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Abroad and at Home: Domestic vs. International Mariner Credentialing, part I

Updated: Aug 19, 2020

The global pandemic has us all dreaming of far-off places and exciting new job opportunities. It’s also forced many mariners to return home from contracts worldwide. Perhaps you’ve been spending your time in isolation beefing up your maritime credentials; maybe being unable to travel has enlivened your interest in bluewater sailing in distant waters. However -as we’re sure you’ve discovered- navigating the regulatory waters of domestic (American) versus international credentialing can be daunting at best, prohibitive at worst. Thus, The Seafarer Collective has put together a comparative analysis of the domestic versus international systems to help answer your questions.

First, some vocabulary essential to any professional mariner’s understanding:

  • A qualification is any piece of professional training that a mariner has received. A qualification is not the same as an endorsement, license, or rating; in most cases, once you’ve gained a qualification (by taking a course, for example), you will still need to submit a comprehensive application packet to the governing body for maritime credentialing in your country. Only once it is approved will your qualification give you an endorsement in your Merchant Mariner Credential. For example, if you’ve taken a weeklong course to get an Able Bodied Seaman credential, the certificate you get at the end of the course, proving that you’ve passed, is a qualification.

  • An endorsement/credential is any professional qualification, gained through documented experience (“seatime” or “sea service”), exams, coursework, or a combination of these, that is officially recorded. Endorsements are recorded in a mariner’s official document, whether that’s an American Merchant Mariner Credential (MMC) or Seaman’s Book/Merchant Mariner’s Document issued by another country. If you applied for an Able Bodied Seaman credential, and submitted a complete application package to the US Coast Guard, they would issue you an Able Bodied Seaman Endorsement in your MMC.

  • A license is a type of endorsement that gives a mariner officer qualifications. Examples of a license include “Master of vessels less than 500 tons on near coastal Waters” and “2nd Mate.”

  • A rating is a type of endorsement that gives a mariner a non-officer qualification. Examples of rating include “Able Bodied Seaman” or “Tankerman."

  • Many endorsements- both licenses and ratings- are classified under STCW: Standards of Training, Certification, and Watchkeeping. These endorsements are honored by 164 different countries/states. We’ll discuss them further later on.

Depending on your citizenship, you’ll be able to accumulate endorsements under your country’s regulating authority. Here in the US, the United States Coast Guard (USCG) issues all commercial endorsements, licenses, and ratings. Other countries have their own issuing authorities. You can find out about which countries sponsor and regulate which traditional sail vessels here. An English-language document detailing the commercial maritime authorities of Europe can be found here.

When you apply for your first endorsement, your country of citizenship will issue you a document- a Merchant Mariner Credential- that will serve as a record for both domestic and international endorsements. However, a domestic endorsement will not necessarily be honored outside of US waters and US vessels. While it may be a good bullet point on a resume, a National Master’s license, for example, will not by itself enable an American mariner to command a foreign-flagged vessel, nor will it give them the credentials to serve in a less-than-equivalent capacity. To hold applicable licensure, mariners should consider earning qualifications specific to the country they wish to sail for or cultivate STCW certifications that are honored by a majority of countries.

So... how?

The good news: you can acquire internationally-recognized qualifications here in the USA through STCW. This set of standards was introduced by the International Maritime Organization (IMO) in 1978 and seeks to create a global system for training professional mariners. Additionally, many US Coast Guard endorsements require or match STCW qualifications, so mariners can kill two certification birds with one stone. For example, the STCW qualification “Proficiency in Survival Craft” and the US Coast Guard qualification “Lifeboatman Limited” are interchangeable; US Lifeboatman courses will qualify the mariner for both the domestic endorsement (Lifeboatman Limited) and the international, STCW endorsement (Proficiency in Survival Craft, Limited).

To help conceptualize the overlap and differences between domestic and international credentials, we've included an infographic that compares the two systems that dominate the anglophone world: the US domestic system and the RYA/MCA system, which is used by countries affiliated with the Commonwealth of Nations.

You've probably heard that attaining a captain's license is your ticket to compete in the maritime job market. However, there are a multitude of differing captain's licenses across the national/domestic, Commonwealth/RYA, and STCW spectrum:

Our next blog post will dive deeper into the complexities of credentialing at home and abroad. It will also address some of the most common questions mariners have regarding where and how to take their skills and experience overseas.

Follow up with the sequel to this post for a look at some of the most frequently asked questions among aspiring international mariners.

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