It’s okay to admit it—life out at sea looks pretty cool in the movies. You get paid to do your part to make sure a ship gets from Point A to Point B with the cargo intact, and no one hurt. Find work on the right ships, and you can see the world while making excellent money! Who doesn’t want to do that?
Of course, the real life of a seaman is not as glamorous and pretty as the life Hollywood depicts. The work is not easy. The conditions on board can be challenging, and then there is Mother Nature and King Neptune you have to deal with out there. There is nothing quite like walking on the bulkheads (walls for you landlubbers) because the ship is rolling so much.
You haven’t ‘slept like a baby’ until you’ve stuck a lifejacket underneath one side of your mattress to keep you from rolling off. It’s a little odd at first, but it keeps you in your bunk while the ship’s roll ‘rocks’ you to sleep.
Still interested? Okay—well, you could apply to one of the state maritime schools or Kings Point, the federal maritime school. If you get accepted and pass all your courses over the next four years, you can sit for your license exams. If you pass, then it’s time to find a job– and then your sea-going adventure can begin!
Not looking to wait four years to hit the high seas? Don’t worry—there is another avenue. Rather than become credentialed as an officer, you can join the ranks of the unlicensed. They are the guys that do all the grunt work.
It’s not as glamorous as being an officer (or ‘mate’ or ‘engineer’), but it is a job at sea, and it pays well. Besides, if being an officer is something you really want, you still can become one. It’s just going to take some time.
But first things first—you need to become an ordinary seaman, an entry-level position that requires no experience, training, or exams.
Step One: TWIC
You will have to get a Transportation Worker Identification Credential at a Transportation Security Administration office. Find one that can issue it for you, make an appointment, and get the ball rolling. Make sure you have everything that is required. There are few things more frustrating than learning you don’t have something and will have to come back.
You can’t apply for your MMD (more about that later) until you get this. Get the ball rolling as soon as you can because it will take a while.
Step Two: Get a Physical
There is no sense in sending a person out to sea that may have serious medical issues halfway across the Atlantic. You will need to get a physical done. However, when you go to your doctor, you will need to have him/her fill out Coast Guard Form CG-719ke and sign it when they are through.
Step Three: Drug Test
Yes, laws on land are starting to become more relaxed, but out at sea the law is clear—just say no. If you don’t and you fail a test, you will be in serious trouble. If you fail a test before you even set foot on a ship, you may want to rethink your career plan. So—get a drug test at a place pre-approved by the Coast Guard.
Oh—and don’t forget your paperwork.
Step Four: Basic Safety Training
Life at sea can be dangerous. Dialing 911 will not do you any good. If anything happens in-transit, you only have your shipmates to count on. So, to prepare newcomers for what they are getting into, they must take an approved Basic Safety Training Course.
If you don’t see the name of your course location on the list, ask them for their Coast Guard certificate. Make sure the certificate hasn’t expired before you sign up.
Step Five: Merchant Mariner Document (MMD)
Once you have everything completed and compiled, fill out the paperwork for your MMD, copy everything, and send it to the nearest Coast Guard office. If all goes well, in a few weeks, you’ll get your documents.
Now you just have to find a job and get some experience so you can move up.
But if you really want to do it, you should take the time to attend the Seafarers Harry Lundeberg School of Seamanship in Piney Point, Maryland, where you can take part in their Unlicensed Apprentice Program. It is the largest program for entry-level mariners in the country. Upon completing it, you will be ready for life at sea.
The program will take a year and cost you about $1500 (and there are no scholarships). It is broken down into five phases:
Phase I – fifteen weeks of training on campus.
Phase II – ninety days or more of training on board a ship but as a non-crew member, unlicensed apprentice. The 90 days will be split with 30 days spent with the Deck, Engine, and Stewards departments.
Phase III – seven weeks of training back on campus.
Phase IV – a job lasting at least 120 days as an entry-level crew member on a designated SIU-contracted ship.
Phase V – upgrading classes in either the deck or engine department must be completed.
Once this is done, you will receive your union book (with the Seamen’s International Union; SIU). You will have B-level seniority (‘A’ being the top level, of course). To get to this point, you will have to complete all five phases.
If you struggle for any reason, you have one year from the completion of phase III to get all five done. If you don’t, you will be discontinued, and your seniority dropped to ‘C.’ You really want to avoid this if at all possible. It is a lot harder getting work with a ‘C’ card than the ‘B’ or ‘A.’
Okay—so you are willing to do what it takes to get out to sea, but you don’t know if you want to stay on the bottom of the totem pole the whole time you’re out there. Well—put in your time, and you will not have to.
After logging enough time as an ordinary seaman (OS), you can advance to either an AB (Able Seaman) or QMED (Qualified Member of the Engine Department). Yes, there will be paperwork involved, courses, and exams that must be taken and passed. Now that you’ve received hands-on training as an OS, you have to prove you know what you’re doing.
But you don’t just become an AB; you have to work your way up there as well (AB unlimited, limited, and special), each with a different level of experience required (1080, 540, and 360 days respectively).
For those who decide to become really ambitious, after spending enough time out at sea, taking the required training courses, and completing on-board assessments, you can try to become an officer. Depending on your background, you can apply with the Coast Guard for a third mate’s or third engineer’s license.
Assuming you have everything prepped when you apply, you’ll get the chance to sit for the license examinations. Pass, and you will get your mate’s or engineer’s license.