Tuesday, October 5, 2010

The Captains License

I was on the Internet checking out courses for what is known as the OUPV SixPack Captains License. The nearest location to Austin to earn this license was in Houston. It would require 3 three day weekends in Houston plus a testing date to take the course. This meant I would not only have the expense of the course but I would also have the hotel expenses as well. The SixPack license is what most charter sport fishing captains get since it limits the boat to 6 paid customers. Most Sport fisherman just charter their boat for 4 and sometimes up to 6 people. I wanted the license for two reasons. One was to take the course for the knowledge to help me be a more competent and safe sailor. The other was to have the credential just in case I needed to find some paid boat work in the event our retirement income was not enough to cover our cruising expenses. One night when I was close to committing to the course in Houston I found a course coming to Lake Travis. I was immediately sold since I would be able to easily get out to Lake Travis and avoid the travel to Houston and all the associated hotel expenses. I signed up that night with the Mariners School: http://www.marinerslearningsystem.com/home.php

Captain Richard Staggs was our instructor, he actually lived aboard his MainShip trawler in the Kemah area and was responsible for conducting classes in Texas and Louisiana. The Mariners school has obviously created a curriculum that has a high success rate for their students and I would highly recommend them if a Captains license is something you would like to pursue. There were about 15 people in the course from all over the state. This added to the course since there was a wide range of experiences to draw from. There is no in the water instruction, it is all classroom work.

There are 4 basic Modules you are instructed in and must prepare for comprehensive testing:

1. Navigation and rules of the Road

2. Deck Safety
3. Deck General

4. Piloting and General Navigation

Once you begin to get into the curriculum you realize this is not just about sailing around the bay. The License is a US Coast Guard Merchant Marine License and you learn everything you need to know to go to work on a large merchant marine vessel. If you check out the above website you can get more details on the curriculum. We took the exams and all but one student passed all 4 test. The navigation section was the toughest part since you had to plot out very specific navigation problems on a chart and provide your Latitude/ Longtitude answer. Just a small error with your pencil, or straight edge would throw you off just enough to have to repeat the process 2-3 times. We were doing this in a classroom that was not moving, the tables were large and flat and you could spread out the entire chart, of course we had more than adequate lighting. I have yet to duplicate this on my own boat in a seaway where everything is moving and you do n't always have the best lighting. We do chart out our course before hand when the boat is in the slip and relatively still. we use a GPS chart plotter to guide us keeping the paper chart handy in the cockpit just as a back up to our GPS navigation. Lynn regularly marks the paper chart to update our position just in the event our electronics die on us.

Of course the school is in it to make money so they offer certain upgrades to your License. Two of the upgrades I was interested in was a Sailing Endorsement and a Masters. During the course I met a couple of people who worked for Just For Fun, a company at Lake Travis that rented boats of all sorts and they had party boats, house boats, and Seatow which all required some level of Captain experience. Since I needed additional sea time to qualify for the captains license I took a summer job at Just For fun to acquire commercial experience and since they were the only game in town I worked as much as possible in all the opportunities they had. I worked with Seatow towing boats that had broken down on the lake, I drove Party barges all over the lake with a maximum of 50 passengers and I drove the big 80' houseboats so I could qualify for the 50 Ton Masters License. Since I had the Seatow experience I could add the Towing Endorsement to my license.

After working a couple of months I went to Houston to take the Masters, Sailing, and towing endorsement classes and exams. This was just a three day weekend and this time the students were all much more experienced and were from all over the Southern US. Just passing the test does not get you the License. You have several more hoops to jump through, after all this is the USCG and you have to meet Federal Government requirements. Now that I had passed the academic requirements it was time to get the Physical part done. So a visit to the primary care physician for a physical and eye exam. When presented the USCG form for her signature she hesitated, looked at the form hard and since she had given me a clean bill of health I could not understand her hesitation to sign the form. I guess it must be due to all the litigation in the world. If I went out and had a disaster on a boat then she would be the responsible physician that said I was in proper health to do the job. She signed the form and Iwent off to the next hoop. Since your doctor does not have an audiologist in the office I would be paying $100 out of pocket for my hearing exam. This I passed to even though there are some frequencies/tones that I was deficient in (could be why sometimes I do not hear the Admiral). The last test is the drug and alcohol test. I saved this for last since I would be fasting from my favorite beverage a couple of weeks to make sure nothing would destroy all of my efforts to get this done. Yes, I know alcohol washes out in just a couple of days but I was not going to gamble with all the effort. Five days later I got the call that I was clean as a whistle. All that was left was to organize all my documents, make a copy of them all and find a weekday to drive back to Houston to turn it all in to the Coast Guards regional office.

I arrived around 1000 hours at the bland looking office structure off of one of Houston's giant freeways. Went up a few flights and stepped into a small office waiting room where there were about 5 other guys waiting their turn to be processed. The windows where the women were sitting were protected by very heavy glass that appeared to be bullet proof. Two guys went to the windows and after the clerks asked them some questions regarding their paperwork they were sent off since they did not have everything in order. I was next and after several questions and even though I had made a complete set of copies to turn in, they made their own set of copies. She stamped everything and asked me to sit down, after a few minutes another clerk opened a door and asked me to follow her, just a few steps away was her desk. There were several employees on this side of the door in a huge office space. She asked me to raise my right hand and repeat the Merchant Marine Oath. Here is where you find out that if the Federal Government ever needs your service then you have just given an oath to put yourself and/or your boat into the service of the military in time of war or disaster. About 6 weeks later I got my 50 Ton Masters license in the mail with my Sailing endorsement...hey wait, where was my towing endorsement?..a quick call to the office in Houston and a coastie quickly identified the problem and he said it would be in the mail in a couple of days.

Just because you have jumped through all the hoops to get the License does not mean you are ready to go across oceans. Only practical experience can prepare anyone for the task. We have a lot to learn and we look forward to everyday spent on the boat here in Corpus for our next little adventure. One step at a time.


  1. Thank you for the info. Found another great site for anyone interested in getting a towing endorsement. They are extremely helpful and easy to work with. Thanks again for the great article.