The Last Straw

Swallowing the Anchor For Good

by William R. Carr

At the relatively young age of 63, this old salt has had enough. Though the very idea of retirement seemed totally alien to me only a year or two ago, I chose to retire just as soon as I managed to get twenty years of pension credits under my belt. I've finally made it!

Not that I don't have a few lingering regrets about swallowing the anchor. In fact, becoming a pensioner at this age feels a lot like just quitting something I'm really not fond of doing, at least on a permanent basis. And, at one time, "burning my bridges behind me" would have been unthinkable. But I'm going to effectively burn the bridges by not renewing my seaman's papers and license.

In spite of a long seagoing career that began as a Navy sailor in 1961, and spanned 38 years as a proud member of the International Organization of Masters, Mates and Pilots (MM&P), retirement wasn't something that I naturally hankered for or looked forward to. Thanks to continued good health and bodily fitness (not to mention a love of the sea), I figured I had at least another decade's worth of gainful shipboard employment left in me. But other things had developed to change my outlook prompting me to get out of the business as soon as possible.

For one thing, the industry has been changing at an alarming rate during the last decade or two, prompting a growing feeling of alienation. In addition to changes in the very nature of the industry, the American flag fleet had been declining steadily during the last twenty years or more to the point that it almost seemed threatened with total extinction. And beside the feeling that there may not be a future, as the U.S. flag fleet continued to shrink, the job of the seaman was getting tougher and more demanding all the while. Ships were getting bigger and bigger as crew sizes were getting smaller and smaller and official responsibilities, along with the specter of potential criminal liability for the slightest slip, were increasing out of all proportion to the rewards and satisfactions of the job.

Along with the things that made the job more and more demanding (in spite of increasing computerization and automation that should have eased the workload), the burdens imposed on seafarers by growing regimes of both national and international regulation have become increasingly onerous. And, of course, as containerized shipping became more and more efficient, opportunities to get ashore and unwind became fewer and fewer and of shorter and shorter duration.

To compound this situation, in the devastating wake of the Exxon Valdez disaster, "unwinding" ashore (in the time-honored manner of seamen), became a very professionally hazardous activity. The Coast Guard clamped down on the sailor's once inalienable right to imbibe in a few drinks infringing on that right even ashore on the sailor's own time. The matter of alcohol consumption became one of total paranoia in the industry, and many seamen simply quit going ashore at all as a result.

Now, if it comes to the Coast Guard's attention that a licensed officer gets (or has had), a DUI arrest ashore, his career is just about ruined even if he has never taken a drop of alcohol while aboard ship or even during his entire periods of employment. In other words, not only is the idea of safety aboard ship being carried to extremes well into the injustice category, tyranny itself is obviously on the march in the maritime industry!

I have very seldom ever drank alcoholic beverages while aboard ship (even when allowed), but I simply refused to allow the Coast Guard, or any other regulatory authority, to dictate what I did or did not do while ashore on my own time. But in this recalcitrant behavior, I knew I was gambling hazardously with my job and career. Fortunately, I was able to stay the course without mishap and wind up my career without any blemishes on my record but I knew I no longer belonged in the profession.

In another instance of "guilty until proven innocent" regulatory policy, pre-employment and random drug testing have also become a regular requirement, though I can remember almost no manifestation of serious drug problems on American ships during my lengthy career. "Zero tolerance" for both drink and drugs became the officially posted company and Coast Guard "warning" to non-conformists, and such warning has always come across for what it actually was a "threat."

There was a time when the seaman's life was particularly interesting and gratifying. The job has never been any easy one, and seamen were generally totally deprived of what might be called a "normal home life." Yet, though seamen had to work hard, they usually had ample opportunity to "play hard" too. And that's what kept many of us hooked on what most "normal people" would have considered a life of hardship and privation. 

But, with the advent of containerization, along with alcohol paranoia, the life of a seaman was altered radically. Now it's literally all work and no play, and the seaman no longer really has the fulfilling, and somewhat balanced and varied, life he once had. Today, most mariners try to live "normal" lives ashore between shipping assignments (while on vacation), and go to sea merely to earn a living.

There's no longer any pleasure in anticipating that next great port of call. Calls in "good ports" have become very dangerous to those seaman who still insist on going ashore and trying to have a good time as in the "good old days." Essentially, it has come to the point that, for most mariners, the total reward of the job comes at payoff everything up to that point is an endurance test and a type of voluntary incarceration.

The only remnant of the "good life" in going to sea is the continued romance and challenges of the sea itself, along with the continuing satisfactions of the work being accomplished. The long peaceful days of shipboard life while at sea still retain some of the charm of times gone by. But even that has been degraded by the shear size of modern ships, undermanned to the point that life aboard is almost like being aboard a huge ghost ship.

Ships have already become obscenely large, and they are continuing to get even bigger, carrying thousands of shipping container, any one of which can potentially accommodate more illegal aliens (or terrorists), than the entire ship's crew.

Small crew size has meant that there is very little social interaction or camaraderie among crews on large modern ships. If the sailor isn't working or on watch, he's likely trying to get some much needed sleep. And when a crew member does have some time to relax, likely as not he'll spend his time alone in his well appointed room, reading or watching a tape or DVD. 

As if this degradation of the quality of shipboard life were not enough, the pure red tape involved in just maintaining basic qualifications and certification as a seaman has become very burdensome. It's literally become "a job" just to remain trained and certified. Long "experience" no longer serves as evidence of professional competence. Things have become so bad that it almost seemed a "system" was intentionally being devised to weed out all of us who remembered an earlier era an era when things worked well, were much simpler, and the overall quality of the seagoing life, was much greater than now. 

To illustrate the growth of red tape, during the first thirty years of my career the only documentation I required was my Merchant Mariner's Document (Z-Card), and license. The Z-Card was free and good for life, and was not only a universally recognized certificate of fitness and competence for the seaman, but often served as his only passport for international travel to join a ship. The license had to be renewed every five years, and was the officer's universally recognized certificate of competency as a ship's officer.

One of the great wonders of the Old Merchant Marine something that always amazed me and contributed to my pride as a seaman was that a ship could be miraculously crewed up in any port on a few days' notice. Seamen, dispatched by the company personnel office, and/or various union halls, would converge on a ship from all points of the compass and join the ship. In no time articles would be signed and the ship would be ready to load cargo and deliver it anywhere in the world. It was that simple. Every experienced seaman knew his job, and if there were any green hands they soon learned theirs, and everything usually worked out quite smoothly.

This is now history. Ships can still be crewed in like manner, but the burdens of just "being a seaman" and maintaining official qualifications to satisfy regulatory requirements have multiplied exponentially. In addition to the Z-Card and License, an STCW certificate (Standards of Training and Competence for Watchstanders), is required of all seafaring watchstanders in international trade. This is essentially an United Nations (IMO), license to sail, and the Z-Card and federal merchant marine officer's license are worthless without it. Actual refresher courses at a school are required every five years for such things as "Basic Safety Training," "Radar Observer," etc.

And not the least of the burdensome requirements for today's American seafarer is the requirement to be federally certified drug free, with a "Federal Drug Free Certificate," which is only good for six months! And these only touch upon the additional regulatory burdens of the modern seafarer. On board ship the increasing regulatory paper load caused by such things as the IMO imposed "ISM" Code (International Safety Management Code), rivals increasing cargo carrying capacities.

All of this was before 9/11/2001, of course. It was part of the globalization process, the internationalization of business, and the perceived need to internationally micro-manage the maritime industry for safety purposes. Since 9/11 things have got a lot worse! A raft of new security regulations have been developed and imposed on ports, ships, and seamen by a more security minded International Maritime Organization and our own Department of Homeland Security. All national and international regulations are being expanded and updated with an eye toward "security" as well as simply safety, in light of the global terrorist threat.

And more is on the way. In fact I've already lost track of all the regulatory agencies, "Codes," and new laws effecting ships and seamen (literally requiring a pocket index to remember all the acronyms). This, of course, assisted me in determining that it was high time for me to retire at the earliest possible moment. I'm embarrassed to admit that I haven't got enough cogs in the wheels of my mental machinery to keep track of it all.

In spite of the fact that every single regulatory requirement, and everything connected to every single shipboard job, has been carefully and meticulously codified and made available for each seaman's perusal (in the form of a huge manual which is continually being updated and enlarged), nonetheless the whole seems somewhat overwhelming. Even though most has been conveniently reduced to a myriad of "check-off lists" to be used by seamen at the hands-on level, I still consider myself very lucky to have made it out of the industry without running afoul of one or more of the regulations. It's a wonder I'm not ending my career in some sort or degree of disgrace. Retirement is almost like having successfully run a gauntlet that became increasingly grueling with every passing year!

Additionally, the quality of life of seafarers is continuing to be degraded by other agencies and regulations in the interests of national security. The Department of State is making it tough on foreign seamen by requiring them to have passports and individual visas in order to go ashore in U.S. ports. In this, they are following the lead of communist countries like China, making shore leave difficult for foreign seamen. Since the U.S. is joining the communist world, and other repressive governments in instituting this precaution, it probably won't be long until other countries will begin to impose the same sort of requirements for U.S. mariners in their ports, as some already do.

In the interests of security, some ports and container terminals, have taken it upon themselves to prevent seamen from embarking or disembarking from ships, or traversing their facilities, effectively confining seafarers to their ships while in port, whether or not they have passports and visas. And I understand these additional (perhaps illegal), restrictions have been imposed on American seamen in American ports!

The IMO is working on a new internationally required security ID card for all seaman, and the DHS is working on a similar but separate security ID system for all American transportation workers. The former is called a "SID" (Seafarer Identity Document), and the latter a "TWIC" (Transportation Worker Identification Credential). These are supposedly "fool proof" identity documents that utilize the latest identity tracking technologies. Presumably, American seamen will have to carry both, in addition to their Z-Card, in order to function in the maritime world.

Since 9/11, all of the federal agencies making up the Department of Homeland Security have been clamping down and tightening up on port, ship, and seafarer security most particularly on American flag ships and American seamen. This, in spite of the fact that American seamen are supposed to be (ought to be, and actually are), part of the Homeland Security team. It's the other 95% of the seamen, regularly entering our ports on foreign flag ships, that are the real potential security threat.

Yet American seamen are being taken off of ships in chains (or plastic cuffs), by DHS task forces for such things as old forgotten DUI arrests and back alimony. I have been witness to one case of this myself where at least a 20 man federal DHS taskforce (USCG "Sea Marshals," DEA, Customs, USDA, Immigration, etc.), devoted the better part of a day apprehending three American seamen from an American flag ship. The entire crew was treated as if it were a band of terrorist suspects. This was our "welcome home" from a long, trying, voyage to the Far East.

The alleged offences of intended quarry were not even remotely related to terrorism or national security. They weren't even "real crimes," and certainly nothing within the federal venue except for the fact that the culprits were American seamen, and thus apparently now considered "federally" liable for anything they may do. 

Various other federal agencies, such as the Environmental Protection Agency, also seem to be taking particular aim at American flag ships and American seamen, and are aiming at them with particularly onerous fines and prison terms for rare mishaps and relatively minor infractions.

American seamen are now being subjected to renewed, intensive, and maybe multiple, background security checks. And the FBI is looking for, and at, every little thing. We are being cautioned by our union officials that those old forgotten parking tickets, DUI arrests, odd nights in the clinker, or expunged childhood offenses, had better be remembered and put down on one's next Z-Card or license renewal application, or serious complications may arise not the least of which might be federal charges and serious prison time for a petty oversight. And we are thus being cautioned "not to say anything about anything" to any apprehending authority until our lawyers are present no matter what the charges.

So, it seems that the DHS agencies are taking great pains to make sure that the American 5% of seamen frequenting American ports are destined to be as clean as AAA graduates or Sunday school teachers. It appears that, being incapable of significantly addressing the real threats, they are, in a wholesale manner, treating American seamen as potential enemy terrorists as if they are the number one security threat in our sea ports and thus they appear to be vigorously "doing something" to insure our national security.

In spite of all the security efforts and expense, Nick Blenkey, points out in a sidebar entitled "Nine million potential Trojan Horses?" in the July 2006 issue of Marine Log, "On paper, the Department of Homeland Security has comprehensive maritime security programs in place. Critics are not convinced that they are entirely effective in the real world." Of course, I'm one of those critics.

Though they are only doing an admittedly tough job by whatever means they have at their disposal, this is certainly no way to make American seamen feel like part of the national security team. Though I don't think I have any forgotten offenses from decades past, I certainly didn't feel like part of the Homeland Security team. And if being subjected to this sort of treatment is what it means to be part of the team, I wanted off the team.

But, perhaps the last straw for me came in the Summer of 2005 when, due to an overlooked Basic Safety Training endorsement expiration date (on an STCW certificate that was otherwise valid for another year and a half), I had to journey from Los Angeles, California, to Baltimore, Maryland, to take a week "Basic Safety Training" course to re-validate that STCW certificate. The cost was considerable in both time and money, and (as it turned out), a month's delay in shipping out totally destroyed 2005 as a final "good pension credit year."

I retired anyway (as soon as I could), after signing off my last ship in January of this year (2006) with an incredibly expensive Basic Safety Training endorsement good for another 4-1/2 years.

Still, in spite of retirement and all the misgivings about the maritime industry in the era of globalization and Homeland Security, I had always assumed that I would renew my seaman's papers at least one more time just in case I did ever wanted or needed to go to sea again. Perhaps, I thought, in a time of increased national emergency my services might again be persuasively solicited. And I'd also been looking at potential volunteer opportunities on mercy ships and historical museum and educational vessels, with an eye toward occasionally working for pleasure or for the benefit of others.

But as I began filling out the renewal application, gathering up the ridiculous amount of documentation required, going to the county sheriff's office to be fingerprinted, making a doctor's appointment for a physical, and contemplating the 150 mile round trip drive to get tested and federally certified drug free, I threw up my hands in total disgust.

List of items required to renew my seaman's papers:

  1. License and MMD Renewal Application (4 pages)
  2. Mariner Identification System (MID) Scanner Image Capture Form
  3. Copies (front and back) of MMD (Z-Card)
  4. Copies (front and back) of license.
  5. Copy of STCW Certificate 
  6. Copy of FCC GMDSS license
  7. Federal Drug-Free Certificate (less than 6 months old)
  8. Two passport photos
  9. Six years of ship discharges (several pages of photocopies)
  10. Fingerprint Card (full set of prints by duly constituted civil authority)
  11. Physical Examination (4 pages)
  12. Certificates of Training: (1) Basic Safety Training; (2) Radar Observer Re-certification; (3) GMDSS; (4) Advanced Firefighting; (5) Bridge Resource Management; (6) ARPA; (7) HAZMAT; (8) AHA Heartsavers AED
  13. A check for $140.00

Though I had planned to renew by mail, I understand that new security concerns would require that I make at least one physical appearance at the processing Coast Guard Regional Examination Center. In the past, this has always been New Orleans for me a 1,200 mile round trip. But now (fortunately), I would be able to merely make a 300 mile round trip journey to St. Louis, Missouri.

The ability to renew by mail was originally instituted to simplify and expedite the renewal process. The requirement to take an open book examination on Rules of the Road, etc., was dropped to make it possible, and a new license would be forthcoming in a week or two. But now we are being told to start the process at least six months ahead of time, and make sure you will not have to get a seagoing job during that period.

There was a time when, if seaman's license should expired at sea, it was considered good until he reached sign-off. That grace period was quite reasonable, but it's not reasonable any more. Now, if your license is going to expire in a few months, you are beached high and dry until it is renewed.

On a much more trivial note, I was somewhat annoyed to learn that I'd have to shave my beard in order to submit an "acceptable" Coast Guard Z-Card photo with my application. It wasn't so much that I had to shave my beard in the interests of national security that irked me. Lord knows the Coast Guard and DHS must have ample cause to suspect all of us old tried and true American mariners as security risks. No, it wasn't that. It was learning that practicing Sikhs, Moslems, and other religious people who wear beards, can submit evidence of their religious need for them and be excused from the requirement! That irked me. By submitting such evidence, they will be permitted to submit photos with beards obscuring their features.

This was the ultimate insult added to what seems to me a sufficiently long chain of injury.

The idea of having to jump through enumerable hoops at the end of an already long career, from which I am already retired, totally dampened my enthusiasm for future seagoing service. Quite frankly, the maritime employment environment has administratively become a very hostile environment at least from my perspective. As a new pensioner, renewing my merchant mariner papers seemed like trying to swim up a cold, swift, mountain stream in order to voluntarily come under the thumb and scrutiny of a raft of hostile public servants. Then it hit me. I don't have to do this anymore. I don't ever have to jump through those hoops and hurdles again. I'm retired!

The Coast Guard (and Congress), with all good intentions, has simply thrown up one or two too many hoops and hurdles for the likes of me, and I'm happy to be out of all facets of the industry for good. In spite of the big lump it causes in my throat, I'm swallowing the the big anchor permanently and irrevocably. If I ever go to sea again, it will be in a pea pod, hopefully far beneath the Coast Guard, IMO, and DHS administrative radar scopes.

We hear that there is a developing shortage of licensed officers industry wide. But the reserve pool of qualified merchant marine officers is diminishing pretty swiftly. The training ground (the American flag fleet itself), has almost disappeared from the high seas. If there is ever another major war, requiring pensioners to come out of retirement, there won't be many takers in this day and age. It won't be like the 1960s, when thousands of seamen were willing to come out of retirement to make the massive Vietnam sealift possible. If there is a next time (and there probably will be), they simply won't be there. And many of us who are here, won't be available unless practically every national and international rule and regulation is waved or ignored, and the Coast Guard goes out of its way to reissue lapsed licenses.

William R. Carr, Pensioner
August 6, 2006

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