Most naval officers know little about the Merchant Marine. Contact with our merchant service colleagues is generally limited to meeting on the high seas. If any thought is cast in the direction of the passing freighter or tanker, it is one which varies from disinterest to amused tolerance, or, sometimes, even to horror. These feelings may be mutual.
We need to know more about those officers who go to sea in ships other than commissioned naval vessels. These men pursue an honorable calling. Our relationship is close, in wartime it becomes even closer. Some of our best officers have received their early training in the merchant service. In World War II, many merchant officers were given direct Navy commissions, and the Navy profited by their seamanship and professional skill. Today, more than 1,000 are on active duty in the Navy, another 2,700 are in the inactive reserve.
My initial acquaintance with the merchant fleet occurred before dawn some 20 years ago off Diamond Head when I was skipper of an LST making her peaceful way towards the entrance buoy to Pearl Harbor. I was sleeping as soundly as a skipper can when I was awakened by the grating of the annunciator chain on the inside of my cabin bulkhead. The stern began to shake as the engines were reversed. I arrived on the bridge in skivvies as we sounded four blasts followed by three. The exec greeted me: “I thought you’d be up pretty quick!” A large merchantman had overtaken us, passed close aboard to port, and then come hard right across our bow. Perhaps he had not seen us. My feelings, profane at the time, have mellowed with the passage of time and the realization that some of my own actions may have been equally incomprehensible to an unsuspecting nearby ship—naval or merchant.
Few naval officers know anything about merchant marine licensing requirements. Some eventually begin to suspect that a merchant marine license would be a good qualification to salt away against the future, but fewer still go beyond writing away for the specimen examinations which the Coast Guard mails without charge to all interested persons. A casual look at the samples makes one realize that here indeed is a tiger not lightly to be taken by the tail, and a project which will be time-consuming if it is to be successfully concluded.
Licensing requirements had their origin in 1860, when the Steamboat Inspection Service was created within the Department of Commerce. At the time, boiler explosions were common, and the public needed protection from unqualified officers. In 1942, licensing was shifted to the Coast Guard by executive order. This was reaffirmed in 1956.
The Coast Guard by no means permits all comers to take exams for a license. Applicants must have very respectable seagoing experience and must provide recommendations from their former masters or commanding officers. Only U. S. citizens need apply. Not surprisingly, the degree of experience required depends upon the license for which the individual wishes to qualify. The examples chosen here, as being of the most interest to PROCEEDINGS readers, are master or mate of steam and motor vessels, any gross tons, upon oceans; master of ocean or coastwise motor yacht; master or operator of small passenger vessel under 100 tons; and, finally, a motorboat operator’s license.
The “Ph.D.” among merchant mariners will hold a license as ocean master, any gross tons. With this license he can command any vessel of U. S. registry afloat. But, if a license is limited to coastal waters, the holder cannot sail upon the high seas. The examination for the lesser master’s license is not so comprehensive and the experience requirements are not so great. An unlimited tonnage master can take a billet as skipper of a yacht, but the yacht license would probably qualify the holder for no more than a mate’s billet in a cargo vessel.
To qualify for a master’s license, the applicant must have at least a year as chief mate. To qualify for chief mate, the second mate must have a year in grade. Similarly, seconds must serve as thirds for a year. And, for third, the aspirant must have either three years at sea on deck or be a graduate of the Naval, Coast Guard, or Maritime Academies, or be a graduate of one of the State Maritime Academies. Although these requirements for service may seem modest, they are deceptive, because only time physically spent at sea underway is counted. In practice, the applicant, particularly in the senior grades, will have far more experience at sea than required by the regulations. The requirements for licensed engineers are comparable.
The experience requirements for master of a motor yacht are more modest. Only three years in the deck department are needed. Similarly, a prospective operator or master of a small passenger vessel of under 100 tons needs only 12 to 18 months experience in type.
Finally, of personal interest to anyone who might someday go to Florida and wish to carry a few passengers for hire, there is the junior license of the lot—the motorboat operator’s license. This is required of anyone who contemplates skippering any vessel under 15 tons propelled by machinery while carrying six passengers or less for hire. Here the applicant need only submit evidence of at least a year’s experience in the operation of motorboats. As is the case with the other licenses, the applicant takes an examination tailored to the responsibilities which he will hold.
Of course, if your rich wife gives you a yacht for Christmas, you don’t need a license to run your toy. Just be sure that it is less than 200 tons and don’t turn it into a commercial enterprise.
One stumbling block encountered by former naval personnel and retired officers is that they are apt to wait more than three years after leaving active duty to apply. Their Navy commands are then too far in the past to count. In short, unless you wish to start over again and go back to sea in an unlicensed capacity, the ball game is over if you don’t start to play within three years. The one exception to this and the one license you can get after being a civilian for three years is that of motorboat operator. But you are severely limited in tonnage and can only carry six passengers. If seven climb on board, you are in difficulty. Your liability insurance is no good, and you are afoul of the law.
The exam itself is at least as comprehensive as the last hurdle before the academic master’s degree. Although the time a naval officer has to set aside to study for a license is far less than for a graduate degree, the thoroughness with which the subject matter must be covered is, if anything, far greater. The whole process between commencement of serious study and completion of the exam can be expected to take anywhere from two to three months depending upon the usual intangibles and how far away you are from navigation and some of the other subjects. There is no time limit on the exam, but for scheduling purposes, ten working days are allowed. The average candidate will complete a few days early. The exam is divided into five groups as shown in Figure 1. The minimum passing grade in all subjects is 70% except for Navigation, Rules of the Road, and maneuvering board, where 90% is required. Only a very exceptional person could go into an exam of this nature cold without severe embarrassment to himself. And even if one had spent all his time on the bridge, he would have to bone up on the subjects in “Group V,” which are not common to the Navy.
Examination for Master of Steam and Motor Vessels, any Gross Tons, Upon Oceans
Latitude by Polaris
Fix or running fix—any bodies
a. (Altitude corrections)
b. (Sextant corrections)
c. (“t” and “d” corrections)
Latitude by meridian altitude Star identification
Azimuth or amplitude
Middle latitude sailing*
Mercator sailing by computation
Great circle sailing by computation
Group II—Rules of the Road
Aids to navigation
Instruments and accessories
Radar and maneuvering board*
Tides and currents
Ocean, winds, weather, and currents
Stability and ship construction
Speed by revolutions
Lifesaving and firefighting
Rules and regulations
Laws governing marine inspection
Practical demonstration in use and knowledge of sextant
Practical examination in blinker and flag signaling
*Not a part of Master’s examination, but required for lower licenses and thus a part of requirements for an original license.
Some points should be mentioned. Although the Coast Guard states that any method of navigation is acceptable, a candidate who expects to do the job with H.O. 249 and the Air Almanac is handicapping himself. Merchant Marine practices may be understated as conservative, and the examination is representative of this characteristic. The legality of the slide rule in the examination room is quite recent. Have you ever used Bowditch tables to compute great circle or mercator courses and distances? No? Friend, you will if you take this route. And Bowditch, not Dutton, is the Bible. If some of the practices are slightly different and try our patience, you must realize that the detail shown in Bowditch is flawless. Besides, this is the way the examiner arrives at his answer. Chart construction by the meridional parts method is not new, exciting, or difficult. But it is apt to be mysterious if you wait for the exam to figure it out. Magnetism is another subject requiring attention. Even if you have compensated a compass or two, or taught at the Naval Academy and held compass compensation drills, you will have to refresh yourself on the theory. You can afford to let it slip in exchange for a 2.5 which might prove illusive. Finally, there is the subject of stability. The GM of a combatant ship may be fairly constant, but not so a cargo vessel. You won’t be able to believe how much it has in common with a yo-yo until you work a few problems.
The administration of the examination is unique. You can apply for a license in any of the principal seaports and take the exam under the eye of the local Coast Guard examiner. He has on file perhaps 5,000 questions on cards from which he can chose. It will be a coincidence if any of the 20 questions he pulls for you in Rules of the Road will be the same as those which another applicant will have to answer. The one similarity is that if you both have prepared yourselves properly, you will have seen most of the questions before. They may have been in the specimen examinations. The hooker is that in your preparation you have worked so many problems and answered so many questions that you have forgotten the answer to any particular problem. But you have mastered the subject. By the end of the exam, you have writer’s cramp, and the Coast Guard has a very respectable accumulation of evidence to be retained on file to prove that you either are or are not deserving of a license. The Coast Guard’s attitude is that holders of a license have lives and property entrusted to their care and that the public deserves to be protected from the incompetent. That philosophy is difficult to refute.
In theory, you can make an excellent case for certifying a naval officer for a license on the strength of his navy commands without an examination. There is something to be said for this viewpoint. Doesn’t a cruiser or guided-missile destroyer skipper have more complex responsibilities than the master of a C-3 cargo vessel? Admittedly, but he also has lots of high-priced help. The Coast Guard does not question the competency of a Navy skipper to take over a C-3, but does wish to ensure that he is thoroughly conversant with fundamentals which experience proves particularly important when you are on the bridge practically alone while entering a busy harbor. Finally, should exceptions be made for anyone, the license would be cheapened, and resentment would be generated towards those who received easy certification.
The route to a license can be made easier by attendance at a school set up for the purpose. The unions have schools to enable their members to upgrade their licenses, but as a non-member, the doors may be closed to you. But, in several ports, privately run schools take all comers. Seattle and Baltimore boast excellent schools, and the tuition is reasonable. The Baltimore school is near the Coast Guard Headquarters in the Customs House and is approved by the Veteran’s Administration. It makes you better prepared, saves undue spinning of wheels, frustration, and time. It also presents an opportunity to meet merchant officers whose backgrounds are far more varied than the officers you left behind in your last wardroom. Those who pass the exam for a new third’s license or the one next higher may have only one thing in common. They are without doubt all professionally qualified for the license they hold.
In conclusion, you can only benefit from qualifying as a licensed merchant marine officer. It gives legal certification for your Navy commands and responsibilities which are recognized in other walks of life. It gives a thorough grounding in basic fundamentals which you may have misplaced in the Pentagon or elsewhere in one of your tours away from the sea. And if you have ever had any misgivings about the qualifications of the merchantman who passes your formation at sea, they will be dispelled. He probably can’t reorient a bent-line screen, but he might very well be a better seaman than you!
Captain Hayler graduated from the Naval Academy in 1944 and saw World War II service on board the carrier Franklin. He later commanded LST-859, LSMG-403, the Balduck (APD-132), the Buck (DD-761), and the Cadmus (AR-14). Ashore he was an instructor of Seamanship and Navigation at the Naval Academy, on the staff of the Naval War College, in the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, and in the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (International Security Affairs). He received his M.A. from George Washington University in 1964. He retired from the Navy in 1969 and subsequently received his license as Master of Steam or Motor Vessels, Any Gross Tons, Oceans. He is now on the Faculty of the California Maritime Academy, Vallejo. A writer by avocation, this is his eighth article in the PROCEEDINGS.