Just call me Captain
by Tony Green

Lake Superior delivery trip. Afew years ago, I heard the call of the sea again. I spent the first eight years of my adult life in and around nuclear submarines in Virginia and Hawaii, and fell in love with the ocean. I enjoyed many things about submarines, but concluded that sailing on top of the water was much more enjoyable than being below the surface. Among other things, sunsets observed through a periscope were no match for those experienced from the deck of a small boat. As much as I enjoyed seaside living, Midwestern roots and a lovely St. Paul girl led me to Minnesota in 1995. Kids and careers dominated the next thirteen years. We owned a few boats, sailed the city lakes in Minneapolis, and chartered once a summer on Lake Superior. Recently, I dropped out of the rat race to stay home with my daughters and decided to do something fun before it was too late (see “So You Want to Be a Sailing Instructor?” Northern Breezes Oct/Nov/Dec 2008). I began teaching American Sailing Association (ASA) Basic Keelboat classes for Northern Breezes Sailing School in the summer and Coastal Navigation and Marine Weather in the winter, in addition to working part time in the school office.

I enjoyed teaching and learning the ropes of the sailing business. Family, school and work kept us in Minneapolis despite the short season. The sea was calling, but there were always other priorities. Lake Superior became a willing surrogate for the salt water that I craved. The open water, occasional rough conditions and terrific cruising only a few hours drive from home kept me satisfied. As my interest, experience and confidence in sailing instruction grew, I knew it was time to move up the ladder. In the ASA/Northern Breezes hierarchy, that meant teaching Basic Coastal Cruising and Bareboat Chartering onboard the school’s liveaboard yachts in Bayfield, Wisconsin. But there was one major hurdle. To teach on Lake Superior (or any of the Great Lakes or oceans) you need to be licensed by the U.S. Coast Guard. Further motivation to advance was the opportunity to break into the instructor ranks for Northern Breezes’ classes in the British Virgin Islands. I can think of few better jobs than getting paid to sail in the Caribbean in the winter. I was determined to succeed and thought that it couldn’t be that hard to get a license, especially for an ex-Navy guy. I researched the requirements, and learned that it wouldn’t be as easy as I thought. But I did it. Here’s how.

Exam review with Captain Ted Gephart, Superior Marine Training. Let me publicly state here that my wife, Kathleen, is a keeper. She was amazingly supportive and knew how much I loved teaching sailing, despite the belief of many that it is a “play” job. I also need to thank my daughters, Danielle and Amy, who put up with an absentee father for much of last summer while I taught on the evenings and weekends and logged hours in good weather and bad.

The first decision was what type of Coast Guard license to get. The lowestlevel license required to teach on the Great Lakes is an Operator of Uninspected Passenger Vessels (OUPV), which restricts you to six paying passengers and vessels smaller than 100 gross tons. This license is usually referred to as a “Six-Pack,” a term I’m told the Coast Guard dislikes. To carry more than six passengers or to operate inspected vessels (usually larger boats like ferries, tugs and tour boats) you need a Master’s license, which carry a tonnage limit; typically 25, 50, 100 or 200 gross tons. Licenses are further subdivided by geography, such as Inland (lakes and rivers), Great Lakes and Near Coastal waters (up to 100 nautical miles offshore). For any level of license, I would need to submit the following items (details can be found at www.uscg.mil):

  • Signed application (Coast Guard form 719B)
  • Conviction statement and written disclosure of felonies and drug arrests
  • Three letters of recommendation
  • Physical examination (Form 719K)
  • Drug test (Form 719P)
  • Documented CPR and First Aid training
  • Transportation Worker
  • Identification Credential (TWIC)
  • Merchant Mariner Oath, signed and notarized
  • Pass a series of written examinations
  • Evidence of appropriate sea service (Form 719S)
  • $145 Evaluation and Issuance Fee (payable at www.pay.gov)

The prize—Captain’s License The list of requirements looked daunting, although none were too difficult taken individually. Like so many tasks, it was just a matter of time and money. What I wasn’t expecting was that the most obvious prerequisite-boating experience-would end up being the bottleneck.

The minimum experience needed for an OUPV (Six-Pack) or Master Inland was 360 days on the water since age 15, with 90 of those days in the past three years. For a Great Lakes endorsement, 90 days had to be on those waters. A “day” is a minimum of four hours underway (not at anchor or at the dock) and you cannot claim multiple four-hour “days” in any one calendar day. No problem, I thought. I didn’t grow up in a boating family, but with almost a decade in the Navy and years of day sailing experience, it was just a matter of filling out the forms. Wrong. There were a couple of catches. The first was the phrase “appropriate sea service.” Appropriate meant similarly sized vessels to what I wanted the license for; in my case teaching on 30- 40 foot sailing yachts. Nuclear submarines are small by warship standards, but at nearly 7,000 tons, they are much too large to be considered similar to a 10-ton sailboat. Conversely, our 16-foot J-scow was unballasted and had only a paddle for auxiliary power. Too small. Catch number two was the Coast Guard’s bias for sea service on federal waters. The logic here was that you were getting a license to operate on waters under federal authority, so that’s where your sea time should be. My charter experience on Lake Superior counted, as did my two seasons owning larger boats on Lake Pepin and the St. Croix River. There was also some ride time on OPBs (Other People’s Boats), but in the end I could only come up with about half of the necessary 360 days and was frustrated that the majority of my experience did not qualify. To claim sea time on your own vessel(s), you must submit a Coast Guard Form 719S plus proof of ownership such as title, bill-of-sale or insurance documents. To claim time on OPBs, you need to get the owner’s signature on the form. Sea service documentation is essentially on the honor system, since the Coast Guard doesn’t have the resources to audit everyone’s claimed experience. The temptation to fudge the numbers was strong and I’m sure it happens, but I decided to take the high road. In hindsight, cheating would have robbed me of some wonderful new adventures and friendships, and I’m glad I did it the right way.

Author Tony Green, training on Lake Superior off Thunder Bay. So I got busy sailing. My plan was to log 180 days on the water over two years. Ninety days in 2008 and 100 in 2009; pretty ambitious for the short northern sailing season. I taught classes, chartered and sailed on OPBs. I volunteered for boat deliveries, traveled to Florida in the winter, took advanced sailing classes, signed up for group trips and basically agreed to go anywhere with anybody to get out on the water. I sailed new cruising grounds, visited new harbors, sailed after dark, did overnight passages and met lots of new people. And I got plenty of singlehanded experience on my own two boats, which was useful as an instructor for when (not if) you have to take over from students. The amount of new experience and confidence I gained was breathtaking. I often sailed in marginal conditions that probably would have kept me ashore if I hadn’t needed the sea time. Few of us enjoy sailing in snotty weather, but that’s where the real skills are earned. Of course, there’s a foolhardiness but that judgment comes from experience and education and I was getting plenty of both. The reality is that I am a much better sailor and instructor for having followed the rules. Plus, I had so much fun that I kept on sailing even after hitting the magic number of 360 and ended up with five days of overkill.

In the off season, I bought a study guide and hit the books. Candidates have to pass written tests on Rules of the Road, General Navigation, Charting, Deck Seamanship and Safety. Here, my Navy experience was very useful, as Uncle Sam had taught me a lot of the material when I was training for the submarine fleet. Navigation and charting hadn’t changed much since I learned them in the 1980s and much of the firefighting, safety and deck seamanship topics were also review. Additionally, my ASA courses reinforced some of the material, including the Rules of the Road, which required a passing score of 90% for all levels of licenses. I had originally planned to study on my own; then I learned that I would have to travel to one of the Coast Guard’s 17 Regional Examination Centers (RECs) to take the tests. The nearest RECs to my Minneapolis home were St. Louis, Missouri and Toledo, Ohio. The other option was to take the exams at an authorized school and there were a couple near the Twin Cities.

So there I was in April of 2009 listening to Captain Ted Gephart, owner of Superior Marine Training. There were 15 students in the class, mostly power boaters from Minnesota and Wisconsin, although three of us were sailors and one student had traveled from Missouri. Ted plowed through the huge volume of material in the 60-hour class with energy and humor. Some topics were dry and tedious, such as the Code of Federal Regulations, while others like marine weather were more interesting. We covered Rules of the Road every day until we could just about recite the book. Hands-on demonstrations on life rafts and rigging blocks and tackles were useful and there was plenty of charting practice to break up the textbook lessons. Because the sea time for an OUPV and Inland Masters license were the same, I decided to upgrade. Superior Marine offered the Master’s course for an additional fee and three more days of classes. Captain Ted also incorporated the Auxiliary Sail and Assistance Towing material and exams into the Masters course, so I got those endorsements too. He even arranged for on-site drug testing and medical exams for those that needed them. Tuition also included individual consultation on the application process, supported by Ted’s 20-plus years of experience training professional mariners.

I was slowly checking things off my list. A new brainchild of bureaucracy is the Department of Homeland Security’s Transportation Worker Identification Credential (TWIC). Originally conceived to control access to secure areas of commercial ports, it is now required for all licensed merchant mariners, including Great Lakes sailing instructors. The TWIC is a photo ID card with a chip containing biometric and personal information. It’s impressive and official-looking, but it cost me $145 and a couple of trips to a Roseville, Minnesota office park. I also needed to take an oath and get it notarized. Three letters of recommendation were required for new applicants from people (preferably not relatives) who can attest to one’s character and suitability for the duties of Captain or Master. I’m happy to say that it wasn’t too hard to find three friends who thought I would make a good captain (Thanks Julia, Brian and Thom).

One of the Benefits—Free Caribbean Sailing. When the sailboats were hauled out in October, it was time to assemble my application and send it in. I applied for a 50-ton Master’s license; I had originally wanted a 100-ton ticket, but you needed 90 days of service on vessels of 51 gross tons or higher or 180 days on vessels over 33.4 tons, according to the rules. For a 50-ton license, only one day on a vessel larger than five tons is required. Interestingly, a Coast Guard ton is based on interior volume, not displacement.

In late November, an envelope came. No, it wasn’t my license, but a polite note from the Coast Guard National Maritime Center (NMC). There was a problem with my application. My drug test was seven months old and the limit was six. Damn. One week, $60 and another urine sample later, I faxed the new test results (yes, they were negative) to my examiner, a pleasant lady in West Virginia who was very helpful and understanding. The NMC sent me regular updates via e-mail and had a website where I could log in anytime and check the status of my application. My phone calls got returned and I had a very positive experience dealing with the Coast Guard. By mid-December I had my license. It looks like a red passport, complete with holographic images embedded in the pages and a clear pocket in the back for my TWIC card.

The whole process cost me several thousand dollars and many spring, summer and fall days away from my family. Would I do it all over again? Absolutely. It opened up new teaching opportunities previously forbidden by law, raised my pay grade, separated me from other ASA instructors and gave me a cool title. Sure, the designation feeds the ego, but the real value for me was the experience gained in accumulating the sea time I thought I already had. I am a much more confident and capable sailor and instructor for having met all of the requirements as written. I suppose that’s why they’re required. Officially, I am a 50-ton Inland and Great Lakes Master, with Auxiliary Sail and Commercial Towing Assistance endorsements. But you can just call me Captain.

Captain Tony Green has been boating since 1985, including eight years on U.S. Navy nuclear submarines. He is an American Sailing Association instructor for Northern Breezes Sailing School and sails with his wife and two daughters on Lake Calhoun in Minneapolis, on the Mississippi River and on Lake Superior.