Archive for December, 2008


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.


Hell Gate Railroad Bridge “Westbound for the Battery” photo by Capt. J.T. Brucato

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.]

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This link was sent to me as the answer to all your New England Weather needs and then some.  It covers almost anything you can think to ask about the present weather picture.   Take a look and bookmark it as a useful resource.  Bandwidth warning, this page has a lot of graphics and will take some time to load, be patient.

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This one is really important.  Follow the link and check your gear.


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AIS Online

ais-capReal-time AIS, or close to it,  has seldom been available without a serious subscription fee.  Capt. Stewart Finch recently sent me this link for an apparently free and reasonably accurate AIS sight for the masses.  Give it a look and try it out.  It has some really neat features including vessel tracks and is easy to use.  The map is similar to what you’d see in Google Maps with drag features and zoom.   Vessel photos are available.  There is also the option under services to see this information in the Google Earth Application if you have Google Earth installed

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The S.S. United States


The S.S. United States prior to her record setting Atlantic Run.

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I have the pleasure of starting the renewal process for issue #7 this January. At five months prior to my license’s expiration date, I’ll begin the renewal gauntlet using the new USCG National Maritime Center.
In gathering the necessary information and lining up my documents I had a few questions regarding the new Medical Review Officer’s needs and how much time it might add to the ordeal.
The way I read the new NVIC regarding the number of conditions considered and the new review criteria gave me grave concerns that the process was headed south in the worst way. Every renewal request is required to be taken under review by a medical review officer, and then sent along its way in the process. My concern was delays may end up being even more ridiculous, I mean, have you read the thing?

I was initially reluctant to get into it with some drone in the center but it turns out I was pleasantly greeted and all my questions accommodated with clear and straightforward answers. Fancy that!
Here’s what I found out.
(I’ve included this link to the newest flier published by the USCG in regard to the new review system.)
In a nutshell, nothing has changed, except for a few key bits of advice.
When you submit your documents for renewal the form CG-719k needs to be supplied and current. I was informed that if you are healthy and taking no prescription medications, you should fly through the medical review on the first round provided all the T’s are crossed and I’s are dotted. Make sure the form is properly filled out and signed. Specific reference was made regarding the color sense test. The boxes indicating the Ishihara plate edition or whatever plates used should be checked on the form.
If you’re on ANY prescription medications you’ll need to be honest about them and list all of them. The little bit of advice I received regarded background data, you should provide an addendum to the form from your prescribing physician (preferably on his stationary). The addendum should state the condition being treated and that it’s under control and include your physician’s contact information. As long as the condition is not one of the big 5 you should breeze through more quickly than if a request for clarifying info is necessary.

The top 5 reasons for denial include:
1. Implantable cardiac defibrillators; cardiomyopathy.
2. Medications: chronic use of narcotics/
3. Uncontrolled diabetes.
4. Mental health: psychotic disorders; uncontrolled
Bipolar disorder.
5. Uncontrolled sleep disorders.

But the main thing here is that since the new system is all we’ve got, you’ve got no options but to try and make it as easy on the M.R.O. as possible.
From all I could discern during my conversation with the center I can say that you’ll be flagged for further review without the addendum if you take a prescription medication.
The likelihood you’ll be denied is remote unless you fall under the category of one of the 5 big ones. As in 1 tenth of one percent.

So go forth and renew, but be aware that the new regimen is centralized and likely to add a bit of time to the process. By adding another set of eyes to the many that must review your renewal package its logical to expect things to take a little more time.

I’ll keep everyone up to date on how it goes.

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