My Dad had a favorite little saying when it came to credentials, he told me; “Once you get your license , take it home and show your friends, your wife and your Mom. Then walk into your bedroom and open the closet, reach in, and draw everything over to one side and nail it to the wall. Then go and learn to steer a tugboat.” My Dad’s advice aside, the idea of getting the ticket first and learning the practical boat-handling aspect of the job after wasn’t the customary industry practice on New York tugboats. In the days before the *T.O.A.R. and Apprentice Steersman tickets arrived, most New York deckhands would spend plenty of time in the pilothouse while underway and hold the wheel for the old man as he wrote up his logs or went to make a sandwich. The time was well spent since it was how we learned our way around a very busy place. If the old man saw that you had your head on straight he’d let you steer to the next job, land a “light ” boat or make up to a barge. Eventually you’d get to pilot one through “The Gate”. And by then if you showed enough potential you were encouraged to sit for your ticket. Once the license was in hand you were on the fast track to the wheelhouse and in line to get your *Mate’s job, but before that could happen two or three captains had to “sign you off“. With your license in hand you had a firm footing in the pilothouse as the “trainee” and were granted every reasonable opportunity to learn each skill as it presented itself. As long as you showed up, you either you did it or watched as it was done and asked questions. It was on your off watch and you learned to go for whole *hitches with little sleep if things were really busy. The time would come when the work became more intuitive. You weren’t struggling with the process and the finesse you witnessed from the old man was showing up in your work. After that, the last and most challenging phase was entered.
Depending on the outfit, the Mate’s job didn’t happen unless you had two to three signatures. Having more than one captain signing off meant each was stating they witnessed your boat handling and you had earned their confidence in your ability and more importantly, they would take you as their mate. The possibility you’d end up with any of the men who “signed you off” motivated them to really put you through your paces so they could feel confident in granting their signatures, it was the only way they’d be able to lay their head to a pillow while you were on watch on anyone’s boat. The time spent in the wheelhouse as a deckhand prepared you somewhat but proving yourself as a prospective mate was more demanding than you could have ever imagined. You had to show you knew the job to more than one experienced boatman and there’s no faking that. Your palms were supposed to sweat, you’d use some interesting body English and pray to everything holy that nothing would get damaged as you showed your stuff. If you didn’t cut it there wasn’t any real shame in it, you just went back down on deck until you could show the old man what he needed to see.
If you were successful, you were promoted with precious little fanfare and given the back watch with the Captain’s strong admonition to “call me before you get into trouble”. If you were really lucky the captain would assign the most experienced deckhand to your watch as well. The A.B would be grumpy about holding your hand, but he wanted you to do well too. It was his turn next after all.
The idea you’d be allowed to move up and take the Mate’s job without proving your skills was and is unheard of. Of the academy grads I met on tugs when I started, only a few of them managed to live up to the “a**hole-ring knocker” label that was bestowed on their misplaced superior attitude. The know-it-alls had little if any on-deck experience and weren’t the least bit qualified to run the deck much less the tug, Third Mate Unlimited or not. The time factor holds a great deal of relevance for measuring competence since the many facets of towing are seldom covered entirely in a short period of time. It takes a few years to see everything a tugboat can do and learning how to make a tugboat do those things is not a simple task. You certainly don’t step aboard and pull out Capt. George Reid’s book thinking it’s all you’ll need.
We see little of that “superior” attitude from the academy graduates these days. The candidates coming out of the academies are stepping aboard ready to start on deck and learn the job from the bottom up. I’m seeing a good attitude and decent academic background along with the desire to advance. The industry is still working the “father-son” enlistment method, but we’re seeing a lot more academy graduates migrating into this part of the industry. The shorter work cycles and reasonable pay are being seen as superior to the extended times away from home in the deep sea fleets. The schedules for many fleets are equal time or close to it. and much more family friendly. The caliber of personnel is gradually improving since the new stricter standards for security and safety have been in place. It’s not my father’s world anymore. The atmosphere of a drug and alcohol free environment has made it a safer place for us all. I do see the need for amending the new licensing and experience requirements to prevent creating any more stumbling blocks, I just don’t want to see them “dumbed down” for expediency.
It’s no secret how difficult it’s been to attract talent to the industry. There have been many different methods employed with some success, but our ranks may be too thin to gain significant headway against the attrition and eventual loss of the core group of experienced mariners at work today. My peers and I will be mustering out of the industry in about 15 years. The apprentices starting out now and in the next few years will be adapting to new technological challenges and some really fine designs for tugs and ship docking systems. Hopefully the agencies setting policy will adapt with them. The license structure and training related to these new designs will necessarily have to be modified to meet the new reality and not insist on an antiquated set of requirements for credentials. How long it takes policy to catch up with reality will be the limiting factor.
The one thing that will remain unchanged is the fact that earning the right to be in a tugboat’s pilothouse will continue to require a candidate to prove his (or her) ability and demonstrate good judgment to more than one experienced examiner. Getting the signatures assures the rest of us that you’re ready.
[On the Western Rivers you're training to be a Pilot, in New York you're training to be a Mate. They are the same job with a different local appellation. In either case, you're training to become second in command on board.]
[*T.O.A.R; The Towing Officer's Assessment Record is an extensive list of skills that must be performed for and signed off by a "Designated Examiner" as testament that the skills have been satisfactorily demonstrated. Without a completed T.O.A.R. a candidate cannot acquire his towing endorsement. Without the endorsement, he can't handle a tug without direct supervision. A "Designated Examiner" is an experienced Towing Master that is registered with the U.S.C.G.'s National Maritime Center in W.Va. and signs off on the T.O.A.R. representing that the candidate has met the standard.]
[ *Hitch; the time aboard a tug is called the hitch, usually 2 to 3 weeks on with either equal time off or an unbalanced work schedule. 21 days on and 7 days off, 28 on - 14 off etc.]