Full implementation was required by Feb. 1, 2002. Mariners already holding licenses had the option to renew those licenses in accordance with the old rules of the 1978 Convention during the period ending on Feb. 1, 2002. Mariners entering training programs after Aug. 1, 1998, were required to meet the competency standards of the new 1995 Amendments.

The 1995 Amendments required that seafarers be provided with “familiarization training” and “basic safety training” that includes basic fire fighting, elementary first aid, personal survival techniques, and personal safety and social responsibility. This training is intended to ensure that seafarers are aware of the hazards of working on a vessel and can respond appropriately in an emergency. It also provided the minimum amount of experience and training needed for holders of licenses, allocated based upon the tonnage and/or kilowatts of a vessel.

In June 2010, the STCW was again amended during a Diplomatic Conference in Manila, the Philippines. These “Manila Amendments” entered into force on Jan. 1, 2017, and affected several topics, including:

  • Improved measures to prevent fraudulent practices associated with certificates of competency.
  • Improved methods for the evaluation process for issuance of certificates.
  • Updated standards related to medical fitness standards for seafarers. 
  • Creation of new certifications for senior unlicensed seafarers: able seafarer deck and able seafarer engine.
  • New training and certification requirements for electro-technical officers;
  • New requirements related to training in new and emerging technologies, such as electronic charts and information systems (ECDIS);
  • New requirements for marine environment awareness training / MARPOL compliance.
  • New requirements for training in leadership and teamwork.
  • New requirements for security training.
  • Introduction of modern training methodology, including distance learning and web-based learning.
  • New training guidance for personnel serving on board ships operating in polar waters.
  • New training guidance for personnel operating Dynamic Positioning Systems.

The specific regulations affecting one’s license and/or certification will be dependent upon the issuing agency. For example, those having obtained qualifications through the United Kingdom’s Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) will be required to meet the requirements outlined by this agency. The MCA is responsible for implementing the requirements of the STCW for the United Kingdom and its Red Ensign. The same is true of the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) for the U.S. flag, Australian Maritime Safety Agency (AMSA) for its seafarers, and so on. 

Despite similar requirements between countries, it cannot be assumed that a particular training course will be reciprocated and accepted. Before enrolling in a class, make sure that it is approved by your country’s certifying agency. 

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

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