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November 15, 1989
Before a pilot can legally fly as captain of a Boeing 747 airliner, he or she has to demonstrate the ability to fly that jet under all kinds of conditions. To fly a different plane, the pilot must take another practical test.
But a ship captain can command any kind of vessel from a 500,000-ton oil tanker to the Queen Elizabeth simply by having a Coast Guard license as a master of unlimited-sized ships on the open ocean. Unlike the Federal Aviation Administration, the Coast Guard doesn't require practical exams, nor does it test people on particular ships.
The initial tests are multiple choice. Officers must take an open-book test for license renewal every five years. Regular crew members get their seaman's documents for life.
To become a ship captain, the basic requirements are:
Show you've been a chief mate on a large oceangoing vessel for a year. It takes a minimum of five years to become a chief mate.
Pass a multiple-choice test.
Be a U.S. citizen at least 21 years old.
Pass a physical exam and produce good references.
Demonstrate training in cardiopulmonary resuscitation and firefighting.
Coast Guard Rear Adm. J. William Kime, who helped write the current licensing rules, says reputable companies that hire captains and crew members have more stringent qualifications of their own, and the Coast Guard recognized that when it laid out its own rules.
Atlantic Richfield Co., for instance, requires its masters and chief mates to train on simulators.
But executives and crew members in the tanker business today say the Coast Guard should toughen its licensing regulations. They say there should be practical tests on board a particular type of ship or in a simulator. And licenses should specify whether a person is qualified for tankers, freighters, container ships or passenger vessels.
Jerry Aspland, president of Arco's tanker division, says one conclusion he drew from the Exxon Valdez accident was: "You can fix things mechanically, but I think we need just a hell of a hard look at the way we license people, and how we select them, and how we train them."
There are other obstacles to requiring more stringent, vessel-specific testing. All tankers aren't alike navigation equipment on the bridge can differ significantly so it is not like testing a pilot on a standard 747. Secondly, thousands of officers have Coast Guard licenses, so extensive testing would be costly. And thirdly, other countries don't require specialized licenses, so the U.S. maritime industry could be put at a disadvantage.
But Robert Pinon, a chief mate on Arco tankers, says it is folly to think that a tanker captain is qualified to command a freighter, or vice versa.
"Every ship handles differently. Although I am a tankerman, I don't know how a freighter operates," he said. "My license says I can handle a freighter, a passenger ship, a barge, a liquid-natural gas ship, a container ship . . . everything. But I would be apprehensive about going on any of them as an officer. I could only muddle my way through."
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