Be­com­ing a Ship’s Cap­tain Gary Brower

Passage Maker - - Contents - By Gary Brower

A few years ago I in­her­ited a Vic­tory Ma­rine jacket from my dad. I had worn the jacket from time to time with­out giv­ing a sec­ond thought to the let­ters “Capt.” em­broi­dered on the chest. Oc­ca­sion­ally peo­ple would ask, “Are you a cap­tain?” Once the ques­tion was raised, my mind wan­dered. It was a sim­ple ques­tion on the sur­face, ev­ery time I ven­tured out on the open wa­ter with my boat I was the cap­tain. How­ever, I did not feel en­tirely com­fort­able claim­ing the ti­tle.

For me that sim­ple ques­tion was the turn­ing point in a jour­ney that had started years ear­lier. You could say I have the sea in my blood. My father was a tug­boat cap­tain with a 3,000ton open ocean master’s li­cense. But my fam­ily con­nec­tion goes back far­ther than that. A. G. Brower, my great-great-grand­fa­ther, owned a ship­ping com­pany and was a mem­ber of both the New York Yacht Club and At­lantic Yacht Club; sail­ing the 58foot Heart­sease, and the 78-foot schooner yacht, Frisia. Over the past 40 years I had gained a life­time of knowl­edge, skills, and ex­pe­ri­ence on the wa­ter. Now, I was de­ter­mined to make the com­mit­ment to be­come a li­censed U.S. Coast Guard master.

You will note the of­fi­cial des­ig­na­tion is master. There is no Coast Guard sanc­tioned cap­tain’s li­cense. To claim the ap­pella­tive of cap­tain you will need to set your sights on ac­quir­ing a Mer­chant Mariner Cre­den­tial with an of­fi­cer en­dorse­ment as Op­er­a­tor of Unin­spected Pas­sen­ger Ves­sels (OUPV) or master. I am shar­ing this chron­i­cle in the hopes that it will shed some light on the process and per­haps in­spire you to con­sider the chal­lenge of ob­tain­ing your own master’s cer­tifi­cate.

Be­fore we start on our jour­ney, let me be­gin by ex­plain­ing that I am shar­ing my sin­gu­lar story with you, and there are many de­tails that are be­yond the scope of this ar­ti­cle. For com­plete, timely, ac­cu­rate in­for­ma­tion, I rec­om­mend that you visit the U.S. Coast Guard Na­tional Mar­itime Cen­ter’s web­site www.uscg.mil/ nmc.


I had the good for­tune to meet some amaz­ing in­di­vid­u­als on my jour­ney. Marvin, one of my class­mates, had al­ready ob­tained a lim­ited 25-ton master’s li­cense ear­lier in his ca­reer. He ran a suc­cess­ful guide ser­vice, fish­ing more than 200 days per year. His new li­cense would pro­vide a com­pet­i­tive ad­van­tage, al­low­ing him to ex­pand his fish­ing ter­ri­tory from spe­cific bays and rivers into the Pa­cific Ocean.

An­other class­mate, Keith, started his ad­ven­ture from the un­likely lo­ca­tion of Prosser, a land­locked town lo­cated in eastern Wash­ing­ton. He and his wife, Camille, de­cided to aban­don a life­time of farm, or­chard, and vine­yard oper­a­tions to start a kayak busi­ness ( www. kayakvoy­agers.com) in Florida. Keith was plan­ning to pi­lot a 70-foot cata­ma­ran that acts as a mother ship for kayak ex­pe­di­tions in the Ba­hamas, Gulf Is­lands, Ever­glades, and Florida Keys. The hard­est part of each jour­ney is usu­ally the de­ci­sion to be­gin. This de­ci­sion would mean com­mit­ting a sub­stan­tial amount of time, en­ergy, and fi­nan­cial re­sources to my goal. Be­fore I could make this de­ci­sion, I first needed to de­ter­mine if I met the min­i­mum qual­i­fi­ca­tions. The pri­mary con­sid­er­a­tion was sea time. To record this in­for­ma­tion, I had to look back over nearly 40 years of boat­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. I was able to com­plete the doc­u­men­ta­tion by por­ing over old log books, pho­tos, Coast Guard doc­u­men­ta­tion, and other ev­i­dence. Once I had the in­for­ma­tion, I col­lected sig­na­tures from own­ers, op­er­a­tors, and masters who could ver­ify my ex­pe­ri­ence.

Next, I had to get a Trans­porta­tion Worker Iden­ti­fi­ca­tion Cre­den­tial (TWIC). I started with this, be­cause the ap­pli­ca­tion process can con­sume a fair amount of time. Since my goal was to min­i­mize time away from work, and since I was al­ready tak­ing a va­ca­tion day to pick up my TWIC card, I sched­uled my drug test and med­i­cal eval­u­a­tion for the same day.

On the day of the exam, traf­fic was crawl­ing more slowly than usual, so I ar­rived at the health cen­ter a few min­utes late, feel­ing slightly rat­tled. As a re­sult of the stress, my blood pres­sure was slightly el­e­vated, and I was con­cerned about the im­pact that this de­vel­op­ment might have on my over­all plans. How­ever, the med­i­cal tech­ni­cian had ap­par­ently seen this phe­nom­e­non be­fore and sim­ply asked me to sit qui­etly for a few min­utes and then com­pleted the test again with sat­is­fac­tory re­sults.


Com­plet­ing the Mer­chant Mariner Cre­den­tial ap­pli­ca­tion turned out to be a fairly elab­o­rate, ex­pen­sive, and time-con­sum­ing process. The ap­pli­ca­tion was com­posed of many sec­tions. It started like any other form, ask­ing for my name, ad­dress, date of birth and other ba­sic in­for­ma­tion. As the ap­pli­ca­tion pro­gressed, it be­came a lit­tle more com­pli­cated, and I had to re­view my ex­pe­ri­ence to de­ter­mine which li­cense(s) I was qual­ify to earn. Truth­fully, I was slightly be­wil­dered by the tech­ni­cal re­quire­ments for the var­i­ous li­censes, but I was able to tap into a knowl­edge­able nau­ti­cal com­mu­nity to get some sound ad­vice.

Next, I swore an oath to per­form my du­ties and to carry out

the law­ful or­ders of su­pe­rior of­fi­cers aboard a ves­sel. Rather than com­plet­ing the oath in per­son, it was more con­ve­nient for me to com­plete the form with a lo­cal no­tary.

My goal was to take ad­van­tage of my ex­ist­ing Red Cross first aid card, which was valid for two years. How­ever, I soon learned that the Mer­chant Ma­rine Cre­den­tial spec­i­fied that first aid train­ing had to be com­pleted within the past year. So, I took an­other va­ca­tion day to com­plete a com­bined First Aid/CPR/ AED class. Upon com­ple­tion of the class, my ap­pli­ca­tion packet was ready to send.

I was ex­cited to learn that the Coast Guard started ac­cept­ing ap­pli­ca­tions via email in 2010. In ad­di­tion, they al­lowed for on­line pay­ment of the ap­pli­ca­tion fee us­ing the www.pay.gov web­site.


Ap­ply­ing for a li­cense is by no means an en­deavor for the bu­reau­crat­i­cally squea­mish. Af­ter all, there are lots of rules that need to be re­spected in or­der to main­tain the in­tegrity of the li­cens­ing process. That be­ing said, the Coast Guard was very help­ful through­out the process. Af­ter re­ceiv­ing my ap­pli­ca­tion, the CG soon re­sponded with a help­ful up­date ex­plain­ing the eval­u­a­tion process. I am not sure what I ex­pected. Maybe I thought the ap­pli­ca­tion would go into a black hole for a few months be­fore I would re­ceive any news. In­stead, I re­ceived a per­sonal email from Dawn at the Port­land Re­gional Exam Cen­ter. I was so de­lighted that I sent her a per­sonal thank you let­ter.

Soon af­ter, I re­ceived a track­ing num­ber for my ap­pli­ca­tion, as well as reg­u­lar email up­dates each time the sta­tus of my ap­pli­ca­tion changed. The web­site even pro­vided a per­son­al­ized chart show­ing the progress of my ap­pli­ca­tion.

When the let­ter from the Coast Guard fi­nally ar­rived, telling me

that my ap­pli­ca­tion was ac­cepted, I was also ex­cited to learn that I qual­i­fied for the 100 Gross Reg­is­tered Ton en­dorse­ment for which I had ap­plied. I was hon­ored to trade the eight-inch stack of pa­per I had ac­cu­mu­lated dur­ing the ap­pli­ca­tion process for this one thin let­ter. At this point, I took a mo­ment to revel in the ac­com­plish­ment. All that was left was the most dif­fi­cult and ex­pen­sive part of the ven­ture, study­ing the ma­te­rial and pass­ing the exam.


I could have pur­sued two op­tions at that point—take a Coast Guard ap­proved course or lo­cate ref­er­ence ma­te­ri­als, study, and sched­ule an exam at the Coast Guard’s Re­gional Ex­am­i­na­tion Cen­ter. I de­cided to take a for­mal class, which al­lowed me to ac­cu­rately pre­dict the cost and time re­quired to se­cure the li­cense and ben­e­fit from a trusted ad­vi­sor who could guide me though the process.

I was for­tu­nate to find Capt. Den­nis Deg­ner who runs the Columbia Pa­cific Mar­itime school (www.columbi­a­paci­fic­mar­itime.com). His busi­ness is one of the last sea schools held in a per­sonal res­i­dence (although the ded­i­cated school is well sep­a­rated from the res­i­dence). Since Deg­ner’s class­room was about 60 miles from my home, I was plan­ning to use va­ca­tion time to fol­low a rou­tine of drive, study, test, drive, sleep, and re­peat.

I ar­rived at school to find the am­biance much as you might imag­ine. The dé­cor in­cluded life rings, a brass bell, and a ship’s wheel. In­side, there were pic­tures of fish­ing boats from Deg­ner’s past. One item of par­tic­u­lar in­ter­est was a let­ter of rec­om­men­da­tion from a tug­boat cap­tain. The cap­tain had lost his li­cense dur­ing the eco­nomic down­turn and Deg­ner had helped get it re­in­stated. As I learned, Deg­ner was not only an ex­cel­lent ed­u­ca­tor, he also acted as a men­tor for many pro­fes­sional mariners.

When the time came to get started, I was ap­pre­hen­sive about the in­ten­sity of the train­ing. In fact, many of us were ner­vous that we might not be able to pass the class or com­plete the ma­te­rial on time, but the in­struc­tor pro­vided a con­stant, calm re­as­sur­ance. When­ever there was doubt, Capt. Deg­ner re­minded us to trust in his sys­tem. The Coast Guard ap­proved test has thou­sands of pos­si­ble ques­tions and Deg­ner was fa­mil­iar with each and ev­ery one. In or­der to help pre­pare us, he first pro­vided all of the in­for­ma­tion, sup­ple­ment­ing the lec­ture with valu­able ref­er­ence ma­te­ri­als, mem­ory aides, and mnemon­ics. Then he ar­ranged prac­tice ses­sions, ex­er­cises, and dis­cus­sions, fol­lowed by a re­view of the hard-to-re­mem­ber items. This process pro­vided a con­stantly in­creas­ing fo­cus on the ob­jec­tives that were most likely to ap­pear on the test. Dur­ing the tests, I felt as though I could prac­ti­cally hear Deg­ner’s voice echo­ing in my head.

Some of the most in­ter­est­ing mo­ments in class came when the in­struc­tor il­lus­trated points with sto­ries based on his ex­pe­ri­ence work­ing on com­mer­cial fish­ing boats, re­search ships, and oil­spill re­sponse ves­sels. In fact, I stayed af­ter class one evening to talk with Deg­ner about our mu­tual ex­pe­ri­ence grow­ing up on com­mer­cial fish­ing boats. We also learned much from the other pro­fes­sional mariners in class. It was a spe­cial treat when Marvin re­galed us with sto­ries from his fish­ing ad­ven­tures.

The master’s class con­sisted of 10 days and five tests: Chart­ing, Nav­i­ga­tion Gen­eral, Rules of the Road, Deck Gen­eral, and Master.

De­spite be­ing on the West Coast, we used Block Har­bor for our chart­ing ex­er­cises. These ex­er­cises en­gulfed Mon­day, Tues­day, and Wed­nes­day. Dur­ing those three days my chart be­came thin with abuse as I cal­cu­lated, mea­sured, plot­ted, and erased. For me there was also a bit of a learn­ing curve, be­cause like many tasks, nav­i­ga­tion can be ac­com­plished with a va­ri­ety of tools. In the past, I had used di­viders and par­al­lel rulers, but in class we used a rolling par­al­lel plot­ter and a speed bow com­pass.

Thurs­day’s topic was Nav­i­ga­tion Gen­eral. The fo­cus for this day was weather, tides, and tidal cur­rents. On Fri­day and over the week­end, we learned about sound sig­nals, lights, day shapes, and other nav­i­ga­tional rules laid out in the COLREGS. The rules of the road test was the most ex­act­ing por­tion of the class, re­quir­ing a score of 90 per­cent to pass. It was also the most

hu­mor­ous sec­tion, be­cause the in­struc­tor had us con­struct pa­per boats, which we laid out on the plot­ting ta­ble to vi­su­al­ize var­i­ous cross­ing sit­u­a­tions.

Deck Gen­eral, deck safety, and en­vi­ron­men­tal pro­tec­tion was an en­ter­tain­ing catchall. On Mon­day, we learned about ra­dio op­er­a­tion, line han­dling, en­gine op­er­a­tion, an­chor­ing, safety, and life­sav­ing. The rest of the crew com­pleted the OUPV por­tion of the class on Mon­day. I re­mained for a few more days to com­plete the train­ing for my master’s ticket.


I was the only stu­dent on Tues­day, and since we fin­ished up early, the in­struc­tor asked if I would be in­ter­ested in a Com­mer­cial As­sis­tance Towing En­dorse­ment. I was ea­ger to gain some in­sight into my dad’s work as a tug­boat cap­tain, so I jumped at the op­por­tu­nity.

Af­ter the towing test I had a per­fect run, scor­ing 100 per­cent on each of the first five tests. How­ever, the test for the last two days’ work in­cluded more de­tails on sur­vival skills, an­chor­ing, block and tackle use, and the fun­da­men­tals of ship sta­bil­ity (in­clud­ing some de­tailed math­e­mat­i­cal for­mu­las), and so on my fi­nal day I missed a few ques­tions. Nev­er­the­less, I was happy to learn that my score was eas­ily within the pass­ing range.


Ten days of train­ing can be rather mo­not­o­nous, es­pe­cially for ac­tive sea­men. Af­ter sit­ting for a few days, we were all crav­ing an ad­ven­ture. But you know what they say, be care­ful what you wish for. Dur­ing a rare break in the train­ing we were get­ting some fresh air out­side the class­room. As we en­joyed the peace­ful neigh­bor­hood, we watched as an el­derly gen­tle­man qui­etly walked his dog. In an in­stant, the dog tugged on the leash and the gen­tle­man took a tremen­dous fall. The man landed on his head and was bleed­ing pro­fusely from his face and nose. Lucky for him, all of the mariners at the school were well trained in first aid and the in­jured man re­ceived good care.

We called 911 and sta­bi­lized the pa­tient. I sac­ri­ficed my shirt for use as a pil­low, and the school pro­vided clean tow­els that we used as a com­press. Af­ter tak­ing care of these crit­i­cal needs, we com­forted the dog and checked the neigh­bor­hood for rel­a­tives. All ended well when the paramedics ar­rived to trans­port the pa­tient.


It’s here! The of­fi­cial Coast Guard let­ter came in the mail. The let­ter is smaller than ex­pected be­cause the Coast Guard switched from a li­cense cer­tifi­cate to a pass­port-style Mer­chant Mariner Cre­den­tial (MMC). How­ever, a cer­tifi­cate that is suit­able for fram­ing is still avail­able from the Coast Guard at www.home­port. uscg.mil/mm­cert.

Ob­tain­ing this li­cense was a dream that took 40 years to come true. Would I do it again? Ab­so­lutely. Not just for the ti­tle, but for the safety, sat­is­fac­tion, and con­fi­dence that can only come from proper train­ing and ex­pe­ri­ence.

As for my class­mates, they are also en­joy­ing the ben­e­fits of their new cre­den­tials. Keith is liv­ing the dream as the cap­tain of Mi­rage. And Marvin’s web­site ( www.fas­tac­tion­fish­ing.com) proudly states, “Marvin’s Guide Ser­vice is US Coast Guard Li­censed!”

And now, it’s time for me to grab my cap­tain’s jacket and

Above: Class­mates: The Au­thor, Keith, In­struc­tor Den­nis, and Marvin in front of one of the last mar­itime schools con­ducted in­side a res­i­dence. In­set: In­struc­tor Den­nis, dur­ing his ear­lier years, lands tuna.

Top: En­joy­ing some free time on a sea kayak from Keith and Camille’s Kayak Voy­agers. Above: Cap­tain Keith at the helm of Mi­rage.

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