"Mariner-Class": A New Merchant Marine Officer

By Rear Admiral James F. McNulty, U.S. Maritime Service (Retired)
  • Fast, large containerships designed to be operated by crews of 21 or fewer, making brief stops to load at a series of automated terminal facilities before launching themselves on their trans-ocean voyages en route to similar receiving facilities.
  • Enormous crude-oil carriers, lifting in one trip cargo equivalent to that moved by dozens of the once-common "standard" size oil tanker, the 1930s U.S. Maritime Commission T-2 design of some 10,000 tons.
  • An obsolescent Panama Canal, bypassed by new energy trading patterns while outflanked by containerized cargoes consigned under a single bill of lading to take freight from the Asian Rim nations to distribution centers on or near the East Coast of North America or directly on to European markets, traveling by double-stacked unit trains across a North American continental land bridge.
  • Vehicles as cargo themselves and as wheeled cargo containers, loaded on and off large "Ro-Ro" (roll on/roll off) vessels during the briefest of port visits.
  • Kiloton-sized bulk cargoes of coal and/or metallic ores offloaded in hours by self-unloading conveyors.

The most modern of vessels conducting their trading voyages while tethered to home office managers through satellite communications links, guided around threatening seas spotted by other orbiters through shoreside weather routing services, and positioning themselves every few minutes of each voyage with navigation satellite receivers accurate to within a few yards anywhere on the globe, and avoiding collision by following cues given by automated radar systems.

Popular managerial concepts such as just-in-time inventory controls are feasible only because of the above advances in cargo handling and shipment procedures. Indeed, these movements are not conducted by traditional shipping companies, but by transportation companies whose executives must be familiar with every aspect of efficient freight handling on land, sea, and—increasingly—air. Changing concepts and non-traditional ways of managing cargo movement are the rule today, and it is universally understood that the future belongs to those who adapt most quickly to new technologies and ways of thought. There is one exception, however.

In the maritime world change is the order of the day in every way but one—initial-entry maritime officer training and education. No other aspect of the maritime trades has been so slow to accept new approaches. Some changes have occurred through the pressures of the evolving International Convention on Standards of Training and Watchkeeping (STCW) promoted through the United Nations under its agency, the International Maritime Organization. But in the United States today we see substantially the same traditional process of maritime training that came into existence more than a hundred years ago, when Stephen B. Luce and Alfred T. Mahan revolutionized sea officer training by establishing formal shore-based school programs for both naval and merchant service officers. The U.S. Naval Academy and the present system of state maritime training schools were founded through their efforts, in response to the politico-economic and technical advances of the l9th century. While there have been many changes in the past century, Mahan or Luce both would grasp comfortably the present organization, training cycles, and curricula offered at all of the maritime academies.

Each academy takes an entering class of young men and women, and after a period of relatively common training, divides them into "deck" or "engine" officer candidates. From this point cadets are trained and encouraged to think of themselves as one kind of officer or the other. Even in those few schools where optional dual license programs are offered, the distinctions are rarely retained. So-called "duallies" receive extended programs composed not so much of a "merged" curriculum as a "layered" one, with both deck and engineering disciplines presented as additive to one another, as opposed to integrated or common goal programs. When finally licensed by the U.S. Coast Guard as Third Assistant Engineer and Third Mate, "duallies" must then seek employment at sea alternately under the authority of one part of the license or the other. The lack of clear focus on career goals soon leads most "duallies" to give up on one track and actively pursue the other, so that by the time they have become senior officers they are mentally and professionally either a "deckie" or a "snipe."

We need an entirely new kind of merchant marine officer in order to confront the challenges posed by new technology and changing times. That new class of officer might best be thought of as a mariner-class officer. He or she would not in any sense be a traditional deck or engineer officer, but would instead be a well-trained mariner , suitably qualified by training for entry-level employment on board modern merchant ships as both a bridge watchkeeper/communications/navigating officer and as an electronic/electrical/engineering-maintenance officer. Automated engine rooms with bridge engine controls have made the watchkeeping engineer superfluous, just as satellite and other advanced communication technology have made obsolete the traditional ship's radio officer technician.

Entry-level technician engineers are needed for at-sea maintenance and repair of advanced ship operating, communications, and navigation systems under the supervision of senior ship electronics and/or engineering officers. Of course, there will always be a need for individuals trained for emergency duties as engineering watch officers if automated systems fail. But economic considerations dictate that such individuals must also routinely perform higher priority non-watchkeeping duties aboard ship. Bridge watchkeeping officers need to understand the technology at their fingertips, as well as possess traditional navigational and piloting skills.

Our notional mariner-class officer would be trained in state and federal maritime academies, as at present—but under a new curriculum reshaped to meet the new concepts dictated by the needs of a 21st century ocean-going fleet. As now, every student would be initially trained intensively in traditional seamanship, shiphandling, lifesaving, and shipboard safety procedures. Practical training in small craft, sail and powerboat handling, and sessions in shoreside full-mission bridge/engineroom/cargo simulators would be emphasized. The proven emphasis on the quasi-military lifestyle as a paradigm for instilling the self-discipline essential for success as a professional mariner would be retained. Also included would be traditional foundation courses needed to pursue undergraduate studies in the liberal arts and physical sciences essential to understanding modern life and technology.

The new mariner-class officer's undergraduate training would have the following framework:

  • An early period of shoreside training—possibly only the first term or semester—would have the goal of providing the mariner cadet with both the specific knowledge and the mind set necessary for success on board ship in practical novice-level sea training. This initial sea training would be under the direct supervision of academy faculty and more experienced mariner cadets. This initial sea training would be perhaps 60-90 days long.
  • A second sea training phase, again 60-90 days in aggregate, would be undertaken by sending individual or small groups of mariner-cadets for self-directed study on board U.S.-flag commercial vessels. A traditional "Sea Project" or formal correspondence course would need to be part of this experience.
  • After further shoreside studies, final sea training to round out nine months of actual sea or sea-equivalent experience would be carried out again on academy-operated training vessels. This would include short, intensive one or two-day cruises to provide shiphandling and leadership for advanced cadets, while offering basic engineering and seamanship training to novice mariner-cadets. Other longer periods would include visits to distant ports as part of a plan to provide international socialization as well as "marinizing" experiences to mariner cadets before they embark on careers as mariner officers.
  • On completion of undergraduate training, mariner cadets would be examined by the U.S. Coast Guard for licensing as "Junior Marine Officers, for Afloat Service Unlimited as to Waters, Tonnage, Propulsion Systems or Horsepower." Some graduates, having completed specialized training and practical experience, would gain additional initial designation as pilot for specific waters, currently the industry requirement for employment in the Great Lakes fleets. Other oceangoing trades also may require such advanced skill training.
  • All mariner officers would begin their professional sea service through appointment as bridge/watchkeeping Third Officers on board U.S.-flag vessels, and would carry out traditional duties of junior deck officers, with additional duties as directed by the Master, to include engineering maintenance duties under the supervision of the Chief Engineer. Officers would be required to keep a lifetime personal logbook. After a minimum period of sea service in this capacity, 12 months, perhaps—and after demonstrating specified minimum skills at engineering maintenance tasks as certified by the Chief Engineer—our new mariner officer would return to a maritime academy or other privately sponsored training activity for further schooling. This would be a five-day a week, three-to-four month course with emphasis on navigation and electronics maintenance training, with a mix of business-oriented courses. The officer, his union, or his employing company would bear the costs of this phase of training. On completion, and without further USCG examination, the individual would be certified by the training school as Second Mariner Officer, and would be eligible to return to sea as a bridge watchkeeper with additional responsibilities assigned by the Master.

This second sea phase as a professional mariner officer would continue for a minimum of one year, or until achievement of specified practical skills in navigation, electronic, and engineering maintenance procedures. At this point, our career mariner officer would again return ashore for advanced schooling for about one academic year's duration. Again, the costs of such advanced training would be borne by the individual, or a sponsoring organization. Our officer would now need to make a choice among three alternative future career paths—mariner (deck/electronics); mariner (engineer/electrical); or mariner (sea/management). Officers contemplating a lifetime at sea would choose one of the first two alternatives, and follow career paths akin to those of present-day Masters or Chief Engineers. Those opting for mariner (sea/management) would have the choice of seeking marine-related employment ashore immediately on completion of advanced training or continuing in sea berths; they would be tracking toward ultimate employment ashore in management positions. In intensity and focus, the curriculum in this phase would parallel that of existing graduate schools, and completion would be recognized by award of a traditional Master's degree—in marine transportation, management, or engineering sciences.

Completion of shoreside schooling would lead to a further and final written examination and licensing action by the USCG—the examination to focus on either engineering or deck officer subjects at the choice of the candidate. Licensure would be as Senior Mariner Officer with endorsements specific to propulsion types, tonnages, cargo gear, water, etc. Holders of such licenses would be eligible for employment afloat, initially in positions similar to existing Chief Mate/cargo officers or First Assistant Engineer/maintenance officers. Eligibility for promotion to Master or Chief Engineer would follow recorded logbook entries of specific sea experience plus formal short training courses to be established within criteria suggested by the STCW conventions and/or other regulatory agencies. Actual promotion would involve obtaining a license endorsement following practical examinations in bridge/cargo/engineroom simulators to be witnessed by USCG inspectors. A path to mariner officer status for unlicensed seagoing personnel would also be developed, using a "bootstrap" technique of sending such aspirants for officer status to short courses at one of the maritime academies.

All entry-level licenses would be renewable without upgrade for one cycle only—that is, at the five-year point. Mariners not actively sailing and failing to pursue upgrade actions within ten years of initial licensing would be removed from the active license rolls, although provision for recertification and redocumentation would be available. Junior mariner officers not desiring to undertake the advanced formal education needed for upgrade to senior officer status, but willing to maintain their current status, would be permitted to renew licenses indefinitely at the junior level.

Senior mariner-officer license holders would be required to attend periodic (perhaps every three years) recertification courses of three to five days in length, to include demonstration of shiphandling and other relevant skill in simulators. At every point in the program, mariner cadets and officers would be subject to random drug testing and review of personal lifestyle to assure that they remain eligible for the designation mariner-class officers.

This approach will demand a great deal of change in our established educational and regulatory systems—and it is likely to come slowly. The sorry truth is that educators and regulatory agencies are only slightly more ready to accept change than the traditional mariner. But change is needed, and those of us in the educational side of the profession owe it to the nation to provide it with mariners having skills matching the needs of a fast-evolving industry. Considerable alteration in present licensing regulations will be needed—which should be welcomed by our increasingly overcommitted Coast Guard. Only two detailed written examinations administered by that agency would be needed during a full career of a mariner officer in place of the four now required for each individual, and those examinations would not be deck or engine-specific, but applicable to all candidates prior to administrative certification as Master or Chief Engineer.

Also required will be major attitudinal adjustments by individuals and institutions now involved with maritime education and training. The federal academy, for example, which presently obtains all sea training for its cadets in unsupervised cruises aboard commercial vessels, will have difficulty accepting the new emphasis of training ship studies under licensed faculty direction and the need to set up a fee/tuition schedule for advanced education programs. The state academies will have difficulty adjusting to the "whole career" nexus of the proposed scheme. But there are opportunities to be seized by the existing maritime training establishment—state, federal, or union-sponsored—in the growing acceptance of the idea that transportation professionals need periodic and formal retraining at various stages of their professional careers. Why should these schools not offer the service—for a fee—from top to bottom, before industry or others are forced to?

Let's get on with it—federal, state, and other educational authorities—and develop a comprehensive new program leading to a whole new mariner-class officer, consistent with the needs of the 21st century. And let it begin soon.

Admiral McNulty recently retired as superintendent of one of the six federally assisted State Maritime Colleges. He is a past contributor to Proceedings .



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